UX University 3: Persuasion profiles Theory

UX University 3: Persuasion profiles

UX University is a platform that aims to bridge the gap between the academic and the real world. We are proud to be part of this initiative and even more proud that the last edition was in our office in Amsterdam. Our good friend Hidde wrote a blogpost on the UX University website that we kindly republish here.

Maurits at the third UX University event

Maurits at the third UX University event

In the third edition of UX University, which will be the first in a new series of lectures, we invited Maurits Kaptein. Kaptein is a PhD candidate at Eindhoven University of Technology/Stanford University and researcher in the field of persuasion.

Focus on improving influence strategies, not end products

Kaptein is interested in persuasion: the field of research that is concerned with factors that influence people in what they do. When applied to businesses, the question we are trying to answer remains: ‘why do people buy the things they buy’? Some might answer this question in terms of the end product, and state that the quality of the end product influences whether a consumer buys. From this a strategy like ‘improve the end product’ could follow. Kaptein started from a different perspective: in his research he formulated factors not concerning the end product, but rather ways to influence the decision process of a consumer.

The different strategies to influence the buying process of a person formulated by Kaptein1, are as follows:

  • Social proof (E.g. ‘all these people have used our products for ages’)
  • Liking (E.g. ‘410 people liked our product’)
  • Authority (E.g. ‘this book has won three different literary awards’)
  • Commitment (E.g. ‘you have recently looked at these products’)
  • Scarcity (E.g. ‘this hotel only has only 1 double room left’)
  • Reciprocity (E.g. ‘download the first song of this CD for free’)

Different responses from individuals and groups of individuals

One of the things Kaptein became interested in, is how the effect compared when applying these strategies to individuals or groups. He found that particular individuals did indeed respond differently to the various strategies than the whole group of individuals together. Some strategies that work well on average when applied to a group, can have negative impacts on certain individuals.

Persuasion profiles: targeting specific individuals

Apart from the individual-group differences, there were also differences between individuals. One person might not respond to the social proof strategy at all, but then turn out to be very sensitive to the scarcity strategy, whilst another person could be sensitive to the liking strategy, but not to the reciprocity strategy. In an e-commerce website, one could take these differences into account. It would therefore be sensible to keep profiles of visitors, and apply separate persuasion strategies to each of these ‘persuasion profiles’.

In further research was found that applying multiple strategies rather than just one does not improve the influence on the consumer’s decision. There seemed to be such a thing as a ‘best strategy’: the one that shows the weakest decline over time. Kapitein recommends to always try and select this ‘best strategy’.

Conclusion

Rather than improving end products, we should focus on influencing the decision process that leads a person to buy the end product. The six strategies mentioned earlier can be employed for this purpose, and work best when they are the ‘best strategy’ for a particular person. This best strategy can be found by establishing persuasion profiles. Persuasion profiles can be improved over time, by measuring changes in how your users respond to different strategies and continuously adapting to these changes.

Further research and concerns

There is still more research necessary to answer questions concerning issues such as context (can we transfer a strategy from e-commerce to politics, how much of a persuasion profile should we disclose to the user), privacy (the current research complies to privacy legislation, is that enough?) and autonomy (does persuasion profiling threaten our decision making?).


  1. Caldini, Robert B., Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (2006). 

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