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Persuasive Design Patterns That Drive Engagement

Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast from WMR. Here host David Vogelpohl sits down with guests from around the community to talk about the biggest issues facing WordPress developers. The following is a transcription of the original recording.

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David Vogelpohl: Hello everyone and welcome to Press This the WordPress community podcasts on WMR. This is your host, David Vogelpohl, I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine, and I love to bring the best of the community to you hear every week on press this as a reminder, you can find me on Twitter @wpdavidv, or you can subscribe to press this on iTunes, iHeartRadio, Spotify, or download the latest episodes at Before we kick off with this week’s guest I want to let you all know about a special event WP Engine has happening on April 20 called De{CODE} it’s a virtual event for WordPress developers. If you’d like to check it out, please register here. All right well enough of that. Now to kick us off. I’m really looking forward to our conversation today. A topic I actually don’t know a lot about really interested in learning more, and that is around persuasive design patterns and how you can use those to help drive and create engagement on the WordPress sites. You build. In joining us for that conversation from 3.7 Designs. I’d like to welcome Ross Johnson. Ross, welcome, Press This.

Ross Johnson: Thanks so much for having me on the show. David. We’re huge fans of WP engine in the agency and into the podcast.

DV: Awesome. Thank you so much. And I’m really looking forward to learning more today for those listening. Ross is going to share his thoughts on creating persuasive design patterns kind of what they are and how to create your how he creates them, why they’re so helpful at driving engagement and how you can think about the notion of persuasive design in the sites that you create. So Ross, I’m going to ask you the same question I asked every one of my guests. You may remember it from your profile account questions. But briefly tell me your WordPress origin story. When was the first time you used WordPress?

RJ: So I found WordPress in 2006. And I was doing I was essentially a freelance designer at the time. And somebody had randomly found me through Google search and reached out and they wanted help kind of setting up a handful of different platforms. I think one of them was like phpBB like a post Baltimore open source Baltimore solution. And he also said I want to set up a WordPress blog. And you know, I had heard of the name in conversation before but never really looked into it and being kind of a struggling Freelancer at the time. I just kind of said, Yeah, sure. I can do that and figure that out to figure it out. And that’s kind of you know, what was the impetus to dive in and try and figure out how to install it and very specifically, he needed some help with styling, which luckily, I knew CSS well enough where I could help with a lot of those things.

RJ: You know, I believe if I remember correctly that this was before the fireman installed so like I still had to use FTP and figure out I think was probably the first time I’ve ever set up like a MySQL database through cPanel. So it was definitely more than five minutes first time through but I think even then, you know, it wasn’t too hard for somebody willing to go through some trial and error.

DV: It’s interesting. I have a like a timeline of major WordPress events kind of up in front of me and actually don’t have the five minute install on there. But seems like in 2006 That would have been an exciting time to be joining in the WordPress community and right after themes but right before widgets and shortcodes and things like that. It certainly before custom post states that sounds like you’re kind of doing design freelance in development work already. And so it was just a new tool that kind of landed on your desk from a client.

RJ: Yeah, exactly. And what I loved about it, from that point forward is now I had this option that I could give clients the ability to like edit their own text on the site, which before it was one of those things they email me every time they needed to add a comma or a period which you know is money in the door but not all that exciting.

DV: There was still more work once you gave them the ability to add it. Like there’s not going to be any work for freelancers anymore. I’m like Yeah. So tell me about 3.7 designs, like what do you all do and what do you do there?

RJ: So, like I said, you know, it was founded actually in 2005. I was prior to 2005. I was kind of doing like freelance IP for local businesses here in southeastern Michigan. And at that time, you know, when I started actually kind of in the late 90s If you were doing something with the computers then they also were like, hey, you know how to do web stuff, build us a website. And so that always seemed a lot more interesting than sort of things that I was studying in college which was, you know, social sciences business. And at some point, I just decided I would rather do this and try and get a real job and more emphasis behind freelancing and doing that full time by the time I graduated. So I started in 2005 really was focusing on on websites because I kind of saw like everybody else in the area. was doing more like online graphic design, like everything was kind of like a brochure and I learned about usability and accessibility through a podcast. The vo ag world podcast, which has been around for has now like just ended been around for like 15 years, maybe longer. They’re talking about these things that seemed really interesting. And so I figured I could create a more comprehensive site for people local. And we’ve really kind of slowly grown over the years intentionally, you know, we never really wanted to be, you know, a massive company. So I met my wife, who was also a local Freelancer we got married didn’t make sense to have companies. So we merged and now we’ve slowly grown to about eight people total. We’ve also expanded our services we’re now we’re more of an inbound marketing company because we realized you can only help people so much if you give them a website and say, good luck. See you later. Hope you know how to use it. Hope you know how to get people to it. And so over the years we’ve run out kind of focusing on how do we get the right people to the site and then also what happens once they get there. How do we try and encourage conversions and nurture people towards having sales conversations?

DV: All right, very interesting. So glad to hear it’s interesting to hear you kind of have like the the notion of freelancing and design is kind of the core of your family in a way that’s kind of cool. I also got it one of these internet jobs doing computer words in the late 90s. Very familiar with that. So let’s talk about like you mentioned, like, part of your focus is getting folks to the door and then convincing them kind of to take action at the door. And obviously that’s the part we’re focused at here. So how could you help everyone understand like, what are persuasive design patterns? And how do they differ from traditional design approaches?

RJ: Yeah, so the way that I like to think about it is there’s kind of almost like six different I call them layers, but kind of six different kind of core aspects of the big bucket of design. So the things that you’re trying to get addressed through design, and those are functions so like why does whatever it is you’re designing exists and it’s kind of like the most basic thing like a pen that you can’t write with isn’t well designed. And then reliability. A pen that doesn’t work very well very often isn’t all that all that useful. And then usability which I think you know, kind of we all understand and then moving into kind of some higher levels of proficiency, like does it actually make you better at what you’re trying to accomplish? And the example I like to give is, you know, a park bench is perfectly usable, but you probably wouldn’t want to work sitting on a park bench for like eight hours, where like a really nice, ergonomically designed chair could actually help you focus longer. And then communication. What is whatever you’re designing, telling you. And then emotion, what’s kind of like the emotional resonance, or like how does it make you feel, you know, whatever it is you’re designing. So I think traditional design really kind of focuses more on those like first 123 Maybe four layers, like the basics of doing its purpose. It’s reliable, it’s usable, where persuasive design is more focusing on kind of those last two to three. So it’s focusing less on how else this function and how and more so on how well does it connect, motivate and inspire? So it’s kind of trying to use design to connect with people on more of like an emotional level and communicate the right things to persuade them to take the actions that you’re hoping them hoping that they take.

DV: Okay, so thinking about that, then it sounds like Like as I think about these notions of persuasion and communication and emotion, I’m thinking in the realm of content, and so, as I think about that, then and try to understand it from like, say a design perspective. I guess what I don’t really fully understand is maybe the connection between, say, the content and the design approach. So I’m kind of curious what your thoughts are there, but we’re gonna take our first break, and we’ll be right back.

DV: Everyone welcome back to Press This the WordPress community podcast on WMR. This is your host, David Vogelpohl. Talking with Ross Johnson, about persuasive design patterns. Ross right before the break. You’re explaining there were kind of six aspects of traditional design and you felt that you feel that persuasive design patterns mainly approach it from the communication emotion and proficiency side. And I kind of dropped this bomb right before the break and I’m like, I don’t understand how, you know the kind of content side of persuasion communication and emotion connects to the design side. And I’m just curious how you think about that.

RJ: Yeah, that’s I think that they’re really important question, and it’s kind of this actually an aspect of design that I like to talk about. I think sometimes confusion arises from this perception that design is about how it looks, where design is really about trying to define a problem and then creating an approach to try and solve that problem. So in my mind, you know, messaging and content and design are all integrated. So I’m not a great writer. I’m not a copywriter, but a lot of the work that I do in design actually does involve what content what messages need to show up in where so if you think about designing a homepage, for example, sure, there’s some element of figuring out the look and feel and the tone which does communicate, but a big part of that is trying to understand and prioritize what needs to be said and where and then there is a design element of, you know, how do you treat that those different pieces of content? So yeah. Yeah, so you can kind of think, you know, if you’re doing kind of really comprehensive design, this is almost like kind of like a wireframe II sort of stage where you’re blocking out, you know, what is the strategy for this page? You know, how can we design structure this page to achieve the objectives to, to kind of move people along and persuade them to take those actions that you want them to take? Before you’re getting to kind of the visuals and look and feel?

DV: Okay, so there’s the connection there, obviously, from the copy to the design in terms of what you’re servicing, emphasizing. And so that’s how you think of this connections. And then it sounds like you know, it makes sense, right? When when most people focus on design projects, they focus on the functionality to a degree the reliability and certainly the usability and I can see where a lot of teams stop at that. Always love talking about design topics on a podcast is, you know, you can’t show visuals and examples, but, you know, maybe you can help people try to paint a picture in their head of some examples of persuasive design patterns that you’ve experienced to be effective. Like, what what’s a real world example of this that you could share with us?

RJ: Yeah, so I think a lot of these people, maybe in hindsight, will have seen a lot of or maybe even using. So a lot of this, you know, being a good perspective, designer is kind of knowing when to pick the right things. So give some examples, just context, but something simple is displaying authority. We’re kind of naturally have evolved to respect and trust signals of authority. That’s why police officers wear uniforms and military buy uniforms are so effective. Even just you know, designing patterns to kind of convey that authority, whether it’s like badges or awards that sort of thing. Certainly conveys authority. Reciprocity is another big one where by giving people something of value, they actually feel obligated to give back in a lot of times they feel obligated to give more than they receive their scarcity and urgency. It’s kind of another often looked down upon sort of sales tactic, but it works you know, I’ve got a friend who sells a very popular WordPress plugin, and they did some tests, you know, having the countdown timer and not having it in it in like the differences are dramatic social validation, so we tend to really overvalue what other people do, and kind of want to be a part of that. So just showing that a lot of people like this, a lot of people think this is a great thing, and it’s to be very persuasive. And then a couple other that I really like the halo effect is this is kind of a really great example of just visual design and the quality of design making a big impression but that’s where you’re first you tend to overvalue your first impression. So you hit one website. It looks very well professionally designed, you kind of get a good impression, this incredible company that’s going to impact how you feel about that company, or that website moving not only moving forward, but I repeat visits compared to one that looks a little less professional. It’s going to affect it in a negative way. And then priming, which is a great one where it’s like the first point of data that you see. Again, you tend to then compare other points of data based on that so if like a really high number will kind of prime you to think in higher numbers a really low number will be really low numbers and this is why a lot of times I’m you know pricing tables, the draw the most emphasis or put like the largest number on the left side you see that first feels really big shocks. You and everything else feels small comparison.

DV: So a lot of the things you mentioned and those examples were very easy to picture thank you for that, obviously are kind of, I don’t know maybe like top 10 items, if you will for the craft of conversion rate optimization. You think this is two sides of the same coin, or do you feel like persuasive design stands alone?

RJ: Yeah, I think they certainly are related. You can use persuasive design for specifically driving conversions, but I don’t think it’s I think conversion optimizations maybe a little bit more narrow. Like there’s this very specific thing you’re looking to do where persuasive design there’s no reason you couldn’t use the same sort of things to try and do something bigger, like just convince people of a certain idea that you have, maybe you’re trying to do something for social good, and you just want to spread that message. You can use persuasive design for that too.

DV: Okay, I got it. So those are the approaches of persuasive design are helpful in CRO but also transcended even if you don’t have a specific quote conversion you’re optimizing for in the kind of a b testing way I guess it makes sense. So how do you choose or identify which persuasive design patterns to use in a particular design? Are you researching the audience something else?

RJ: Yeah, I think a lot of it really does come down to audience research. Does the wrong pattern won’t work in the right pattern at the wrong time won’t work. So I’ll kind of back up a little bit and say that you know these patterns they tend to be innate, innate human nature, like we have evolved, and conscious thought is only been around for a small period of time. So a lot of our decisions and behavior actually is influenced by kind of these deeper areas of our brain like our limbic system, and a reptilian brain which is kind of based on emotion and sharp reactions.

DV: That’s the scarcity brain. That’s the brain affecting the scarcity part, I would imagine lack of resources or perceived lack of resources.

RJ: Yeah, exactly. And actually, you know, a lot of those patterns that I was talking about kind of all ties back to some sort of survival mechanism like you can trust the people in authority because they’re more likely to protect you. Social validation, you’re more likely to survive if you’re part of a bigger group. Certainly scarcity. You know, the halo effects you’re more likely to survive. If you make good quick judgment about the safety of a situation. So it’s funny how really kind of it all boils down to these things. But you know, every pen doesn’t work in every situation. So you have to do the audience research to understand what is the emotional state that somebody is in when they’re coming to your website? What’s the emotional drivers, you know, like, deep down? What is driving them? You know, if you’re trying to motivate someone who’s fear of losing, like, they’re in a situation where the fear of losing something and you’re trying to motivate them, or persuade them using something that’s maybe a little more optimistic you know, there’ll be a mismatch there work. Just kind of understanding, you know, what’s the whole buying process because they might visit your website, you know, five or six times so you kind of have to use the the patterns of the right places. So what we end up doing is creating what we call buyer models, which are similar to buyer personas, but we try and make them a little bit more focused on the emotional state, and understanding the thoughts and feelings and anxieties that the target audience has, and we use kind of some very well known user experience, design methodologies like jobs to be done statements empathy, maps and journey maps with online. Remember, that was just a technique for trying to distill your understanding of the target audience into more comprehensible formats.

DV: I love how you called out really understanding their emotional state. I remember just working with design teams over the years and I would say, Okay, what was the person doing right before they came to this page you just made and they were like, well, they clicked on an ad. I don’t know. What do they what were they doing? What were they feeling? What were they thinking? And I feel like you end up at least anecdotally, creating better content, converting content, things like that. When you when you focus on, you know, what that person is trying to achieve, not just from like a job to be done perspective, but also like, what are they trying to do? It’s their mission in life and how is your thing, helping them achieve that outcome? I think it’s really interesting. I also liked hearing about your notion of the way people’s brain affects the way they respond to our designs. A buddy of mine, Roger Dooley wrote a book called Brain fluence that goes deep into this, and it’s something certainly that rings true thinking about these this notion of persuasive design patterns. So, what I’d like to understand more, though, is this notion of like, the persuasive design patterns and like, do they work on everyone and how might you think about them in different situations, but we’re going to take our last break, and we’ll be right at time. To plug into a commercial break. Stay tuned for more press this just a moment. Hello, everyone. Welcome back to press this WordPress community podcast on W Mr. We’re in the middle of talking to Ross Johnson of 3.7 designs about persuasive design patterns that drive engagement Ross right before the break you were talking a little bit about how you identify which persuasive design patterns to use. You talked a lot about, you know, audience research and understanding their emotional connection. Like to kind of go back though to this notion of design patterns and like do they work on everyone? I know, like in my own design projects over the time, we think like, oh, this is to a developer audience. They won’t be moved by this kind of thing. It would be rather this kind of thing. And do you think that persuasive patterns kind of quote, work on everyone or do you really try to truly tailor your his use of them based on the audience’s you target?

RJ: I think it’s a bit of both. I mean, to some extent, in the right situation at the right time, they definitely have an influence on everyone. Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to inspire absolutely everybody who consumes them or sees them or or interacts with them. is going to act but use properly they they will have some measure of influence. And this kind of goes back to you know what, the software that’s running on our brains is still really really old. You know, we’ve only kind of evolved in this place where we don’t have to worry so much about our day to day survival really recently. And so a lot of our our behavior is heavily influenced by unconscious and semi conscious thought, which then bubbles up and it’s kind of influences us to make a decision and we justify it later using logic. So even though it’s kind of more of an emotional decision, we use logic after the fact to say, Oh, the reason I did it was you know, x, y, z. And you can think about this probably in your own life. You know, the last time you made a really big decision, you’re taking a job, you’re buying a house, you’re gonna start a new relationship, maybe getting married, that sort of thing. Really it probably came down to like a gut feeling. You might have like, weighed one option or the other very carefully, but really, the decision was made by what else right and that feeling, right? It’s kind of an emotional stage. And I think, you know, there’s, you can see this in kind of these universal patterns just in humans in general, like, you know, we’re, we’re drawn to big bright open spaces with FAR views high vantage points, we like being near freshwater. You know, the feeling of being a dark cramped space is pretty universally scary, where we all enjoy nostalgia, and we tend to fear losing something more than we have a desire to gain again, not like absolutely 100% but pretty universal.

DV: So this resonates in definitely understand it. But I think this notion of a designer sitting down and thinking like okay, people respond to this, people will respond to that and it’s almost like brain hacking, and of course, you mentioned quote, feel right earlier, and I could see where this could start to cross the line for maybe feel wrong, but how do you think of the ethics in persuasive design and thinking about leveraging these human behaviors to drive an objective?

RJ: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really great question. And I think, you know, like anything, there’s there is an ethical element to it. And I think you need to be careful about your decisions. And certainly, you can use these patterns in unethical ways. And I think the common example, we’ve probably all run into our dark patterns where you get that pop up and it’s, you can’t cancel. It’s like, you can only hit No, I don’t want that which kind of creates this slight discontent and those sort of dark patterns, I think are using it in an ethical way. But I think you can use them in an ethical way to you know, the caveats are it’s not mind control. You know, it’s really kind of about influence you’re trying to influence and really kind of connect with people at their more deep emotional level, rather than trying to just have more generic messaging, generic structure to your pages. And I also say, don’t work on anything you don’t believe in or ethically agree and like I think that’s, you know, outside of using these patterns, if you’re kind of designing a site for something you don’t believe in or doesn’t gel with you ethically, then then that’s kind of a bigger problem.

DV: So part of it is just the nature of design, right? It needs to have font that’s readable, it needs to have information that’s called out in order to persuade someone to do something. And so that’s just part of its nature. And then the second piece is think about what you are using this techniques to achieve and whether that fundamental thing you consider to be ethical. And then it sounds like the third piece of that for you is this notion of just flat out doing things that are, you know, maybe not good for the user or not, not good for maybe commercial sense, or even legal sense. I guess in some contexts, this notion of dark patterns where you’re providing people paths that aren’t really paths that are self serving, and maybe disingenuous, Is that about right?

RJ: Actually, you know, one of the ways that we kind of think about design at the agency is there’s kind of an overlap of desires. You know, there’s the business objectives of the reasons why you’re designing a website or have websites begin with, and then there’s the user needs, you know, what are they trying to get out of landing on your website? What are they trying to accomplish in their life? And what we’ve seen this websites tend to be most effective when you can kind of see where that overlaps. How does this benefit both groups, and kind of prioritize, you know, that kind of overlap? And I think that’s the way to think about persuasive design patterns, twos, it’s kind of identifying that that overlap, and understanding what the person’s going through, so you can better walk them through communicate how this solution is going to help them solve that problem. So it’s kind of thinking about both sides.

DV: Awesome. Well, I think that’s a great kind of overarching point to end on really understanding the user and where your goals their goals overlap. And how your designs can help them to achieve Oh, that’s wonderful. Thanks, Ross. Yeah, this has been great. Thanks so much. Of course. Thanks for coming on. And if you’d like to learn more about what Ross is up to, you can visit 3.7 As a reminder, you can check out WP engines virtual decode event on April 20. You can register at events that WP Engine comm forward slash decode dash 2022 Thanks, everyone for listening to press this the WordPress community podcasts on WMR. Again, this has been your host David Vogelpohl. I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine. And I love to bring the best of the community to you here every week on Press This.

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