On Persuasion

Good design requires persuasion.

A good design might be persuasive on its own; the notion that a thing “just works” implies that its function, however novel, is an intuitive leap from its form. This is what Apple is known for. Apple products are renowned for their simplicity, which is what persuades people to use them and to keep using them. There is an entire sub-genre of “design” called Persuasive Design that is based upon a focus on how the details of a thing can influence behavior. Like many sub-genres of design, though, this just sounds like design to me.

But I have a different kind of persuasion in mind. Even the most persuasive objects came into being by successful persuasion. In our time, after all, very few things of consequence are made without collaboration, which itself requires constant persuasion and agreement.

Things are the end of a long line of persuasion. A person with an idea has to persuade others of its value. Then, they have to persuade others to help turn their idea into a thing. Then, they have to persuade others to help them tell the world about it. And those that tell the world about a new thing are practicing persuasion, too. They have to persuade others to listen, first, and then to do something.

Persuasion is not easy to do.

Designers should be familiar with four core elements of persuasion. I won’t say The Four elements, because even just a little research into persuasion will reveal that there are many versions of that kind of list. But all of them have the same themes in common. I’m going to list them below, but before I do, I think it’s helpful to think of persuasion in a familiar context.

Imagine you and some friends are out for dinner. You have just learned something surprising — something that has changed your mind about something important to you. Maybe it’s an idea, an event, or even a product. You want to share this with your friends, because you think it will probably matter to them, too. How do you do that? I suppose you could just share your conclusion with them. But that may not be the best way. This is where thinking about the elements of persuasion is helpful, and I imagine it’s something you do intuitively every time you’re in a casual, friendly situation like the one I described.

Four Elements of Persuasion

The first element of persuasion is the source. When practicing persuasion, the source is you. What about you will support your persuasion? What about you won’t? How credible are you? These are all things you know at a subconscious level when you’re in more intimate settings. But when you’re not — when you’re trying to persuade larger groups of people whom you don’t know as well, or at all, you need to be aware of all the things about you that may or may not help you do that. These include how you look, how you sound, how you move, and anything another person might be able to know about you, like your background, education, employment, location, etc.

The second element of persuasion is the receiver. When you’re with friends, you can answer the most important questions about them with almost no work — Who are they? What do they care about? What are their boundaries? What commitments guide their thinking and actions? But when you don’t know your audience as well, these answers are harder to come by. And the less you know about your receiver, the more you must scrutinize what anyone might conclude about the source.

The third element of persuasion is the message itself. Now, the message might be as simple as that there is a new product that is better than the one everyone already uses. But what matters to persuasion is the construction of that message. Is it a structured argument, constructed by shared facts and a logical conclusion? Is it an emotional one, where hope or fear is used to motivate action? You might be more inclined toward one form over another based upon your personality, and your audience may or may not share that inclination.

Finally, the fourth element of persuasion is the medium. At dinner with friends, you might be the medium. It could be enough for your friends to hear that you had an experience and it changed your mind and behavior in order for them to be persuaded to do the same. But if your experience is impossible to reproduce, or if your conclusions were supported by prior beliefs or preferences your friends don’t share, or if you behavior is part of a pattern your friends have come to know and accept but not share also, your testimony may not be enough. You may be the medium for your message, but you might be more successful in your persuasion if you simply point to someone or something else. Is there someone else who might be more persuasive than you? Is there a book or some other media that would better fit your audience’s needs? Is a visual aid necessary? What about a first-hand experience?

How People Think

The elements themselves are simple. What is not simple is how those elements either work with or against one another in persuasion. They are like chemical components that can either have positive, neutral, or negative reactions to one another depending upon their unique natures or simply the time or place at which they are combined.

Similarly, how people process information can vary enough to determine how successful your persuasion is.

In the Heuristic-Systematic Model of Information Processing, there are two modes of taking in and evaluating information. One is called systematic processing, and the other is called heuristic processing.

Systematic processing is how people receive and evaluate information when they inherently prefer detail, when they are highly motivated to act — to make a decision, for example — and when they are able to maintain a strong focus on the information being provided. For people who are systematically processing, the quality of the information — its clarity, factuality, and consistency — is most influential to their decision making.

A simple way of thinking about systematic processing is that it is how we think when we are willing to spend more attention on the information we encounter.

Heuristic Processing is how people receive and evaluate information when they are resistant in any way to the information being shared, when they are less motivated to act, or when they are distracted by aspects of the situation that are irrelevant to the message. Those things might include anything from how attractive or relatable they find the communicator to be or simply the volume of information provided.

A simple way of thinking about heuristic processing is that it is how we think when we are willing to spend less attention on the information we encounter.

This model predicts that behavioral change made by heuristic processing is likely to be less significant and shorter-lived than when made by systematic processing. However, the model also predicts that, for most people, heuristic processing supports later systematic processing. In other words, it’s human nature to be initially biased and distracted. Good persuasion takes this into account.

So, a default rule: We have to be persuaded to pay more attention.

A Simple Example for Designers — Transitioning from Scanning to Reading

These elements and models provide plenty of food for thought, whether you’re a designer or not. But one thing I find interesting is how they support some of the simplest elements of a designer’s practice.

One example is how persuasion plays a role in transitioning from scanning to reading.

Scanning is an example of heuristic processing. When we scan a page, for instance, we draw conclusions from superficial or exterior factors like the appearance and arrangement of information, the stability of the medium itself (e.g. does it load slowly, does it appear broken), and even the existing (if any) reputation of the source. But the influence of scanning is by no means superficial. If a scan affirms the relevance and reliability of the information on the page, then a person is more likely to transition to systematic processing. In other words, a person will scan a page first to determine whether it is worth more of their time and attention to read.

We often think of design as the work that supports those things that enable scanning and content development as what supports deeper engagement like reading, watching, or listening. But the elements of design are agents of persuasion at both levels. Information architecture supports scanning as well as reading, as do all the elements of visual language, like typography, color, shape, and even art direction of supporting imagery.

Every visual element can trigger heuristic processing based upon practical factors — like how legible it is — emotional ones — how a color or image can trigger feelings in a viewer — and even technical ones — like how long it takes to display or how it reacts to the conditions of its display. If a scanner’s heuristic processing is successful, they will transition to systematic processing, which is a deeper engagement with the media and a more likely future action.

It’s been my observation that there are many structural dogmas about how to attract, inform, and engage “users” — on websites, applications, and the like — but what they all are at their core is a systematized understanding of persuasion.


15 April 2023