Persuasive Navigation

Persuasive Navigation

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In: Columns > IAnything Goes

By Jeff Lash

Published on December 17, 2002

Persuasive navigation is navigation that persuades a user to do something. That something can be anything that you want the user to do—buy a product, sign up for a newsletter, or download a game. By understanding user needs and matching them up with business goals, you can persuade users to go where you want them to go, making them happy at the same time.

Persuasive navigation is one aspect of a site built on persuasive architecture. A site built to be persuasive needs persuasive navigation but also needs persuasive copywriting, labeling, visual design, and structure. Rearchitecting a site to be persuasive is a large task and, in many cases, may not be possible. Persuasive navigation can be added in quickly and easily, however, and still have a big impact on the effectiveness of the site.

Persuasive navigation vs. calls to action

On many sites, regular navigation is supplemented by calls to action that will hopefully get the user to follow a particular navigation path. Persuasive navigation can be similar to a call to action in many ways, but has a few key features that make it more effective.

A call to action tells users to do something—Apply Now, Find Out More, Buy This, Sign Up Now—whereas persuasive navigation gives people a reason to do something. The phrase “apply now” gives the user no indication why he should apply, why he should apply now versus applying later, and why applying is better than any other options.

A call to action is generally considered outside of the navigation framework, since it is supplemental to the primary navigation. The primary navigation can be changed to be more persuasive, however, so that it is integrated into the framework of the site. For example, instead of calling the Help section “Help,” a more descriptive “Help me find what I’m looking for” or “Need help looking for something?” could be used as the primary label. The resulting page could then be used to persuade users to perform a search if the site has a new and improved search engine. The descriptive persuasive label may be more effective than the curt and dry “Help” or “Search.”

The phrase “call to action” implies that the site is placing a call to the users and that they need to answer it. In many cases, users need to be persuaded to answer the call.

Putting persuasion to use

Once the power of persuasion is understood, it is time to put it to use. How can users be persuaded? Like many questions, there is an easy answer and a hard answer.

The easy answer: Money. Simply put, money can usually persuade people.”

The hard answer: Anyone who has any familiarity with psychology or marketing is probably familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which diagrams the hierarchy of human motivation. It is only when the lower need (e.g food and water) is met that the next level (e.g. safety) can be addressed. One way to determine how users can be persuaded is to understand which of their needs are fulfilled and which need addressing. This is an extremely effective but very difficult task.

The easy answer: Money. Simply put, money can usually persuade people. It may not be effective in all cases, it may not be possible from a business sense, and it may not get the right responses, but, when in doubt, money works as a persuasive technique. Discounts, coupons, and rebates are a few examples of how money can persuade.

Real world examples

There are plenty of examples of how sites use—and don’t use—persuasive navigation to entice users. The oft-cited Amazon uses many effective persuasive techniques. Their system of informing users “Customers who bought this book also bought” is informative, but not in and of itself persuasive. They will, however, often offer a discount to users who buy the current book at the same time as one of the recommended books. By giving users a reason to view the other book—a discount if the two are purchased together—they are persuading users to explore.

Many sites offer a free email newsletter, with the goal of increasing their number of newsletter subscribers. This is usually done with a simple “Sign up for our free email newsletter” link. This standard call to action does little to entice the users. Why should the user sign up for the newsletter, just because it’s free? There are plenty of free newsletters available. What does this newsletter offer that others don’t?

The “Signup for our free email newsletter” call to action link could be replaced with more persuasive navigation like:

  • Get exclusive content if you sign up…
  • Receive extra discounts if you…
  • Sign up today and receive…
  • Save time by signing up for…

The persuade to action doesn’t need to actually contain a full description of what the specific persuasion is; it just needs to entice the user to click. A detailed explanation of the “extra discounts” or how the user will “save time” should be on the resulting page, which will hopefully persuade the user to complete the desired task.

From persuasive navigation to persuasive architecture

Using persuasion is more than just adding in links, changing some category labels, and rewriting calls to action. There needs to be a focus on the users and their goals, as well as a complete understanding of the relevant business goals and how those sets of goals match up. If the business goals and users’ needs are not clear, persuasion is not possible. What is the site trying to persuade people to do? Is it something that users want to be persuaded to do?

If a user is persuaded to complete one of the business’s desired tasks, that’s just half the battle. The site needs to follow through on what the user was persuaded to do. If a user is persuaded to sign up for a site’s newsletter because of the promise of timely, exclusive content, but the newsletter is published irregularly and gets scooped by other sources, that’s not following up on the persuasion.

People can be persuaded in different ways, making it even more important to do user research and task analysis, and to develop appropriate personas. After some preliminary research, it might become clear that the wrong techniques are being used on a certain set of users, or, even worse, users are actually being dissuaded. The common mantra of “know your users” is all the more important when trying to persuade them.

If this introduction to persuasive navigation and persuasive architecture has interested you, I hopefully can persuade you to explore this topic in more detail with these wonderful resources:

Related Topics: Navigation, Information Architecture

Jeff Lash is a User Experience Designer in the Health Sciences division of Elsevier. He is a co-founder and Advisory Board member of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIfIA) and has also written articles and tutorials for Boxes and Arrows and WebWord. His personal website is