“Do we need to push?”: A proposed framework for persuasion in ecommerce design

Much of persuasive web design involves creating user journeys that introduce important concepts at the right time to support the right decision. Although we can achieve some success with individual tweaks to web pages, truly designing to support desired user behaviour is a site wide process. The real success of instigating behavioural change to a website is through a strategic user centred design (UCD) process.

To many online retailers, the holy grail of behavioural change would be engaging more customers in deciding to purchase!  In a UCD ecommerce process what persuasive elements do we include and at what time?  How do we “persuade and not force”? Exactly how hard do we push potential customers?

A model of behavioural change

Professor BJ Fogg has developed the Fogg Behaviour Model (FBM) to act as a guide to help designers “identify what stops users from performing behaviours that designers’ seek” (www.behaviormodel.org).

The FBM states that three core elements determine the likelihood of a behaviour occurring:

  • Motivation: A person must be motivated in order to perform a behaviour.  Without motivation it does not matter how easy a task is or how many prompts I am given to perform it;
  • Ability: In order to perform a target behaviour a user must have the ability to do so.  Increasing the ability of a person to perform a behaviour typically relies upon the simplification of the task;
  • Trigger: Otherwise known as “call to actions”, “prompts” and “cues”.  Triggers are ultimately what set off a desired behaviour.

Graph showing ability on x axis, motivation on y axis and stright line moving towards trigger points

Figure 1:  How the three elements of the FBM interact to produce a desired behaviour.

A key insight of the FBM is the acknowledgement that the three elements can operate independently to still affect the likelihood of a behaviour.  For example, if a task does not particularly motivate people then the chances of successful completion can still be increased by increasing a user’s ability to complete.  From looking at figure 1, I am sure that astute readers will have figured out the FBM’s key message when designing for behaviour change:

“Put hot triggers in the paths of motivated people”

So how hard do we push?

This important message from the FBM shows that by understanding what drives customers (“motivations”), removing as many barriers to purchase as possible (“ability”) and presenting suitable cues at the right point in the user journey (“triggers”) we should ultimately “nudge” customers towards purchase (rather than screaming “BUY NOW!”).

I believe that the design and user experience community are well versed in two of the three core elements of the FBM: “Ability” and “Triggers”.  There are numerous books, blog posts, individuals and companies who have written about simplifying and optimising websites.

Where persuasive web design differs, is in the acknowledgement of motivation in the decision to purchase. Just because something is easy to use does not mean I will inherently use it.  In essence recognising “can do” vs. “will do”.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Usability (or increasing the “ability” in the FBM) is an essential component of a web design process in that it ensures we are not losing any sales as a result of poor design.  Excellent usability should be the default setting of any ecommerce website. Designing for motivation, I believe, is the next step in ecommerce where we (designers, user experience professionals, website managers, business owners) make a conscious decision to acknowledge how our products, web design and strategy influence our customers decision to purchase.  In other words, the next step is focusing on the “will do” as well as the “can do”.

What influences motivation?

Acknowledging the role of motivation in successfully designing for behavioural change (“more people buy product X”), what are the factors that influence it?

Product Type

What are you selling?! There are a multitude of best practice examples for optimizing an ecommerce design but what is often missing is the acknowledgement of the impact of the product being sold.  When designing to motivate potential customers the product being sold has a huge impact.  Imagine how a customers motivation to purchase changes when comparing $4 print cartridges with £1000 mountain bikes (two real world examples I have dealt with recently).  One is a throw away consumable that I want to purchase as fast as possible whilst the latter is an informed purchase requiring extensive research on my part.  Some of the ways that products can influence motivation include:

  • How important is this purchase to me?  Do I care about the product?
  • How long am I prepared to spend purchasing this item?
  • How much information about his product do I need to make a decision?
  • When and where will I use this product? Will the speed your company gets it to me play an important part in my decision (imagine a customer with a flat tyre on their bike the day before the big race…)?
  • Will my use of the product change at different points in the year?

Customer Type

In his excellent book “Submit Now: Designing Persuasive Websites”; Andrew Chak proposes a useful model for understanding a potential customers decision making process.  Chak identifies four different types of potential customer when shopping online:

  • Browsers: Customers who are in the process of gathering information;
  • Evaluators: Customers who are in the process of reviewing the information they have gathered and are deciding whether to proceed;
  • Transactors: Customers who are ready to purchase and are looking to close the deal;
  • Customers: People who have purchased from your website before and are close to building a long lasting relation with your online brand.

Chak acknowledges that each of his customer types is really the same customer just at different points in the decision process (notice how a recurring theme in persuasive design is the acknowledgment of a decision requiring different information at different times – “Right Time, Right Place” design).  We can see that at each point in the decision process a user’s motivations will vary greatly.  For example, whilst “Evaluators” are making judgements on price and specifications; “Transactors” are deciding whether your site is safe.

Bringing it together: The FBM and UCD

When we consider the effects of both product and customer type, we can start to build a picture of how a customer’s motivation could be maximised across a website. At the start of a UCD ecommerce project we could specify the products that we wish sell more of and identify the unique factors that influence our customers’ motivation levels.

Purchasing online is a self service activity where the customer makes the decision. We know from experience that humans inherently distrust machines that tell us or force us into action (read Don Norman’s interesting book “The Design of Future Things”). By designing for the goals, aspirations and motivations of our potential customers then we are providing them with the information they need to make a decision, whilst ultimately leaving the choice in their hands (designing the “Choice Architecture” of a site as my colleague puts it).

In conjunction with our design efforts to maximise a user’s “ability” and the presentation of “triggers” I propose that the FBM could act as a framework for ensuring that we gently nudge our customers rather than shout at them.  I believe this approach would result in a more satisfying user experience that would encourage repeat custom.

To achieve this goal, I believe five key points should be considered:

  • A truly successful persuasive design relies upon adopting a UCD approach;
  • The behaviours we wish to achieve (“increase sales of Surfboards online”) should be outlined at the start of the project so suitable research can be conducted;
  • We need to think about key motivational factors such as:
    • Product type: For example how much risk is associated with a purchase?
    • Customer type: What are the different stages of our customers’ decision journey?
    • The effect of price: How is my pricing and sales strategy affecting motivation? (see my earlier article)
  • We need to ensure excellent usability so the ability of our customers to purchase is maximised;
  • We need to think about “right time, right place” design to ensure the correct location of behavioural triggers.

So in conclusion, how hard should we push our customers? I would argue that with good strategic design, we don’t need to!

References

Chak, A. 2003.  Submit Now: Designing Persuasive Web Sites. New Riders Publishing. ISBN 0-7357-1170-4

Fogg, B J. www.behaviourmodel.org.

Norman, D A. 2007. The Design of Future Things. New York: Basic Books