Jedi mind tricks & persuasive design save Facebook?

published by Ben Allen

Fans of Star Wars and the infamous Jedi Mind Trick understand the allure of persuasion. What would the world look like if everyone uttered the magical word "yes" whenever I made a request? If only! Ironing, laundry and cleaning my bedroom would be chores banished to memories of the "the bad old days".

Persuasion, it turns out, is not a power limited to Luke Skywalker & friends. There is some science to the seemingly dark-art of Influence. Understanding the principles of persuasion can have a dramatic impact on the way we choose to design web sites and understanding these principles becomes another item for good user interface designers to consider.

I've been lucky enough to read some good books on these principles:

...and how some of this can apply to fruitful online relationships:

With the knowledge gathered from these books I was intrigued when the IxDA of Chicago setup the Brains, Behavior & Design workshop. The Brains, Behavior & Design team are a group of IIT Institute of Design students appling findings from the fields of cognitive psychology and behavioral economics to the design process.

Workshop format

I really enjoyed the workshop, here is how the 2 hour session was broken up:

  1. Intro on the topic of influence and how fields such as Cognitive Psychology & Behavioral Economics can have an impact on web design
  2. A room of about 50 people were split into groups
  3. We were given a persona for a particular type of user on Facebook
  4. We were given the scenario that each team worked for Facebook and we had to come up with ideas to help stop users, of the type described in the persona, leaving Facebook
  5. We were given "strategy cards" developed by the smart Brains, Behavior & Design team
  6. Each team then had to brain storm ideas, using the cards to seed the ideas, for the given problem

The value of this workshop was excellent. While the principles of persuasion, according to Dr. Robert Cialdini, might be relatively simple to understand I would suggest that the application of these principles is more difficult. What the Brains, Behavior & Design team have managed to do is take the principles of persuasion and come up with a handy toolkit which helps us all apply these principles to web design. Hooray!

Instead of talking about the laws of reciprocation, scarcity, authority, commitment and consistency, consensus, liking and their impact on our problem I can pick up a little card with statements like "Highlight colorful and personal stories". From the strategy card I can review the meaning of this point, review examples and come up with ideas to solve my problem.

Fruits of labour - Facebook listen up!

I want to share some of the ideas the group came up with - some are fun, some are obvious. The point is - it's good to share and it would be fun to see if Facebook ever implements any of these in the future (seeing into the future was another Jedi skill!). Our persona was "early adopter, early leaver" but some of the ideas encompass a broader audience.

  • Alpha betas - the idea here being to let early adopters test new improvements to the Facebook service. Have these people be a special kind of focus group driving the direction of the service. These users become more engaged in the service and Facebook gets quality feedback.
  • Badges for the cool crowd - can a gaming element be introduced to Facebook? Provide badges of honor to groups of Facebook users. Early adopters could get "On-Facebook since 2004" or "5 year user" badges. The idea here being users of Facebook stay engaged with the service to earn or keep hold of such badges
  • The breakup box - awesome idea. The analogy here is when you break up with a boyfriend/girlfriend you have to go through all the pictures, CDs, trinkets etc. gathered over the course of that relationship. Everyone knows this process. Everyone knows this is heart breaking. Could the same thing be applied to Facebook? If you want to "breakup" with Facebook you have to go through a process which is littered with "remember when?" type scenarios. For example "remember that great photo of you and 10 friends enjoying the summer on North Beach?" cue photo and associated comments. This process makes it harder to leave because users remember the value associated to Facebook.
  • Facebook discounts - Facebook could make the value of the service greater by offering discounts to users of Facebook Connect. In this Facebook-meets-Groupon idea a user could log into a site with Facebook Connect and receive a discount on products & services just because they have used their Facebook log in.
  • Facebook themes - one Facebook for work and one for home. Different features & different value can be derived from Facebook in different situations.
  • Facebook for senior citizens - a variant on the above "theme idea". The idea here is that there could be a super-simple version of Facebook with features specifically designed for senior citizens. One feature discussed was the ability to have a paper newsletter with group updates delivered, sent through the traditional post office system, to seniors at the end of each month.
  • Farmville culling - another idea, to be filed under "slightly crazy", to assign greater value to Facebook and subsequent losses to the user. Here the user would have to perform large scale virtual euthanasia of the animals they have cultivated in Farmville before they can delete their account! Note: I think this idea was dreamed up by everyone who is sick of the Farmville updates in Facebook news feeds!

Persuasive design - cutting through the hype

"Persuasive design" is fast becoming the buzzword-de-jour in user-interface-meets-analytics circles and this makes sense. If you're building any kind of web site the likelihood is you want someone to do something on your site. You want to meet your goals and you want your consumers to be compelled to help you out to that end. Subscribe to your blog feed, buy more products & services, sign up to your newsletter, listen to your podcast, refer your products. Web designers need to design sites in such a way as to leverage the cues which people look for when making a decision. The principles of persuasion and the great books mentioned are a good grounding and I would suggest that the Brains, Behavior & Design team have now added a great tool to the persuasive design toolbox.

Take action & add to your process

You could use the Brains, Behavior & Design toolkit to:

  • Introduce the concept of persuasive design to your wider team or client in a fun, collaborative way
  • Brainstorm & help with idea generation and exploratory sketching
  • Validate designs you've already done - can you make tweaks to something you are already happy with?

I'm so thankful that the IxDA keeps on coming up with great workshops and I'm really excited for the smart folks behind Brains, Behavior & Design. I wish them luck!

Over to you!

As always I love to hear feedback. Here are some thoughts on where the conversation could go:

  • Have you heard the term "persuasive design" crop up more often recently?
  • Have you read any of the books mentioned? Did you like them? Do you think the principles are applicable to web design?
  • What process do you go through when you are reading good principles in a book and then want to start using them in your day-to-day process?
  • Have you been to a Brains, Behavior & Design workshop? What did you think?
  • How do you think Facebook could keep its early adopters?
  • Do you think any of the Facebook ideas are good?
  • Do you see yourself using any of the process described in your next site design?

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