Behavioural Economics Archives |

6 time-tested persuasion techniques from the real world to use on your website

Sometimes it’s easy to forget the art of persuasion wasn’t invented in the 90s with the onset of dial-up internet. All it takes is a quick break away from the screen, and it’s not long before you realise how much inspiration can be drawn from the ‘real world’ – having evolved and stood the test of time over centuries.

Recently I had the pleasure of experiencing an unlikely source of such real-world inspirations in the shape of Istanbul’s magnificent market, the Grand Bazaar. Beyond the chaos and sensory overload that hits you at first sight, the bazaar is one of the toughest places to compete for attention. Home to 4,000 shops spread across 61 covered streets, each street specialises in a particular type of item, so a shop ends up selling almost identical merchandise to their 20+ neighbours. With local tradesmen having to sharpen and evolve their selling techniques since the 15th century, the Grand Bazaar is a treasure chest of time-tested lessons we can learn from.

In this article, we expose some of the most interesting time-proven persuasion techniques used by local tradesmen, explain why they work, and show how you can apply them effectively on your website.

Break the ice with a simple question

The similarity of products being sold side-by-side means a nice product presentation often isn’t enough – tradesmen must find additional ways of bringing in customers. Seconds into entering the market, salesmen approach me with their favourite ice breaker: “Where are you from?” It’s hard to think of an easier question to answer, yet it serves an important purpose.

Simply by answering “Russia”, I’ve committed myself into a conversation where the shop owner now has the chance to find common ground (showing off his language skills and inevitably admitting his respect for Putin). His chances of luring in an experienced shopper like myself are now considerably higher.

How you could use this:

Get users to make that initial small commitment. A small question or action that doesn’t require any thinking can get that initial engagement from your users without putting them off longer steps. It can also be a great opportunity for users to self-select and allow you to tailor content around their answer.

Not dissimilar to the bazaar classic "Where are you from?", money transfer website Azimo starts with a simple ice breaker question on their homepage.
Not dissimilar to the bazaar classic “Where are you from?”, money transfer website Azimo starts with a simple ice breaker question on their homepage.
Once a destination country is selected, they are able to offer more persuasive, localised content.
Once a destination country is selected, they are able to offer more persuasive, localised content.

Similarly, instead of presenting your visitors with an off-putting long form, starting with a simple first question can get that important first engagement that will make users less likely to run off as they face the more frictional questions.

Like bazaar salesmen, freemium online games face much competition from similar products so look to smoothen their onboarding as much as possible. Rather than slapping a registration form on the front page, this "Age of Empires" knock-off asks one simple piece of information at a time, starting with username. 3 steps later, having by now built a peasant house, they are asked for their email, at which stage they are more committed to the game.
Like bazaar salesmen, freemium online games face much competition from similar products so look to smoothen their onboarding as much as possible. Rather than slapping a registration form on the front page, this “Age of Empires” knock-off asks one simple piece of information at a time, starting with username. 3 steps later, having by now built a peasant house, they are asked for their email, at which stage they are more committed to the game.

Offer something first

As I am eventually lured into a carpet store, I am politely offered a glass of Turkish tea. Tea is a huge deal in Turkish culture and is an ever-present part in the art of selling by bazaar salesmen.

The act of accepting a glass of tea triggers an important psychological principle in itself, creating a sense of reciprocity in the buyer. As such, when we were given a little something for free, we became indebted to the other party and are naturally more obliged to offer something back in exchange. In this context, that could mean making a concession in negotiation, feeling more obliged to buy or at the very least giving your time for the shop owner to sell their story. In addition, the time spent drinking tea and listening to the seller creates a second level reciprocity – time indebtedness.

How you could apply this online:

Offer something meaningful to your visitors – without them needing to give something in return (be it money or information). Depending on your business this can be a free piece of content that is of value to them (think ebooks or webinars), or a sample of your product.

Besides this, reciprocity can have more creative methods. SurveyGizmo (below) pro-actively offers its users a free trial extension without asking for anything in return. They know that this small act of kindness will make you much more likely to then start paying after the trial extension.

Sell the story

As I sip the delectable tea, the seller has the perfect stage to sell their story to a now-receptive audience. I am told about the history of Turkish rugs, the people behind the work, the unique processes and great that goes into making them and the resulting quality that will make rugs last for generations (ever increasing in value over time).

In a market so crowded with identical items and with prices so fluid, the importance of differentiating your product is absolutely crucial both to getting the sale and one at a higher price. Many tourists (including myself) never came to the Bazaar with the intent of buying a rug, and experience will tell the seller that a strong story highlighting authenticity, antiquity and quality will often prove enough to create the necessary desire.

How you could apply this online:

Boost your perceived value by really selling the story. You may not be fighting for attention in a bazaar, but it is more than likely that there are plenty of similar products or services available as alternatives. Get the insights from your customers about why they chose your product and emphasise this at key consideration stages to make it crystal clear why exactly you stand out from your competitors.

Swoon Editions does well in selling the hand-crafted story throughout their product pages, boosting perceived value of their furniture.
Swoon Editions does well in selling the hand-crafted story throughout their product pages, boosting perceived value of their furniture.

Anchor the price

Once the storytelling is over, the owner’s assistants begin to bring out the rugs. The first rugs I am shown are as intricate and beautiful as they come, however with the price tag to match. I’m quoted a price far higher than I would ever spend on a rug – and as I tell him this I am confident the shop owner already knows this. He is applying the price anchoring technique: the next set of rugs brought out for me are still pricey, but sit in a considerably more realistic price range – one that subconsciously I’m now more likely to be content with.

The deliberate act of showing me the highest price items first sets a psychological benchmark against which I am comparing subsequent prices. Now that I’ve been shown the expensive rugs, the next ones come across as relatively good value.

How you could apply this online:

The price anchoring technique is particularly powerful in an environment like a bazaar where the less experienced customer typically doesn’t have a great knowledge of prices, however anchoring can be readily applied online.

One of the most natural places anchoring can have a dramatic impact is in setting pricing strategies. If you present the lower priced option first, they will be anchored towards the lower end, and so the reverse applies when you show the expensive plan first. Another classic is adding an extra-premium option to a 2-option plan that typically leads more people to select the seemingly better value now-middle option.

Adding an extra, significantly more expensive plan option helps encourage users to go for the now relatively better value "Plus" plan, as demonstrated by CrazyEgg's pricing plan above. They went a step further by reversing the usual plan order to set the anchor at the most expensive plan before they view the rest.
Adding an extra, significantly more expensive plan option helps encourage users to go for the now relatively better value “Plus” plan, as demonstrated by CrazyEgg’s pricing plan above. They went a step further by reversing the usual plan order to set the anchor at the most expensive plan before they view the rest.

Give positive reinforcement

I take time to look through the mid-range rugs laid out in front of me, with the salesman briefly fading into the background. As I get my hands on a particular rug, he steps back in saying “Great taste! This rug is 100% wool and is of great finish.” He explains how you can see the quality of the finishing is particularly intricate and shows how the rug changes colour depending on viewing angle. Call me gullible, but his words encouraged me and made me more open to negotiation.

How you could apply this to online:

Applied at the right moment, positive reinforcement can prove an efficient nudge to encourage a user to follow through to the next desired action and convert.

One of the most natural settings in which you could apply it, is at the point items are being added to basket. This could manifest itself as the virtual version of the Turkish salesman (praising the user’s selection) or through the use of positive messaging when a particular goal is achieved, such as reaching a free delivery threshold, completing an offer or unlocking a discount. Equally, reassuring users of the value of the product they have selected (price/most savings , most popular) can be a powerful motivator at the crucial final stages of the funnel.

White goods provider AO gives an encouraging virtual pat on the back once you've added certain items to the basket.
White goods provider AO gives an encouraging virtual pat on the back once you’ve added certain items to the basket.

On forms, a virtual pat on the back on completion of a particular step can “humanise” the experience and go a long way in encouraging the user to continue the momentum through to the end.

Address common objections

As we narrow down to a particular rug and we begin to discuss the price, the shop owner feels the sale edge closer and starts explaining about the free wrapping, hassle-free & reliable shipping, how the rug is easy to maintain and how it’s going to last for a lifetime.

Through experience, rug sellers naturally pick up on the common objections tourists thrust at them (often in a final attempt to pull out from buying a rug they never intended to buy) and use this knowledge to proactively address each of these concerns. This may seem obvious, but for some reason it often fails to translate itself into the online world. And unlike the physical world, there is often no-one to answer those concerns on demand.

How you could apply this online:

Find out the common objections your visitors are raising that are stopping them from converting, and make sure these are made perfectly clear and visible at the stages they have those concerns. This should be a fundamental principle of any conversion optimisation programme, yet is still often neglected.

Do this simply by asking your visitors and customers directly – something that’s so easy nowadays with all the tools out there, yet for some reason still overlooked by many. Use on-site surveys to ask those that are abandoning the leakiest parts of your funnel why, or you could ask those that did convert if there was something that made them hesitate. If you have customer support – speak to them or listen in to their conversations. Use the insights you get to address their concerns exactly in the places you know they crop up.

On their subscription form, Netflix ensure the most burning concern is addressed with a simple heading.
On their subscription form, Netflix ensure the most burning concern is addressed with a simple heading.
Graze uses well-timed callouts to encourage users facing a choice commitment dilemma.
Graze uses well-timed callouts to encourage users facing a choice commitment dilemma.

It’s important to remind ourselves that while the medium may be different, the human nature is still very much the same at its core. Whether strolling through a bazaar or browsing the depths of Google, the same principles of persuasion influence our decision to convert – even if the execution will vary.

I may have returned from Istanbul with a rug I neither really needed nor intended to buy, but besides serving as a lush-but-out-of-place living room centrepiece it also serves as a reminder that we should be inspired by and learning from those who have been relying on and perfecting the art of persuasion for centuries.

Key takeaways

So, next time you are out shopping in the ‘real world’, take note of your positive experiences and observations and think about how you can transform these onto your website to help boost your own conversions.

  • Break the ice with a simple question
  • Offer something first
  • Sell the story
  • Anchor the price
  • Give positive reinforcement
  • Address common objections

5 Books every e-commerce manager should read (to increase conversions)

Keeping a healthy online sales engine is no walk in the park. From web usability and UX (yes, they’re different things) to copywriting and consumer psychology, there are many factors at play when it comes to your customers behaviour and their chances of converting (i.e. purchasing) on a given visit. With average e-commerce conversion rates at only 2%, an e-commerce manager needs every weapon at their disposal to ensure their visitor-to-transaction ratio is at optimal performance. Knowing the impact of each conversion lever – and how to pull accordingly – is an art which, in the long-run, is well worth the initial investment.

Whether you’re starting to think about testing, already running your own experiments or just looking to brush up on a few essential skills, this list has everything you need to get focused, and start thinking critically about your website conversion strategy and performance.


Don’t make me think – Steve Krug


A staple for the CRO community, Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think is refreshingly real and to the point, bringing some much needed simplicity to the often over-complicated world of web design. Krug eats his own dog food by keeping right to the point – the book could easily be read over half a week’s commute – with relevant (and occasionally hilarious) examples which paradoxically, will make you think a lot about your website design and user experience. The beautifully obvious takeaways make it both a satisfying and highly actionable read, guaranteed to trigger your first few site changes and make you think about your longer term optimisation strategy.


The Design of Everyday Things – Donald A. Norman


The Design of Everyday Things is one of those books which will enrich your thinking far beyond your professional remit. Besides the vast reassurance that you’re not alone in your daily struggle against doors, microwaves and all the minutiae of present-day life, the takeaways for e-commerce managers, UX designers (or anyone concerned with web performance for that matter) is nothing short of profound. By delving into the mechanics of human-environment interactions using concepts like perceptual psychology and embodied-cognition, the reader’s discovery is something to have legitimately been described as ‘life changing’. Everything will look different after reading this book, not least of all your website, which is sure to undergo some gestaltian re-analysis after you’re done.


User Experience

Hooked – Nir Eyal


Not your run-of-the-mill UX recommendation, true, but Hooked makes the list here for it’s priceless contributions to the importance of UX in customer habit formation and retention. 30% of an e-commerce website’s customer base purchase only once per year – Hooked shows you how to create a sense of dependency in key moments and then keep users engaged enough to guarantee their return through association, just as soon as their needs arise again. As Nir Eyal puts it – “the result of engagement is monetisation”. The book centers around a clever model known as ‘the hook canvas’, and is handily split into succinct chapters for each phase.


Psychology/Behavioural Economics

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion


The seminal guide to persuasion, Influence single-handedly opened the literary floodgates of consumer psychology and behavioural economics to the masses. Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion – reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity – have become a major basis for every subsequent publication in the field, so if you’re only really going to give the time of day to one, let this be it. When you start running experiments based on cognitive-behavioural levers, you’ll get the testing bug, not just because you’re playing directly on your consumers motivations, but because it creates so much potential for agile optimisation and reactive campaign formation. Loaded with enchanting stories that make for a surprisingly fluid read, it’s guaranteed to stay with you, especially as you might read it two or three times.


The psychology of price – Leigh Caldwell


Applying well documented behavioural insights, the psychology of price gives a solid structure to pricing effects you didn’t realise you already knew (most likely from experience), all set to the backdrop of the fictitious Chocolate Teapot Company. This works perfectly by helping you to absorb all the theory whilst providing tangible examples, with practical application guidance and case studies throughout. Add that to the list of 36 solid pricing techniques providing abundant price test ideas and the book will likely pay for itself several hundred times over. Putting this in your bookcase is definitely a no-brainer.

While there are definitely many worthwhile books out there for this diverse (and demanding) profession, these would have to be our five ‘desert-island’ e-commerce necessities. Are there any you think we’ve missed? What did you make of our list? Let us know in the comments below!

How we increased revenue by 11% with one small change

Split testing has matured and more and more websites are testing changes. The “test everything” approach has become widespread and this has been a huge benefit for the industry. Companies now know the true impact of changes and can avoid costly mistakes. The beauty of testing is that the gains are permanent, and the losses are temporary.

Such widespread adoption of testing has brought the challenge that many tests have small, or no impact on conversion rates. Ecommerce managers are pushing for higher conversion rates with the request:

“We need to test bigger, more radical things”

Hoping that these bigger tests bring the big wins that they want.

Unfortunately, big changes don’t always bring big wins, and this approach can result in bigger more complex tests, which take more time to create and are more frustrating when they fail.

How a small change can beat a big change

To see how a well thought out, small change can deliver a huge increase in conversion rates, where a big change had delivered none, we can look at a simple example.

This site offers online driver training courses, allowing users to have minor traffic tickets dismissed. Part of the process gives users the option to obtain a copy of their “Driver Record”. The page offering this service to customers, was extremely outdated:

Wireframe to demonstrate the original page layout for the driver record upsell

Conversion and usability experts will panic at this form with its outdated design, lack of inline validation and no value proposition to convince the user to buy.

The first attempt to improve this form was a complete redesign:

Wireframe to show the initial test designed to increase driver record upsells

Although aesthetically more pleasing, featuring a strong value proposition and using fear as a motivator, the impact of this change was far from that expected. Despite rebuilding the entire page, there was almost no impact from the test. The split test showed no statistically significant increase or decrease.

This test had taken many hours of design and development work, with no impact on conversion, so what had gone wrong?

To discover the underlying problem, the team from placed a small Qualaroo survey on the site. This popped up on the page, asking users “What’s stopping you from getting your driver record today?”

Qualaroo (1)


Small on page surveys like this are always extremely valuable in delivering great insights for users, and this was no exception. Despite many complaints about the price (out of scope for this engagement), users repeatedly said that they were having trouble knowing their “Audit Number”.

The audit number is a mandatory field on the form, and the user could find it on their Drivers License. Despite there being an image on the page already showing where to find this, clearly users weren’t seeing it.

The hypothesis for the next version of this test was simple.

“By presenting guidance about where to find the audit number in a standard, user friendly way at the time that this is a problem for the user, fewer users will find this to be an issue when completing the form.”

The test made an extremely small change to the page, adding a small question mark icon next to the audit number field on the form:

Wireframe to show the small addition of a tooltip to the test design

This standard usability method would be clear for users who were hesitating at this step. The lightbox which opened when the icon was clicked, simply reiterated the same image that was on the page.


Despite this being a tiny change, the impact on users was enormous. The test delivered an 11% increase in conversions against the version without the icon. By presenting the right information, at the right time, we delivered a massive increase in conversions without making a big change to the page.

An approach to big wins

So was this a fluke? Were we lucky? Not at all. This test demonstrated the application of a simple but effective approach to testing which can give great results almost every time. There’s often no need to make big or complex changes to the page itself. You can still make radical, meaningful changes with little design or development work.

When looking to improve the conversion rate for a site or page, by following three simple steps you can create an effective and powerful test:

  1. Identify the barrier to conversion.
    A barrier is a reason why a user on the page may not convert. It could be usability-related, such as broken form validation or a confusing button. It could be a concern about your particular product or service, such as delivery methods or refunds. Equally, it could be a general concern for the user, such as not being sure whether your service or product is the right solution to their problem. By using qualitative and quantitative research methods, you can discover the main barriers for user.
  2. Find or create a solution.
    Once you have identified a barrier, you can then work to create a solution. This could be a simple change to the layout of the site; a change to your business practices or policies; supporting evidence or information or compelling persuasive content such as social proof or urgency messaging. The key is to find a solution which directly targets the barrier the user is facing.
  3. Deliver it at the right time.
    The key to a successful test is to deliver your solution to the user when it’s most relevant to them. For example price promises and guarantees should be shown when pricing is displayed; delivery messaging on product pages and at the delivery step in the basket; social proof and trust messaging could be displayed early in the process; and urgency messaging when the user may hesitate. The effectiveness of a message requires it to be displayed on the right page and in the right area for the user to see it and respond to it at the right time.

By combining these three simple steps, you can develop tests which are more effective and have more chance of delivering a big result.

Impact and Ease

Returning to the myth that big results need big tests, you should make sure that you consider the impact of a test and its size as almost completely different things. When you have a test proposal, you should think carefully about how much impact you believe it will have, and look independently at how difficult it will be to build.

At, we assess all tests for Impact and Ease and plot them on a graph:

Dave Graphs

Clearly the tests in the top right corner are the ones you should be aiming to create first. These are the tests that will do the most for your bottom line, in the shortest amount of time.

More impact, more ease

So how do you make sure that you can deliver smaller tests with bigger impact?

Firstly, maximise the impact of your test. You can do this by targeting the biggest barriers for users. By taking a data driven approach to identifying these, you are already giving your test a much higher chance of success. With a strong data-backed hypothesis you already know that you are definitely overcoming a problem for your users.

You can increase the impact by choosing the biggest barriers. If a barrier affects 30% of your users, that will have far more impact than one only mentioned by 5% of your users. Impact is mostly driven by the size of the issue as overcoming it will help the most users.

To get the biggest impact from smaller tests, you need to look at how you can make tests easier to create. By choosing solutions which are simple, you can much more quickly iterate and get winners. Simple but effective ways of developing simple tests can include:

  • Headline testing – headlines are a great way to have a huge impact on a user’s behaviour with very little effort. They are the first part of the page a user will read and allow you to set their mindset for the rest of the session
  • Tooltips and callouts – In forms these can be hugely effective. They are small changes but capture the user’s attention when they are thinking about a specific field. By matching security messaging to credit card fields, privacy messaging to email and phone number fields and giving guidance to users when they have to make difficult selections, it is easy to have an impact on their behaviour with a very small change.
  • Benefit bars can be a very effective way of delivering a strong message without a major change to a site. With a huge potential impact (being delivered on every page), but a small impact on page design and layout (usually slotting in below the navigation), benefit bars they can be very effective in getting your core messaging across to a user.
  • Copy testing – by changing the copy at critical parts of the site you can impact the user’s feelings, thoughts and concerns without any complex design or development work

A simple approach for big wins with small tests

By following the simple three step process, you can greatly increase the impact and rate of your tests, without having to resort to big, radical, expensive changes:

  1. Identify the barrier to conversion.
  2. Find or create a solution.
  3. Deliver it at the right time.

The impact of your testing programme is driven more by the size of the issues you are trying to overcome and the quality of your hypotheses than by the complexity and radical approaches in your testing. Focusing time on discovering those barriers, will pay off many times more than spending the time in design and development.

Mine your spam email – it’s full of tips on how to be more persuasive.

Spam email copywriters have to work hard. They are the illegal street traders of the email world, flogging fake meds and pushing casino offers down the alley that is your spam folder.

You can’t succeed in the cut-throat world of spam without using a few clever tricks and persuasion techniques, and the spam folder can be a veritable gold mine of inspiration and ideas for how to be more persuasive.

To demonstrate, here is a screenshot of my spam folder. This covers about a week.


Almost every email is using one or more persuasion techniques to persuade me to click. Here are my favourites:

Making the sender a person

Just under half of these emails claim to be sent from a person rather than a company. The sender column in each case shows the full name of a person. This is an effective persuasive technique for a number of reasons.

  • A person’s full name adds legitimacy, no matter what the content of the email.
  • A person’s name, rather than the company name, suggests this is a specific member of staff getting in touch with me directly.
  • Names have associated familiarity. For example, the second email is from Amber. Perhaps I met someone called Amber recently. This could be her getting in touch with me again. It’s worth a quick click just to be sure.
  • All the names have something in common – they’re womens’ names. I’d be surprised if targeting a man with emails from what appear to be women was an accident.

In a sea of emails where the senders are companies, a person’s name immediately distinguishes that email as more worthy of my attention. In the spam email business, attention equals clicks.

Outside of spam emails, giving your business a human face (and name) can be equally as effective. On-site customer service is an area where this can work well. Live-chat popups will frequently now show the name, and even sometimes a friendly picture, of the agent that you’ll be talking to. If you’re a lead generation business, a worthwhile test could be to make your contact form more personal, with names and photos of your service team. At we carry out a lot of email surveys and we’ll always ask for a customer service agent’s name to use as the sender of our emails. It looks less like an automated email, and this generates a higher response rate.

Addressing your customers by name

At some point I have given my first name to the people over at Gala Bingo and It is good to see that it’s being put to good use. They have both used my name as the first word in their subject lines.



We are all primed to notice mentions of our own name, whether spoken or written. Most of us will at some point have found ourselves suddenly listening to someone’s conversation because we hear them mention our name. It doesn’t even have to be our name, often just a word that sounds similar can have the same effect.

When scanning this long list of emails, my first name is bound to stand out and grab my attention. Spammers know this is an effective strategy. They are so keen to use it that they will even take a gamble on the part before the @ in your email address being your name and address you by that. My full email address would still stand out – the digital equivalent of my name – and chances are that I will read the subject line. Quite an achievement when most of these emails will normally be deleted before they are even seen.

A customer’s name is a powerful persuasive weapon when used effectively. The customer experience immediately feels more personalised when names are used. If you can personalise the content at the same time then you’re in a very strong position.

It’s often stated as best practice when collecting customer information to remove as many fields as possible. Many sign-up forms have moved to being just an email address and password, with no name field. Whilst this may get you a few extra initial sign-ups at first, your effectiveness at converting those sign-ups to sales may be impacted by not knowing that customer’s name. The safest bet is always to split-test it and measure the conversion rate to sale of the name vs no-name cohorts.

Using a question to generate an answer

The third email down in my list (apparently from Eva Webster) is asking me a direct question.


The question stands out. This particular question is phrased like a challenge, and the promise of a challenge might actually be sufficient to get my attention. People often check their emails when bored, so it doesn’t take much to get their initial interest. Plus it’s human nature when challenged in some way to want to prove that you are up to the task.

Using questions in your copy is an effective technique in general because, when someone asks a question, you can’t help but instantly think of your answer. In the case of spam email this might just be enough to stop you in your tracks as you scan down your inbox. Using a question as a headline can be an effective way to capture your reader’s attention and establish their mindset as ready to engage with the rest of your content.

Questions work particularly well in certain industries. Take cosmetics for example. There’s a mould for cosmetic industry TV adverts where they start with a model asking you a direct question such as “Do you want longer, fuller lashes?”. Starting with a question is so effective in this industry as it plays on the insecurities of the audience. Even if you didn’t want longer fuller lashes, chances are you’re now aware that maybe you should do. Then luckily for you the rest of the adverts tells you exactly how you can get those longer, fuller lashes that you didn’t know you needed. It’s a very effective way to capture the customer’s attention and get them thinking about your product.

Using fear of missing out to motivate

From the sheer volume of spam they are sending my way it does seem like are determined to try every trick in the book in the hope that one might work on me. Here is an example of them using the scarcity principle to try and provoke a response.


This is nicely phrased to give the impression that I am wasting a great opportunity. The “Hurry!” at the end is both commanding me to take action and emphasising that there is a limited timeframe involved. This email is much more likely to get my attention than one where there is no sense of urgency.

This fear of missing out is not a new concept, and examples of its use are everywhere. Low stock indicators on ecommerce sites, next-day delivery countdown timers and simple limited time offers are fairly commonplace. Some fashion retailers will even have a “last chance to see” section of the site that only contains items that you might miss out on if you don’t buy them now.

Nearly all of the emails in this list use one technique or another to try and persuade me  to click. Some of the best use multiple techniques combined.  Here are the four key techniques we’ve seen in just this small selection of emails.

  • Making the sender a person
  • Addressing your customers by name
  • Using a question to provoke an answer
  • Using fear of missing out to motivate

Why not take a look through your junk mail folder and see how many different persuasion techniques you can spot being used?

Where else can we see persuasion techniques in action?

We’ve used my spam folder here as an example, but persuasion techniques like these are in use everywhere you look. Next time you find yourself compelled to open a particular email,  influenced by a certain advert, or buying something online, ask yourself these quick questions and see what persuasion techniques you were influenced by.

  • What was the first thing about this that caught my attention?
  • What did I see next that made me engage further?
  • What about this eventually made me take action?

When you find persuasion techniques working on you, look for ways you can use them in your own marketing. After all, if they’ve worked on you they will probably work on other people too.

10 Quick wins to increase your web form conversion rate: part 2

This is the second post in a two-part series: 10 quick wins to increase your web form conversion rates. You can find part 1 here

6. Inline question mouse highlighting offers a great way of using the user’s mouse movement to highlight the question they are on.

Comparethemarket use a hover feature to highlight what question the user is on.

This helps to keep the user focused on what’s important – completing the quote. However, if the user does happen to become distracted, upon their return, the field will continue to stand out. This will again reduce the effort placed on the user.
As you’ve got this far I’ll give you another free tip (turning your forms up to 11)! When a user completes a field, why not offer them visual confirmation of their achievement? At the start of 2014 we user tested a number of Axure interactive wireframes. We found that placing a tick next to a completed field, not only offers the user visual confirmation and reassurance, it also helps to offer a visual progress bar throughout a question set.

7. Placeholder text in each field

Rather than leaving fields blank, pre-populating them with common answers can really help.

Hopefully, you have a rough idea of your primary persona. Do you know what users normally select in your form? Could you pre-populate less business-critical questions with some answers? This will reduce interactions, increasing the completion rate for those types of users.
On questions where you can’t pre-populate the answer, be sure to add placeholder text. By leaving the field blank, you’re missing an opportunity to help your users. Being able to see an example of the answer will help to reduce the effort placed on the user. We also found that it helps to reduce the chance that users inadvertently skip a question.

8. Tooltips accessibility

During usability testing, we noticed that a particular field was causing users to question “why” the company actually needed to know this information (“what is your marital status”). The reason why the company wanted to know this was explained in the tooltip. However, the tooltip in question could only be accessed once the user clicked into the field.

Clicking into the field reveals the tooltip, but it also covers part of the header question – 02/04/2015.
Clicking into the field reveals the tooltip, but it also covers part of the header question – 02/04/2015.

Forms and tooltips go hand in hand. If you’re asking users to spend time filling out their information, make sure information within tooltips can be accessed before the user interacts with the field. The most standard way of displaying a tooltip icon is a small question mark.
Bonus tip: If you do implement tooltips, be sure to check them on phones and tablets, they’ll need to be tappable with a minimum of 36px to ensure they’re easily interacted with.

9. Progressive disclosure

Users are put off at first sight of a long and complicated question set. It’s no coincidence then why, and ask users registration numbers before starting a quote. By presenting a basic question to start a quote, users are not immediately put off, whilst the initial investment (no matter how small) increases the likelihood that they’ll complete the rest of the form. This is because of the sunk cost bias – once a user has already committed to and spent time on a part of your form, they are motivated to see the task through to completion to avoid the initial effort going to waste.

Whilst gaining commitment from the user can help to reduce bounce rates, there are other techniques to hide a large question set.
A simple option would be to hide certain future questions until the user has filled in another. Google Compare does this dynamically with the protected no claims discount field. There are quite a few different ways of applying the technique to reduce the initial impact on users when they first see the form.

cover details

Google Compare hides the protected no claims discount question until the user tells them that they have no claims discount.
Google Compare hides the protected no claims discount question until the user tells them that they have no claims discount.

One last way of reducing the impact on users would be to split the questions over multiple pages – a progress indicator is something worth considering here too, to let users know where they are in the process. However, as with any changes you make, be sure to test it thoroughly as also having a ton of pages can just as easily put users off. The trick is to tweak and test iteratively until you find the perfect balance.

10. Ambiguous Answers

Finally, let’s look at the pre-set answers to your questions. When analysing them, you’ll need to ask yourself “what happens if the user doesn’t fit into that option you’ve provided?”

Users will likely do 1 of 4 things:

  • If you have a telephone number/email/live chat, (hopefully) they will contact you to find out what to do.
  • They may try to guess the answer (your analysts will hate that)!
  • They may search online to find out the answer, and if you are not hot on search marketing search terms, then you may lose your business here.
  • They give up, and you’ve lost a potential customer as well as damaging your brand.

The answer to this is to offer an “other” or “not sure” option. This won’t please analysts who want clean data, but it’s better than losing the sale. Once implemented, it will significantly reduce the chance of users dropping out over confusing or complicated questions.
If you’re interested in capturing more information (and you don’t mind analysing it), it’s worth displaying a free text field to capture what those “other” responses are. This way you can work them back into the question set and clean up your data.

Final thoughts

I’m conscious that we’ve gone through a lot of different points in this series. We’ve covered a lot of common mistakes in form usability that can affect the user’s journey and ultimately your conversion rates, many of which can be very quick and easy to change. However, whilst we’ve seen that these common mistakes can reduce your conversion rates, please do not make the number one mistake of making changes without testing them first. What works on one site may not work on another.

The primary reason behind this article is to help you to find ways of improving your form usability. It pains me to visit a website and come across, time and time again, some easy to rectify mistakes. The user experience of your site matters, do not underestimate the value of a good experience.

10 Quick wins to increase your web form conversion rate: part 1

This post is the first of a two part series discussing the quick wins – and pitfalls – that could make a dramatic difference to your form completion rates and your customers’ experience.

Form usability can be a tricky area of web design. There are many examples of websites investing vast amounts of time and money – almost in an F1 fashion – just to make minor tweaks that fine-tune their forms for the best customer experience. On the other hand, there are still plenty of websites that could do with going back to basics and doing some good, old fashioned research. Insight methods such as usability testing, heat mapping, surveys and form analytics will highlight pain points in web forms. Getting started or knowing where to start can be a difficult task. In the next section, we’ll go through some basic but important areas of usability that can dramatically increase conversion rates. As ever, with any changes, be sure to test them!

1. The number of questions – do you absolutely need them?

Have you ever found yourself filling in an online form, only to be faced with a never-ending set of questions?  As a user, I’m always hoping that the end result will justify the hard work. As an optimizer, I’m always looking to gather the least information required to move the user through the form. Even a small reduction in questions can drive a dramatic increase in completion rates. Before you think about removing any questions you’ll need to go through a few simple, but important tasks:

  • Step 1: Go through your question set and note each one down. I find using Google sheets or Excel the easiest place to start.
  • Step 2: You’ll need to note what type of form is used to capture the answer e.g. dropdown / free text / radio button.
  • Step 3: Add the possible answers for each question (or N/A if the question is open-ended).
  • Step 4: Mark each question to show if it is mandatory.
An example of how you could layout your question set analysis. In a previous life I worked in the Insurance industry – the first time I carried out this task, I noted 67 questions (poor customers)!

Next up, time to review the questions! At this point if you’re not in complete control of the question set, you may need to discuss the impact of removing them with the relevant members of staff.

Start by challenging each question with the following:

  • Is this question essential or just “nice to have”?
  • Is this question still relevant, or is it legacy?
  • For any question that you’ve not marked as “mandatory” – do you still need it?
  • Could you use an API to look up that information rather than asking it?

Like the mobile first approach, every question on your site should serve an essential purpose. If it’s not useful, remove it!

Comparison sites often offer great examples for how to shorten a question set. They use APIs such as the DVLA vehicle lookup to find information such as make/model/seats/transmission etc. They have even experimented with an API which reports back an average vehicle price, to reduce the deliberation which causes customer friction.

Screenshots showing how MSM use a vehicle lookup API to reduce the amount of questions required.

2. User interactions

Removing questions will reduce unnecessary user interactions. Why is the number of user interactions important? The more times you ask your users to interact with or think about something, the more cognitive and motor effort is required. As Steve Krug quite eloquently puts it… “Don’t make me think”!

In the same excel sheet it is worth noting how many interactions it takes to answer your question set. For example, a simple drop down box might need up to 3 interactions:

  • Initial click on the drop down
  • A scroll of the mouse wheel
  • Click to choose an option

Whilst this sounds like a tedious task, it’s useful to know how many interactions are needed to complete your registration form, not just the number of questions you’ve asked.

Drop downs vs radio buttons

Are you using dropdown menus where you could be using radio buttons?

Replacing dropdowns which only have a few options (as a general rule, anything under 6 answers) with radio buttons provides a quick win. Not only do radio buttons offer fewer interactions, but they allow users see the answer before they interact with the initial section, speeding up the question and answer process. This is also a big benefit on mobile, where users find dropdowns much harder to interact with. Yes, this will create longer pages, but thanks to social media and mobile adoption, users have learnt how to scroll proficiently.

Example showing how a drop down could be turned into a radio button to reduce user interactions.


Is there a way you can help the user move through the journey? By automatically scrolling the browser/app window to the next section, fewer interactions from the user are needed. This is something Virgin America do to help users navigate smoothly through the process:

Virgin America’s use of an auto-scrolling responsive site makes using a mobile significantly easier.
Virgin America’s use of an auto-scrolling responsive site makes using a mobile significantly easier.

Get creative, don’t make users think.


During usability testing, we tasked our users to get car insurance quotes from comparison sites and compared their experiences with with competitors. Whilst comparethemarket asks a similar number of questions to competitors, users not only completed forms faster, but they found it easier to use simply because it takes fewer interactions to get a quote. uses big button style radio buttons to remove the need of drop down boxes.

3. Calendars

There’s a time and a place for calendars i.e. when it’s important for the user to know what day in the week a particular date falls on, such as when booking a holiday. Anywhere else and it’s a needless calendar, and my personal pet hate!

Here are a number of common issues:

  • Generally stock calendars offer a very poor affordance
  • It’s not clear whether to choose the day or year first
  • It’s not clear that you need to choose a year. I’ve watched helplessly as users select a day but then ignore the year section. Thinking they’ve done what’s required they click onto the main page to hide the calendar, to find out that the field is not completed. This just completely confuses users, as they don’t understand what went wrong. At this point, they’re stuck in an endless loop trying to figure out how to complete your form.
  • After choosing a date, if you want to change the year (let’s say your user made a mistake), your user will need to not only change the year, but also then reselect the day again.
Two common poor examples of calendars used by websites to capture a user’s Date of Birth.

At this stage, there are two options:

  1. Either completely remove the calendar and keep a text field/drop down box (this makes more sense for a DOB field, for example).
  2. Spend time ensuring the calendar is both clear and user-friendly. I would highly recommend carrying out user testing to make this as friction-free as possible.

4. Readability

This is a nice simple one! How readable are the questions and answers on your site?

Are you using a big enough point size and line spacing for your target audience? What is your primary persona’s age – has this been taken into consideration? A great example is Saga (over 50s). Their customers may require a larger font size to that of users who visit! The recommended size will vary depending on your brands chosen font. Using Arial as a baseline, the question titles should be 16px with the question labels falling to 14px.

Standard font size for form question titles and their labels. Note how the titles are slightly bigger than the labels. This provides an easy way of identifying the hierarchy.

When users fill out forms their eyes will flicker between the question and the answer. This will be more pronounced on sites where it’s imperative that the user enters the correct information – such as a mortgage or job application. The further the question is from the answer, the more distance the eye needs to cover, which translates into more effort for the user. Conversely, the closer the question and answer, the less effort.

Placing the question title above the answer is the best way of reducing the distance the eye needs to travel, thus reducing effort.

A number of different examples of ways websites layout their forms. The question title above the question label has proven in countless eye tracking tests to reduce the time it takes for the eye to move between title and label.

5. Inline error handling

I’m sure that we’ve all had this common experience. You encounter a long question set (with dread I might add); complete it, only to find that on the form submission you’ve made a number of errors… Gah, time to scroll through and find what you’ve done wrong!

Why wait for the form submission to notify users of an error? Rather than wait for the user to reach the end of the form, highlight the error as soon as possible. This will keep the user focused on what they were doing and keep de-motivation to a minimum.

Lastly, make sure the error-handling wording is helpful, rather than ambiguous. “Please select a correct value” or “Please tell us your name”  is more helpful than “answer is invalid” or “field cannot be empty”, because it addresses the user, not the database validation.

For part 2, click here.

Design for decision making: why it matters

Exhibiting information in a clear, yet compelling way is one of the more challenging nuances of UX design. As users become increasingly reliant on technology to provide answers in a given situation, designers come under more pressure to play the role of the choice architect. There’s a conflict between the task of the product or service provider (assuming impartiality) who wants to display all the relevant information as clearly as possible; and the user who wants to filter out the extraneous possibilities and get right down to a smart selection. Given that the average person makes over 200 decisions a day just about food in our choice-riddled society, it’s no wonder users want the burden eased when it comes to choosing the right product for them – (on that note, skip straight to end for the 5 key takeaways).

Map A – London Underground
Map B – Geographic tube map of the London Underground (source: Mark Noad)

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Often, the intention to provide users with all options results in a choice-paralysis which can both hinder customers in their journey, and harm your conversion rate – potentially sending users back a step and opening them back up to your competition. Alternatively, misrepresenting, or failing to emphasise important factors going into the decision-making process may cause users to overlook these factors, and adversely impact the eventual outcome the user ends up with. Let’s first look at this in the context of the transport industry, where the user literally just wants to get from A to B.

Metro maps and schematics have been the go-to solution for route planning since transport lines began to converge – the earliest map for London transport was published in 1908. They are integral to the smooth-running of big cities – particularly when you consider the growing population and the suburban sprawl of city workers. The trouble is, public transport maps do not scale with geographic reality. A recent study found that this distortion affects travelers perceptions of relative location, route selection and associations of different routes – e.g. train journeys that look ‘long’ are often actually quicker on foot – seemingly small oversights that can actually have quite significant consequences on efficiency among other success factors, when applied at such a large scale. The study uses an example of a passenger travelling from Paddington to Bond Street with a choice between two seemingly equidistant routes according to map A – either travel to Baker Street and change to the Jubilee line (Path 1), or change at Notting Hill Gate for the Central line (Path 2). Path 2 is about 15% slower by time on-train, and actually starts in the opposite direction to the destination on a geographical map, however the experiment found that 30% of passengers chose path 2, probably because on the schematic tube map, path 2 is about 10% shorter than path 1 and Notting Hill Gate is shown to the south (not west) of Paddington. Map B shows the map scaled to London’s geography.

The London tube map suggests that Marylebone and Baker Street are significantly farther apart than in reality

Another example is that Baker Street is shown slightly south of Marylebone and significantly further away, when seasoned Londoners know the two are actually situated only 5 minutes apart on foot (and are on the same road).

Some app designers have already begun tapping into this opportunity to more intelligently guide users’ transit decisions. Apps such as Citymapper and Tube Map provide additional insights to help users make contextually informed judgements, such as approximations of taxi fares, walking times or weather-based alternatives such as ‘rain safe’ options:

This is something UX designers will be tasked to consider increasingly as the discipline evolves and matures. User interfaces need to make it easy for users to choose, not just to use, and having this practise baked into web and app designs is guaranteed to be the difference between those who grow and those who stagnate, especially in competitive market spaces.

The e-commerce, travel and SaaS sectors are choice among those to start putting serious weight behind their online choice architecture.

Dressipi checks that it’s making the right predictions during onboarding, then learns continually once the user is actively engaged
Et voila, the user is given a personalised shopping experience with stylist-approved items customized to their preferences; whittling down the selection and boosting customer confidence in their eventual purchase.

Littlewoods and have confronted the barrier of an expansive clothing catalogue and indecisive female shoppers (need I say more?) with a ‘style adviser’ – a super smart backend system courtesy of Dressipi designed to narrow and intelligently guide womens online fashion shopping, based half on self-preference and half on insider stylist tips and tricks.

Users primarily search by map, determining the results they’ll see and filtering out extraneous possibilities that typically clutter the accommodation selection experience in travel.

For hip traveller types who know that location is everything, Airbnb allow (even encourage) you to search by map, turning the selection process on its head by honing in on their users’ priorities. Custom filters can then be added by region, amenities, and user generated keywords to further refine the options, continually driving users towards their end goal. In future, a nice touch might be to extend the crowd-sourcing with user-generated contextual cues within the map for different areas and districts – e.g. good for shopping, coffee shops, nightlife or museums – but I digress (occupational hazard!).

In the SaaS space, Rackspace know their visitors are arriving with a diverse array of needs, and realise the importance in getting to the bottom of that quickly to avoid losing out on custom.

By guiding users through a smart flow of options, the urge to overload visitors with a comprehensive range of services is removed, and you can avoid confounding users who aren’t really sure what they need yet. For more complex hosting problems, the flow diverts to live chat or callback, whilst the outcome and final CTAs leave users assured that they’ve taken positive strides towards resolving their specific needs which are now ready to be picked up on the other end.

The key to solid choice architecture, whatever your business, is quite simple: know your customers. Anticipate their needs, and learn to see things through their eyes.

Don’t know who your customers are or what they need? Ask them. In the long run, gathering a little intel is better than leaving your customers alone in the wild. Package it up in some effortless UX and users will feel like it’s part of a bespoke service tailored to their needs.

Here are some golden rules to set you on the path to informed, but guided customer conversions:

  1. Ask the right questions. If a user can see why you’re asking, and what’s in it for them, they’ll already be bought in to the process. Make sure the user benefits and can see the rationale behind every question – if they can’t, lose it, because it’s not helping them.
  2. Don’t tell your customer what to do. Choice architecture is not a substitute for effective information architecture – make sure that you’re only ever guiding your customers decisions and not shoehorning them into buying something they didn’t want. Let your users know you understand them and are there to give honest and impartial guidance to help them reach the best outcome for them. The alternative could erode trust and potentially hurt your future relationship.
  3. Set clear progress indicators. Answering a few intelligently structured questions is all good and well, but if your user can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, they’re likely to lose hope and abandon the process. Make sure the method is organised and transparent if you really want your customers to engage.
  4. Refine choices, but stow the rest away somewhere that’s visible and organised. No-one likes to feel that they might be missing out and some users may prefer different ways of navigating through your site. Sometimes it’s curiosity; sometimes a need for confirmation we made the right choice – we want to be able to see what we didn’t go with. Keeping this transparent is key to a healthy customer lifecycle.
  5. Make alternatives omnipresent. Ultimately, the customer knows best, and if they lose faith in your  site’s ability to meet their needs, make sure they have a jumping off point to avoid losing their custom altogether.