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Persuasive Architectures

Using emotions to persuade visitors and increase conversions

Using emotions to persuade visitors and increase conversions

Businesses face extraordinary levels of competition to win and keep new customers online. Their ability to connect with audiences and nurture those relationships can be enhanced by understanding the psychology of what makes them click. Recognizing how a user feels in reaction to an experience provides insight into optimization opportunities that can generate higher engagement, business revenue, and positive brand impressions.

Successful brands understand the value that copywriters, designers and user experience experts bring to a project: they have a way with words, visuals and structure that can create exceptional and compelling experiences for audiences.

Specifically, copywriters are employed for good reason: writing copy is tough! Copywriters have a way with words, an ability to tell stories and draw an audience (or potential audience) closer in. Perhaps the most profound skill they have is the ability to persuade an audience through language.

Let’s take a look at copy used by two major airlines, United and Virgin America. When you arrive at their sites, the first thing you notice is the copy. This is their primary message area, and both take drastically different approaches:

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Distinctive messaging

United welcomes us with a main message: “Welcome to the new”. This straightforward statement acts as both a welcome and an alert — “Hey look, we’ve redesigned our site”. The problem is, it doesn’t feel personal, and its self-serving: this is all about them.

On the other hand, Virgin’s message makes it personal for the user: “Where do you want to go?”. While also a straightforward statement, it places the needs of the user front and center. Perhaps more importantly, they use language that encourages the user, and has emotional punch — the message acts as an invitation to explore travel, gives the user the option to get right down to business, and demonstrates Virgin’s interest in the user.

Divergent layouts

United’s design approach is to put all of the fields of information that are required to book travel right up front. The user needs to add the city they want to leave from, the destination, departure and return dates; other options are added for consideration, including login, awards travel, flight status, checkin, other itineraries, site feedback and one advertisement is displayed (in this view). All of these areas add up to a total number of words on display to the reader: 60 (minus the main navigation).

Virgin’s design approach emphasizes a simplified interface. This allows the user to focus on specific tasks one at a time, without distraction. All they need to to is determine which city they want to go to, because Virgin has already detected their location (and they still have the option to change it), reducing superfluous clicks. There are other options as well, but Virgin has made a clear decision that a majority of their audience just needs to choose the destination city. Overall, Virgin’s layout feels open and focused on the task at hand, which is reflected in the total number of words on display to the reader: 33 (minus the main navigation).

Both sites produce an emotional response from users because of the way they are constructed

The areas outlined above are the beginning of the conversion funnel — a critical first step in direct engagement. United’s interface has messaging that feels self-serving, and is visually cluttered; these two components could ultimately add up to a lack of conversion. Virgin’s interface is simplified and directly engages the user with smart copy, producing an excellent beginning to leading the user down the funnel.

Visual clutter is a good example of what can contribute to a user’s feelings. Visual clutter can cause a user to feel overwhelmed. When that happens clutter can interfere with information gathering and decision making in complex information visualizations (MIT). Messaging, when done well, can feel informative, personal, and inviting, and reinforce areas that need attention, without overkill. This contributes to positive feelings that can generate a desire to take action.

These observations are not meant to be an exhaustive UX investigation and it should be noted that each site has additional required steps to complete travel booking.

The unspoken is often the most seductive

One of the most exciting areas at the forefront of conversion rate optimization (CRO) is persuasive psychology, which sits at the intersection of psychology and UX innovation. Many people often don’t think outwardly about how they feel about a website, but they do register feelings to themselves, perhaps even subconsciously, about their experience. Yet those feelings are reinforced at every action, or missed action, they take. As a business, your ability to directly influence this is within your control.

Understanding the principles of persuasion reveals what users can’t tell you: that the unspoken is often the most seductive. Emotions contribute to overall impressions of the process of moving through a site, producing anything from awesome to surprise to frustration, but ultimately they reflect directly on our impressions of the brand the site represents.

In his powerful book “Designing for Emotion”, Aaron Walter takes note of the notion of surprise and how it can play a crucial role in supporting persuasive behaviors:

“…our brains scan for pattern breaks to identify contrasting visual and cognitive elements so we that we can react appropriately. When we’re surprised, we’re experiencing a high contrast situation in which something is not as we expected. A moment of surprise frames our attention, which blurs peripheral elements, and brings the extraordinary into focus. [Surprise] is a handy tool that interface designers can use to direct attention and shape user behavior. We know that people using websites and applications navigate and process content quickly and that their attention is limited. Introducing surprise into an interface can break a behavior pattern and force the brain to reassess the situation. Surprise is always followed by a proportional emotional response.”

When you begin to understand that conversion happens in the brain — where there are many senses and dimensions that go into that understanding — you can begin to provide a framework for a better customer experience.

Once they experience a feeling, the feeling will direct their attention in one of two ways: move on to something else (abandonment) or, using our example, continue to book travel (conversion). There are six key areas of the brain that are activated as we experience something; all of them work together to inform our decision-making:

  • Vision
    What features draw the most attention and what words are users looking for? Using heat maps on your site can provide insight into user behaviors and unforeseen patterns.
  • Wayfinding
    What can a user expect as they move through the interface, what lets them know “you are here”? Contextually placed navigational elements, calls-to-action and related information can be crucial signifiers and reminders for audiences
  • Memory and semantics
    What related items does a user think about when they move through the interface? Can the content you provide be augmented with other supporting content, articles, case studies, white papers, etc., for even greater understanding and value?
  • Emotion
    What responses are triggered? Can you anticipate any reservations the user may have? Can those be changed into a positive experience? Does the site provide an authority and comfort to encourage the user to take an action?
  • Language
    What is the right tone for the product, what level of expertise is implied? What is the right tone for your product or service? What terms do you use and are they universally understood? What level of expertise is implied? Does the site use varying tones of voice to address multiple kinds of audiences?
  • Decision making
    What is happening when its time for the user to make a decision? Does the site demonstrate an understanding of the challenges your audiences are facing? Is their memory taxed from too much information and/or navigation? Is the interface simplified to assist in their decision making?
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Ultimately you’ll want to earn your customer’s trust by demonstrating expertise and honesty at every step. When designing experiences that take into account each of the six key areas of the brain, and activates them positively, businesses can add a valuable dimension to their design and decision-making processes, enabling them to achieve higher engagement, potential growth, and a better brand experience.

Persuasive Architectures is the third in our series on conversion rate optimization. If you’re new to CRO, our first article provides a great overview, and our second equips you with practical tips to get started.

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