The Power of Psychology in Designing Digital Experiences
Table of Contents

The Power of Psychology in Designing Digital Experiences

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  • Psychology and designing digital experiences go hand in hand and are inseparable like lovebirds.
  • Since people make their choices subconsciously, it is crucial to understand the psychological principles behind these decision-making mechanisms to create great digital experiences;
  • There are several frameworks that will help you with this task. Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion, and Fogg’s Behavior Model are just two of these frameworks;
  • Of course, persuasion is one thing, while manipulation is an entirely different story. The distinction is clear, and under no circumstances should you try to cross the line between the two;
  • Overall, there is one simple rule of thumb you may always refer to. It is the famous “KISS” which stands for “Keep It Simple, Silly”;

If you think you are controlling your judgments and choices, we have bad news for you. According to numerous studies*, we make most of our choices automatically without being aware of it. That makes psychology an integral part of good design.

Without the fundamentals of psychology and sociology, it’s impossible to develop intuitive digital experiences. Additionally, understanding how to influence customer behavior is crucial for conversion rate optimization.

That is why it is essential to understand and implement persuasive design principles in apps and website designs.

Persuasion or Manipulation?

Undoubtedly, influencing people is a valuable skill, and behavioral psychology is a powerful tool for that. Though both, persuasion and manipulation, are meant to influence users to perform certain actions, manipulation is highly unethical.  

But what is the difference between persuasion and manipulation? Mainly intentions, though often dishonesty and unfairness also come into play.

Persuaders look for mutual benefits. Manipulators want a positive outcome for themselves, and themselves only. The process of manipulation typically involves distorting or withholding the truth, hence eroding trust. Therefore, when designing, the goal is to persuade users to interact with the product or content in an intended way, never to manipulate them.

In design, persuasion is much more than words. The user interface (UI) and the user experience (UX) of an app or a website can influence the audience in both directions. A thoughtfully designed product can seamlessly lead users through the desired path, but on the other hand, a poorly designed one may put users off and make them leave it. 

Inconveniences like overwhelming features and options, or inconsistent design choices that increase a user’s level of uncertainty, are capable of resulting in irritation and leading to analysis paralysis. 

Furthermore, unnecessary distractions like pop-up windows might interrupt the process of influencing the user. Recall the time when you wanted to read a news article, only to be hit with a cookie banner, a subscribe pop-up, a notification request, and multiple ads inside the text itself. You wanted to close the page as soon as possible, didn’t you?

How exactly does it work? What is the magic behind creating an impact on users’ behavior?

Scientists for decades have been trying to understand the role of the subconscious in the decision-making process.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model

One of the theories researchers came up with is an Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) presented by John Cacioppo and Richard Petty.

According to the Elaboration Likelihood Model, when someone is presented with a piece of information, there is a certain level of “elaboration”. The definition goes: the more time they spend on the information, the higher the level of elaboration is.

To better illustrate it: there are people who are able to leave a supermarket with 2 weeks’ worth of groceries in half an hour. Then there are people who need that same half an hour only to decide which orange juice to choose. In the first case, we may say there is a low level of elaboration, while in the latter one, the level is high.

Based on the level of elaboration, people subconsciously pick one of two processing routes: central and peripheral. When the elaboration level is high, the decision-making process goes through the central route. Accordingly, when the elaboration level is low, the decision is processed through the peripheral route. We’ll expand on both of these concepts below.

To give the same example – if while doing groceries you read labels, compare prices, sizes, and ingredients of products, we are talking about the central route. If you just grab the first product in sight, or select the product based on packaging and brand recognition, we are talking about the peripheral route.

Central route

The central route is applied when audiences/users put significant effort into processing information, meaning they care about the message. These kinds of users tend to pay more attention to detail, and their views are characterized by greater stability and resistance to counter-arguments.

What does it mean for designers?

Users driven by the central route know what they are seeking and are more likely to ignore any kind of distractions. Consequently, they focus more on the content than the user experience. When using applications, functionality is above the aesthetics.

These types of users are the target group for tools and websites dedicated to specialists. 

Peripheral route

The peripheral route involves a low level of elaboration. Users driven by the peripheral route are usually easier to influence, as their decisions are less durable. Because they invested less time to process the information, their views are more likely to be influenced by secondary factors like a visual presentation or other people’s opinions.

What does it mean for designers?

Because this type of audience is easier to distract, the main challenge the designer has to face is to keep the user’s attention all the way through the persuasion process. On the other hand, users driven by the peripheral route are more likely to be influenced by an appealing design. They are often customers for trendy, designer products and entertaining apps.

Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion

Dr. Robert B. Cialdini points out that, as a society, we live in constant information overload, and therefore it is impossible to process all the information and make rational decisions. This suggests, most of us are driven by the peripheral route.

Cialdini indicated that people trying to decide are looking for signals. Implementing those so-called signals into product design may help in redirecting users from the peripheral to the central path.

Here are Cialdini’s Seven (yes, not six anymore) Principles of Persuasion

1. Reciprocity

Cialdini states that people feel obliged to return favors, and they tend to treat others the same way others treat them. For designers, it means that if the product they are designing gives some extra value to the customer (besides the product itself) they should make it apparent. In exchange, the user is more likely to feel obligated to perform the desired action. 

If you invite your new neighbor over for a cake when they move in, they are more likely to take care of your dog when you’re on vacation.

2. Commitment

Cialdini explains that people find consistency as something challenging, hence valuable in self-development. An example of the use of this principle might be rewarding users for opening the app daily or making some actions consistently. 

If you use apps such as Duolingo, the day streak in educational apps does make people practice more, on average.

3. Social proof

Since humans are social animals, we know how to observe and adjust to social norms.  When unsure, we happen to copy other people’s behavior. For designers and marketers, it means it might be a good idea to include reviews on the product pages or statistics like site visitors and likes under the products. 

An interesting example of this principle in action is adding “people who bought this also liked” sections on e-commerce websites. 

Another example is the ever-present “X people trusted us” tagline.

4. Authority

This principle is more useful for marketers. It’s a base of influencer marketing and states that customers are more likely to perform some action if the authority does the same/tells them to do so. That is precisely why it’s so common to see doctors in advertisements so often. 

We are much more likely to trust a person in a police uniform, than a “regular” pedestrian.

5. Liking

It’s easier to influence people when they like you. That’s why numerous websites have an “about us” section. It shortens the distance and helps build relations. For designers, it means the more welcoming and friendly the design, the easier it’ll be to persuade users to follow the desired path. 

You will have an easier time selling something to a friend, than to a stranger.

6. Scarcity

Fear of missing out frequently makes people act impulsively. Time-limited offers are a perfect example of creating urgency in the purchase. Cialdini noticed that scarcity makes a product more attractive when it’s limited. 

Remember Clubhouse? Some argue, the main reason for its popularity was its invite-based model.

7. Unity

The need to belong is one of the core needs for a human. It’s the third step in Maslow’s pyramid of needs. This is why this principle is so effective, and used by about everybody. You see politicians trying to associate themselves with their voters, though that’s not the only way to use the principle. 

You will often see brands positioning themselves against the established ones. See this video for a clear example.

One does not need to always influence people by positively creating a sense of belonging. Sometimes, antagonizing another group may also work. Don’t get us wrong, though. We do not recommend doing that, though it is an option.

Fogg’s Behavior Model

Fogg’s Behavior Model tells us that user behavior is based on User Motivation, the Ability to perform an action, and Prompt. Without either of these, the behavior will not occur.

Let’s boil each of the elements down:

Motivation is the reason “why”. Why did the user download the app, open the website, etc.

Ability is giving the user the tools to perform the action. An easy-to-use application or a mobile-friendly website are good ways to increase the ability of users.

Prompt is the trigger. It’s that little nudge that we use to have our user complete the desired action. CTA buttons are one example. The rule is simple. Gasoline cannot have the ability to complete an action because it’s inanimate, though it’s able to burst into flames as soon as it comes into contact with a single spark.

According to Fogg, if one of those elements fails, the desired behavior won’t occur. Should the results you were hoping for are not being achieved, it’s time for you to analyze which element can be missing. Surveys are a simple, and an unbeatable solution to get feedback. You may start exploring on your own, while waiting for the results.

Let’s take a checkout flow as an example here. If your users don’t finish their purchase, then maybe the checkout process is too complicated? Perhaps you could shorten it? 

If it doesn’t help, the user might have potentially gotten lost in the process due to the lack of a trigger? The trigger could be as simple as adding a button. 

In general, there is one rule of thumb when designing experiences: KISS. Keep It Simple, Silly.


Psychology and design go hand in hand and are inseparable like lovebirds. Together, thoughtfully used, they have great power of guiding the user through the desired path. The key is to understand users enough to choose the approach that feels appropriate to them; to find the emotional connection with the product to persuade them to perform the action in the perfect place and at the perfect time. 

Most importantly, however, it’s not about forcing customers to do what you want them to do. It’s about providing them with the tools that empower them or make it possible to reach their goal.


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