How to Use Persuasive Design for Good, Not Evil

February 11, 2021

Mobile app design is often centered on getting users to take action: buy a product, play another game, send a message. This requires designers to understand what they want users to do and design the flow to persuade them to take that action. But not all actions are created equally. Some persuasive design tricks are aimed at getting us to “buy now.” Have you ever seen a “seven people have booked this hotel in the last 24 hours” message? That is a design element that aims to give an added layer of social proof to get browsers to become customers. 

Other actions that persuasive design points users to are actually detrimental to them. For example, a casino mobile app game might make money from in-app ads, so naturally, the app will encourage users to spend more time playing the game. But too much gameplay could have a negative impact on their relationships, sleep habits, and even employment. How did we get here, so far from the ideal of calm technology?

We live in an attention economy. While we’re not exactly sure who said it first, the saying “if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product” certainly rings true. Many apps sell our data or push ads on us to make money. We might not be paying a monthly subscription or paying when we download the app, but we pay each time we open it up and scroll through for much longer than we meant to. Algorithms and never-ending timelines keep us glued to apps, even when it’s in our best interest to exit the app. 

Some mobile design even rewards users for attention. Think of Snapchat’s “Snapstreak” feature. Users keep their Snapstreak going if they send a snap to another user at least once every 24 hours. But it became an obsession for some users because actions like these on mobile release dopamine, stimulating the reward center in our brains and making us feel good. So much so that a US senator suggested legally banning Snapstreaks under the “Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act.” And it’s clear that he was onto something because Snapchat apparently gets so many inquiries about reviving Snapstreaks that they have a dedicated page for users who believe their streak disappeared due to an error. 

Six colorful donuts with sprinkles.
Is social media like donuts for the brain?

An important piece of the persuasive design puzzle is always monetization: apps and websites that increase their revenue if users spend more time on their properties are incentivized to keep serving up videos and content to keep them engaged for as long as possible. But the reality is that apps are unlikely to switch from ads to a subscription (or some other monetization model) overnight. So a better middle ground is to determine what designers can do to help. The big question here is: how can designers get users to take actions on mobile that are good for them and their well being?

Ask Users What They Want 

This might seem a little revolutionary, but businesses ultimately exist to serve the needs of their customers. If they stop serving that baseline need, no one will return, and revenue will fizzle out. Consistent user research will get your company aligned on what users are seeking to attain with your product. From there, you can think about it like minimizing clicks on a corporate website: if users aim to log their moods with a mental health app, making it as seamless as possible. Put that feature front and center when a user opens the app, instead of making them scroll endlessly through ads and content before they can finally type in their feelings that day. 

Make the First Option the Best

If you follow or are friends with enough accounts on social media sites, you will be able to scroll through your feed until the time your finger cramps up and refuses to go any further. This option sucks users in, gets them to see more ads, and moves them along the buyer journey to finally buy that specific brand of sweatpants that seems to follow them everywhere online. 

Giving users the option to set up their feed in the way that works best for them is a much better way to use persuasive design to help them accomplish their goals. One example that always peeves us is the inability to filter some social sites by just the content published by followers, excluding the things that those followers liked. This makes it so much easier to fall down the rabbit hole. And social sites exploit this. The more users engage with certain content, the more data social media companies have and can personalize the experience. Knowing that a user prefers puppy videos over kitten videos will serve them up enough puppy videos to keep them engaged for years to come.

A very cute puppy.
Can you really stop watching puppy videos once you’ve started? No? Same here.

Companies have a duty to provide a positive experience to customers, and limiting autoplay and autoload functions could be a step in the right direction. Now we fully acknowledge that companies have little incentive to do this, but it would be a much more purposeful experience to only be served the content that you asked for in particular. Imagine if Youtube played the video a user requested and stopped right there. Another video didn’t play until they consciously selected the next one. This is unlikely to ever happen, but it is still interesting to consider. 

Rethink Engagement 

Companies need to rethink what success means. An engaged user doesn’t mean they are necessarily using an app every day. The recent Robinhood fiasco with certain stocks achieving astronomical prices led to a similar spike in downloads for the app. We are sure time spent in-app was especially high as well. But for any other stock trading app, the goal should not be to have users opening the app every five minutes. This is when persuasive design falls into the territory of forming bad, addictive habits. If a financial app wants to help users build wealth, then they should encourage them with the best habits. This could include reading up on the latest financial statements so that they make informed investments or maybe encouraging them to view their investments less frequently to avoid obsession. 

Avoid Gamification

This one is quite counterintuitive based on what designers are taught to create. Not everything needs to be a game. In fact, the seriousness of activities like banking and investing should be conveyed by design. When an investment app uses a candy-coated color scheme, constantly updates, and makes exciting noises, it can entice users just like a slot machine might in a casino. But we believe that persuasive design can be used for good to inspire users to take actions that will benefit them. This might take the form of setting up auto-transfers to save more of a user’s paycheck into an account that won’t tempt them to spend. These are the buttons and features that need to be front and center on the home screen of an app or website. 

Three people in front of a computer, one taking notes.
Helping users make good choices means understanding them and their motivations deeply.

Get Scientists Involved

While some might see this as extreme, all the biggest brands have scientists on staff to understand users better and drive them to certain actions using psychology. This is definitely effective in terms of getting users to stay in-app longer, but what if we flipped the script? What if apps had the goal of giving users exactly what they asked for and enabled them to get on with their day? 

This is a lot easier said than done. The example that comes to mind is search engines. Google or Mozilla don’t (and shouldn’t) have the ability to crown one source as the correct answer. Instead, they use algorithms that take into account domain authority, user intent, and more. This suggests top answers but allows users to make up their own minds. 

Google has tried to make it easier to find out answers to straightforward questions by introducing the “Answer Box.” Typing in a question such as “what is the tallest tree in the world” pops up with an actual answer with a picture and additional information so that users don’t have to click through several links and read walls of text to get an answer to a simple question. This feature gives us hope that designers can find new persuasive design applications that align with what users actually want to get out of a tool, without ads or extraneous content getting in the way. 

Final Thoughts

Design is always evolving, as are user needs. Keeping up with what users want from a product and giving it to them in a way that helps them get on with their day is a lofty goal. But we think it’s possible to engrain persuasive design in a way that champions your customers and doesn’t play into the attention economy’s idea. It’ll just take some getting used to. 

How do you approach using persuasive design in a way that encourages positive user behavior? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio. helps you bring your idea to life in no time, with no coding skills required. It’s ideal for UX designers, entrepreneurs, product managers, marketers, students, and anyone with a great idea. Sign up for a free 15-day trial to start building your first prototype today!