After participating in a brilliant workshop held by Brian Cugelman at SXSW 2015, I had the chance to sit down with Brian for half an hour to a talk about how to best apply psychology to your user experience. I asked him for advice on how to effectively apply psychology to user experiences, how to keep the experience authentic, and how to avoid users dropping out too early.

Brian Cugelman runs AlterSpark, a consultancy company that specializes in training UX practitioners, business developers, and entrepreneurs on using psychology for digital behavior change.

Who is Brian Cugelman?

Brian Cugelman obtained his PhD in 2010 on Online Social Marketing and has his research on mass behaviour change technology has been published in the world’s top e-health journal. He has helped several organizations apply his principles including the Pentagon, United Nations, the World Anti-Doping Agency, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and several universities.

What are persuasive patterns and how can you apply them?
Persuasive Patterns are best practices that contain certain ingredients that work time and time again. To use them for your benefit, it is a matter of looking at them critically in their context and figuring out which of their factors can be applied elsewhere.

A scientific background gives you an understanding of those principles in a deeper way. Scientists who work in the front of the line develop their own terms, so often the scientists might have 5 different names for the same concept. There is little consensus. It really is a mess.

There are no hard and fast answers, as all the theories are proven to work only in a particular context with a particular audience. So what you want to do, is to try to figure out which type of recipe makes sense for which context. By examining the context, the theory will suggest, which factors you would want to look into.

Brian Cugelman, PhD and co-founder of AlterSpark after having facilitated the workshop "Psychological Architectures for Persuasive Tech".

Brian Cugelman, PhD and co-founder of AlterSpark after having facilitated the workshop "Psychological Architectures for Persuasive Tech".

What role does authenticity play when designing for behavior change?
A lot of people who talk about persuasive design sometimes think other people are dumb. I don’t think those people have a lot of experience. It’s very hard to get people to do anything. Most people are smart and most people can tell when they’re being conned. Of course, online fraud is pretty big, so some people do fall for it. But generally it’s pretty hard to trick people.

I think one of the great books that’s misrepresented is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. People think that’s a book about manipulation, but Dale Carnegie argues that you can only flatter someone if you actually admire his or her quality.

The book is really about personal development. Dale Carnegie states that you are influential because you earned it with people, by being an honest and sincere person, and by using good tactics along the way, but essentially by being honest. So the trick is to show sincerity and authenticity. There is a lot of technical ways we can do that, starting by avoiding bad clip-art. It’s about showing your true colors, your true personality, and not trying to be what you are not.

Do some persuasive principles go in the way of authenticity?
Yeah. If you go a little too hard on some of the sales techniques it can be a problem.

To my knowledge, most of the techniques in store sales actually operate exactly the same in digital environments. I find that when I overdo those, things start to look a little cheap. If you overdo it, you start to look like a hustle. So yes, you can definitely overdo it.

What I do think happens, is that the people who drop out, learn a lesson.

How do you make sure that the behavior you’re trying to change doesn’t wear out so it’s not just a one-night-stand?
That’s the hard part. Most of the science is focused on the “one night stands”-behavior changes as there is just more money in researching the one-night-stand. People start out really motivated and fired up to embark on their behavior change, but tend to drop out in great numbers. The people who stay with the program normally gets the benefits and for those who drop out, we think many of them don’t. But there is actually no way of knowing that, since they dropped out.

What I do think happens, is that the people who drop out, learn a lesson.

Brian Cugelman presenting at his SXSW 2015 workshop: "Psychological Architectures for Persuasive Tech".

Brian Cugelman presenting at his SXSW 2015 workshop: "Psychological Architectures for Persuasive Tech".

For example, many people buy a sports app and stop using them along they way, but have still learned a lesson. They buy a FitBit or any accelerometer technology, and set the goal of doing 10.000 steps a day. The device shows you, that you are only doing 3.000 steps a day, so you change your routines and get up to 7.000 steps. By that point you haven’t completed your goal, but you now know what 7.000 steps feel like. Once you know what it feels like, you can usually maintain the routine as you now have a sense of how it feels.

Those who stay with a program receive the benefits. Those who drop out, but have learned something, might continue on their own. However, you also have those who just drop out without that much happening.

AIDA should probably be Attention, Interest, Desire, Relapse, Uninterested, No-longer-paying-attention

Brian Cugelman

Most of the research do not go into detail about what happens when people drop out. A lot of the classic selling and marketing models like AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action) should probably be “Attention, Interest, Desire, Relapse, Uninterested, No-longer-paying-attention”. These steps are included in some of the more popular health models and it makes sense.

I think because of that, a lot of marketers, UI designers, and product developers, don’t think about what we should do when people leave the program and the strategies for bringing them back in.

Brian Cugelman, PhD and co-founder of AlterSpark after having facilitated the workshop "Psychological Architectures for Persuasive Tech".

Brian Cugelman, PhD and co-founder of AlterSpark after having facilitated the workshop "Psychological Architectures for Persuasive Tech".

There is good advice for that, from the health field, which we can bring in. Normally in health, if somebody falls off the band-wagon, the original things that motivated them are brought back in their faces to get them on that wagon again. So they are basically reintroducing motivation.

There are two ways of tackling users who drop out: Deal with the motivation problem or deal with the barrier problem.

Brian Cugelman

Another scenario is that somebody had a problem because of their skills, efficacy, or because the challenge was too hard. In this case, you help them get back in by helping them. By making it easier or facilitating their journey.

So there are two ways of tackling users who drop out: Deal with the motivation problem or deal with the barrier problem.

How do you apply your techniques to selling in the digital sphere?
I think a landing page should be based on a sales person. It should have the personality of a really good sales person. Some people think that a high presure hustle page is a good sale page. I disagree. I think of the high-presure sales page is a hustle. It is like going into a shop and being cornered by a pushy sales person who haunts you down – people want to avoid that.

Learn more

Learn more about the work of Brian Cugelman by visiting his personal website cugelman.com, or book a seat in one of his upcoming workshops at alterspark.com.

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Anders Toxboe Author

As the head of Digital Development at DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) in Copenhagen, Denmark, Anders Toxboe builds awesome websites with his teams. He also founded UI-Patterns.com and a series of other projects. Follow Anders at @uipatternscom.