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A Guide to Persuading Users with Words

Springboard – Medium | Jason Fox

Three principles that you should be using in your UX copy

What do we know about Aristotle? Well, we know that he had a magnificent beard. We also know that he had a real knack for persuasion. In fact, he literally wrote the book on rhetoric. It’s called Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

So why are his arguments so often translated into utterly confounding English? For instance:

“Persuasion is clearly a sort of demonstration, since we are most fully persuaded when we consider a thing to have been demonstrated.”

A thing to have been what now? With two adverbs, one qualifier, and a subordinating conjunction in passive voice, this passage doesn’t leave much room for clarity, let alone persuasion.

This isn’t a critique of Aristotle or the translation of his work. It’s simply an example of how effective persuasion requires impeccably clear and accessible language.

Clarity is the king of persuasion

We live in a world of handheld screens and Pavlovian attention spans. Within these restrictions, clarity is king.

“User will read about 20% of text on the average page.” — Nielsen Norman Group

So if we want to influence someone, we need to do it quickly.

But clarity and accessibility of language aren’t just stylistic consequences of small screens and limited attention spans.

Even when we have someone’s full attention, a lack of clarity can quickly lead to an overburdened cognitive load. The result: abandonment of shopping carts, of articles, of emails, of software task flows. You get the picture.

Everyone persuades

Persuasion, in its most manipulative forms, is used as a means of deception. It’s how terrible men make selfish deals to rule and ruin the world.

But it’s also something we all do to relate our experiences to the rest of the world. At a basic level, almost everything we write or say relies upon our ability to persuade someone else to care enough to continue reading or listening (in fact, I’ve already attempted to persuade you by conjuring a vivid image of evil men as an emotional appeal).

So how does this relate to UX? Short answer: “In every way.” We begin to persuade the moment we put one thing in front of the other or make something bigger or brighter in order to persuade users that “this button/thing/feature is important!”

Dropbox persuades its users to upload photos — just a few, or the entire camera roll.

In UX and life in general, persuasion is inescapable. So use it wisely.

Three principles of persuasion

Below, you’ll find three common principles of persuasion. They’re outlined to help you help you incorporate effective and helpful persuasion into your own UX work.

Priming

What it is:

Priming is when we use words or other cues to activate memory associations, which can then affect future actions.

How it works:

Think of your brain as Wikipedia and priming as the keyword that leads you, by association, to multiple articles within your mental encyclopedia. One thing leads to another.

For instance, a person who sees the word “yellow” will recognize the word “banana” slightly faster because yellow and banana are closely associated in memory (or in Wikipedia terms, they occupy similar categories).

Priming in UX often seeks to eliminate friction in the moments just before an action by connecting pre-held representations and associations to the task at hand.

Use it when:

  • You need to prime your user for permission.
  • You need to guide your user through critical task flows, like creating login credentials.

For instance:

The meditation app Headspace appeals to a user’s aspirations for tranquility to prime them for a notification request.

The use of “gentle nudge” and “…help you on your Headspace Journey” evoke a sense of what’s to come: tranquility.By the time a modal dialog pops up, the user has been primed to associate the permission with all the good vibes of their new meditation routine. Images courtesy of UserOnboard.

Havenly used priming in this advertisement. Can you spot it?

The advertisement gambles that someone who recalls the feeling of having a small apartment will be primed to pick up on the benefits of purposeful interior design.

Reciprocity

What it is:

The reciprocity principle holds that people will pay back what they have received from others.

How it works:

The gist is that if you give users something valuable, they will repay you in kind. So consider giving your users something before you ask for something in return.

What you end up giving will depend on the context of the situation and your user’s needs.

Use it when:

  • You need to ask your user for something valuable, like a referral.
  • You need to demonstrate the value, benefit, and magic ingredients of your product (think free trial).

For instance:

Workforce recruitment app Stella presents their referral request as an opportunity.

Helping friends and getting paid are things that people enjoy doing. And “Help a friend find their next job” is such a concrete offer, I already feel like a really good guy for considering who I’ll refer. Feels like a pretty equal tradeoff in my opinion.

Sketch uses the tried-and-true reciprocal offer of a free trial.

“Free trial” — that’s more persuasive than Aristotle’s beard. So if you have a stellar product and know it, don’t be afraid to prove it with a free trial. Your users are likely to return the favor with their loyalty.

Serial Position Effect

What it is:

According to the serial position effect, items presented at the beginning and end of a list are more easily remembered than those in the middle.

How it works:

The serial position effect highlights our tendency to remember items that are presented first (primacy effect) and last (recency effect). So pay attention to the order in which you present information. Whether it’s the first and last part of a sentence, a paragraph, or bullet points.

Use it when:

  • Presenting users with a login or app wall. Help users understand the benefits of creating an account, logging in, or transitioning from web browser to app.

In the Dropbox onboarding flow, users are given the option to choose premium over free. Users are provided with three bullet points highlighting the benefits of a premium account.

In my opinion, automatically backing up my camera roll (item #1), and easily accessing those files (item #3), are more compelling than having 1TB of space. Yes, it’s a decent amount of storage space, but times being what they are, a thousand extra gigs doesn’t necessarily rock my world. I might as well just buy a 1TB external drive for $40 on Amazon, right?

My guess is that the folks at Dropbox are betting on item #1 and item #3 getting the majority of attention.

But the serial position effect in this screen takes place at multiple levels. For example, the bullet points themselves are the least important component. They’re stuck in the middle between “All your files on-the-go” and “Continue with Basic.”

Takeaways

As we begin to tap into the influential components of language, it’s important to remember that persuasion can undermine trust just as easily as it can build it. This is powerful stuff, afterall!

It can be tempting to view these modes of persuasion as a remedy to individual problems rather than an overall design principle. But remember — your goal when persuading users with words should be to help your users become better versions of themselves, not to deceive or cover up bad design.

So the sooner you understand the implications and principles of persuasion in UX copy, the sooner you can influence user behaviors for the better. Because there really is no such thing as a persuasion-neutral design. If anything came close, it would be a blank screen that leads nowhere and helps no one.

Thanks to Chase Roberts, Becky Hirsch, and Riddhi Shah for their help with this article.

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A Guide to Persuading Users with Words was originally published in Springboard on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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