The Theory of Influence –

and how to use it in design

As UX design has become a competitive advantage for companies competing on saturated markets, designers look for micro-competitive advantages over their competitors when it comes to creating ROI and conversion of customers.

Tactical applications can be anything from changing a button to a more persuasive colour to telling outright lies about the status of a product they’re selling on their site.

Persuasion in design has become an art.

A dark art. Many techniques that have been thought to work well have been categorised as ‘Dark patterns’ (term and website founded by Harry Brignull) — tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy and signup for things that you didn’t mean to. These tricks are not only functional, they are psychological and are orchestrated to appeal to the emotions of their target audience’s.

Persuasion, however does not have to be dark. Techniques can be used to help customers correctly find their way through their sites and allows brands to build trust with their users. Any market you launch a product or market into is likely to be saturated. Persuasion has become crucial within the design language of platforms. As Norbi Gall said in his article about UX and persuasion:

Just because people can do something does not guarantee that they will — they must be motivated and persuaded.

A good starting point when considering how to get your products into conversion/meeting your objectives is thinking about the application of Robert Beno Cialdini’s 6 Key Principles of Influence. Robert Cialdini is a psychologist and the author of ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’, a book that has been used to propel everything from marketing strategy to dating.

Ciadini’s theory of influence is based on six key principles: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity.

Each has a unique application that can and should be considered by design teams when thinking about the production of new services and improvement of those that exist. Each incites a holistic view of influence, rather than simply serving up cheap tactical tricks.


The topic of reciprocity has long played an important role in anthropology, ethnology, and sociological thinking.
 If someone is willing to do something nice for us, we’re more likely to do something nice for them. In psychology-speak- we’re conditioned to repay positive actions.

In UX, we can use reciprocation as a tool for empathy with our customers. We can offer them a piece of our product for free in the hope that they’ll see the benefit of the whole thing. The promise of something free will also drive customers to commit an action that benefits a company.

A good example of a technique is a Tweet for download feature on Twitter. If you tweet, you get something free and also help the business drive their objectives of giving their product more publicity. Another is UX Pin, who give customers free books on design and technology subjects, before asking them to sign up and try their product

As CRM techniques have become cemented within Digital marketing, people have come to expect free content from whichever site or brand they visit on the internet. A company offering free travel advice upfront from someone buying travel insurance may not now be quite enough to nudge a customer into performing a task.

A great example of Reciprocation is AirBnbs use of Neighbourhood guides

Companies are also using the idea of reciprocation to diversify their offering in order to get more people to sign up for their core-product (or cash cow). Insurance brands are now offering digital services for the products that they insure.

Rentecarlo is a new car renting site owned by Admiral Insurance. It allows people to rent out their cars to others, in a similar way to Airbnb. Though this model, isn’t entirely new, Admiral are developing a behaviour changing platform for people who have no use for buying a car. They don’t have to commit to ownership, and now have a potential alternative to getting on a train in order to travel. And as a result of people using the service, Admiral are signing more users up to their insurance — a choice that doesn’t matter to the users of the site .

Commitment and 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.

Social Proofing:

Social proof is not a recent phenomenon. It was identified in 1935 by Muzafer Sherif, a social psychologist credited with developing social judgement theory, in an experiment.

Subjects were seated in a dark room and asked to stare at a pinprick of light a few feet away from them. They were asked to estimate how much the dot was moving. In reality, the light was stationary but the autokinetic effect (an observation that stationary objects appear to move when there is no second point of reference to compare them to) led people to believe it was moving.

A week or so later, the experiment was repeated but this time in groups. People were asked to shout out there estimates of the movement and Muzafer Sherif observed that the group would tend to converge on an estimate — even if these estimates were vastly different to those that they had given in the first part of the experiment. The experiment was then repeated again with the individuals on their own and their estimates tended to remain with the group output rather than with their own original estimate.

Social proof is used for two reasons in user experience design: To deliver credibility and to promote adaption or acceptance.

We tend to do what others around us are doing because we instinctively think they know more about a situation than we do. This can range from being impressed by a community and be willing to join by the amount of likes on a page

Even bad reviews aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as they’re in a minority. They can reassure people that reviews are genuine.

Displaying information about a review adds more credibility to the feedback that people have given. The increasing use of influencer marketing underpins this trend, with famous or YouTube or Instagram users endorsing products or services.

As a concept of improvement, the effects of Social proofing can be tested pretty easily from a UX perspective by simple A&B testing. What difference has the addition of a social proof weapon made to your experience? Add it in and serve the page to 50% of test participants and test conversion rates.

Being Likeable

There is a lot to be said to being likeable. At some point in your life, your parents might have said something along the lines of “Treat others as you’d wish to be treated” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Being nice to people brings you rewards. We all like being flattered and those companies that create this type of tone to their services typically have longer relationships with their customers and users;/

This translate into Ux flows into positive feedback, strong customer service and error redirection. The world of likability today stretches into the art of the micro-interaction. As designers we strive to make our interactions as satisfying as possible for our users. The more immersive our sites and apps are the more joy users are likely to get from using them — and will therefore repeat their visits.

MicroInteractions are becoming an art form of their own. From awards ceremonies to new software specifically focusing on making the development their animation easier, they should be an important part of any likeable experience.


Scarcity infers that if people think something is rarer, or there is a chance of them missing out on something, then they’re more likely to want it or reply to it.

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 nudge people to encourage users into conversion by creating a sense of urgency around an action. People sometimes tend to view creating an environment of scarcity as being too much of a pressured approach design, and the tactic should be used sparingly because we want customers to come back to us, but there are small techniques that can gently encourage sales
 — Amazon use their just-in-time ordering system to tell you that there are xx number of something left. The fact that they use the word only within smaller numbers of stock creates a fear of missing out and through that, implies the product is valuable. 
 Ticketing websites tell you how many tickets are left for their website, but create urgency by putting a countdown clock on the checkout, creating urgency around completing a task.

Scarcity as a principle of persuasion is without a doubt the closest to producing dark patterns, as in principle using scarcity is to trick someone.

When using such tricks, try and think of the perspective of the user. Do they benefit from knowing something is about to sell out, so that they buy it and do not have to wait until its restocked?


People tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts.

In proving this, you could reference just about every human massacre and autocratic dictatorship to date. Cialdini in his writing referenced the My Lai Massacre.

Though authority can have evil annotations, you can use it to influence behaviour in a positive way and build trust with your Digital experiences. Think of it in terms of credibility or reassurance.

Create a connected eco-system that makes your company look like an authority figure within the market you work in. Credibility reassures people. From a UX perspective this means ensuring there is no friction or frustration within an experience.

A great way of creating your authority is to disrupt your market.

Change the way people perform a task and make that task more simpler for people to perform. No one can doubt that companies such as Airbnb, who’s Omnichannel experiences revolutionise the way we plan our holidays are a great example of authority through market place disruption

In Conclusion

When these weapons are influence are thought about up-front and are implemented without ego, they can help produce great experiences and features for users.

There are hundreds persuasion techniques that Designers can consider when looking to build out experiences.

Another prominent principle is ‘Salience’. The salience principle tells us that people attention is drawn to that which is most relevant to them. By identifying such moments through simple personalisation and association, you can create higher up-sell and can influence your customers into continuing their purchase experience. I mention this, as salience is the core to any user experience.

Create relevance for your users. By focusing on this, we create simple products that deliver what a user needs, rather than what we all think is good.

Author: Neil Ballinger

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