The six weapons of UX influence

Running a business can sometimes feel like a battle between the commercial need to sell stuff and our customers’ need to achieve a particular goal, whether that’s buying the right thing at the right price or getting something done. User experience design often happens on the front line between those two forces as we try to persuade people to achieve their goal with one particular business instead of another. UX designers use some powerful weapons in this struggle. We can split them into six weapons of UX influence, based on emotional triggers that impact how users interact with a business. These aren’t tricks; they’re universal truths of human psychology that can be used to give people better experiences, which means selling more stuff.

The six weapons of UX influence

The idea of the six weapons of UX influence came from researcher Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence, Science and Practice (Allyn & Cacon, 2000). The weapons are the emotional triggers that get people to do things; reciprocation; commitment and consistency; social proof; liking; authority; scarcity. We can use Cialdini’s concept in UX design, and here’s how.

1: Reciprocation

If someone does something nice for us, we’re more likely to do something nice for them. in psychology-speak, we’re conditioned to repay positive actions. This has been demonstrated scientifically; one 1971 study showed that participants were more likely to buy raffle tickets from a stranger if they liked him, but even more likely to buy from him if he bought them a soda first, whether they liked him or not. In other words, the fact he bought them a soda was more important than whether they liked him. In UX, we can greatly increase the chances of someone doing something we want (like buying from us instead of our competitor) if we give them a small gift first, like free content that helps them with a related task.

2: Commitment & consistency

Once we’ve made a choice, we tend to stick to it. It’s a mental shortcut – if we’ve already done something one way, we do it that way again because that takes less thinking. In UX design, we can utilise this idea by making promises and sticking to them. That means websites and services behaving consistently and predictably. For example, when a user starts a transactional journey such as an insurance quote, the experience will be better if you outline what is required of them up front, what to expect and any information they’ll need along the way.

3: Social proof

We all know the feeling of being in an unfamiliar situation, not knowing what to do and looking round to see what everyone else is doing so we can copy them. From using the right cutlery at a posh restaurant to reacting to a fight in a bar, we tend to do what others around us are doing because we instinctively think they know more about the situation. In UX design the obvious parallel is online reviews, especially those from a third party site such as Trust Pilot, Yelp or Tripadvisor. We like reading good reviews because it indicates that others have acted in the way we’re considering.

  • Companies willingly pay to be part of Amazon’s Vine programme, which sends free products to specially selected members in return for honest reviews, because they recognise the positive impact on sales of a review on a product page.
  • We’ve even learned from analysing our own user research that bad reviews aren’t necessarily a bad thing – if they’re in the minority, they can reassure people that the reviews are genuine.

Displaying demographic information about reviewers adds an edge to this weapon; we give more credibility to feedback from people ‘like us’. The increasing use of influencer marketing underpins this trend, with famous Youtube or Instagram users endorsing products or services.

4: Be likeable

There’s a lot of psychology behind what we like. We like saying ‘yes’ to requests from people we know. And we like people who are like us – those with similar opinions, personalities, backgrounds, or lifestyles. We like being flattered, even if we know it isn’t true. We like familiar things. And we’re more likely to like someone if we’re familiar with them over a period of time. How does all that liking translate to UX influence and design? We make services more likeable by:

  • Focusing on micro-interactions, giving consideration to small familiar tasks we do all the time.
  • Complimenting users on achieving their goal with success messages. (Although don’t overdo this – cutesy, Innocent-style copy has a limited shelf-life!)
  • Making interactions more satisfying with rewards like satisfying transitions as they press an action button to check out. (Don’t drag out transactions – an increase in average time on site is not necessarily a good thing…)
  • A consistent tone of voice, so users feel as if they’re building a relationship with a real person.

5: Authority

Most of us are raised with a respect for authority, and we tend to notice and respect the symbols of authority. It’s possible to use this weapon fraudulently (fake crests, credentials, reviews) but that approach leads to an ultimate loss of trust. Instead, citing genuine authoritative sources or third party reviews can influence users to purchase or lend more credibility to your content. We’ve seen from our own research that users over 50 tend to believe authoritative third-party reviewers such as Which over social proof, whereas users under 50 have a greater propensity towards reviews from other customers.

6: Scarcity

Things seem more valuable when they’re less available. Hard-to-get is better than easy-to-get. That’s why Gucci make limited edition handbags. Why Field Notes stationery release limited runs of notepads that are snapped up by collectors.One study on scarcity showed participants a job ad for restaurant server positions. One version of the ad implied there were lots of positions available, the other implied there were only a few. The participants perceived the company with few job vacancies to be the better one to work for and to be offering higher pay.

In UX we can use scarcity to encourage conversion by creating a sense of urgency. No one enjoys pressure selling, and the tactic should be used sparingly. Why? Because we want customers to come back to us, but there are small techniques that can gently encourage sales.

  • Amazon tells us there are “only 3 left” of the thing we’re ordering. This stock figure is actually a result of Amazon’s just-in-time ordering system, but implying scarcity also implies value. (It also acts as a form of social proof – users assume Amazon have massive warehouses!)
  • Ticketing websites reserve tickets for finite time periods, often with a prominent countdown to losing the tickets to someone else.