Using online platforms, services, games, and tools is part of our day-to-day lives, and those of the young people we work with. Huge advances in technology over the last ten years have made it easier than ever for many young people to own one or more internet-enabled devices to access and benefit from these services. Many of the services are free to use but supported by advertising or optional purchases, so how do they maximise their income? That’s where persuasive design comes into play.
This deep dive will provide an overview of what persuasive design is, as well as the common techniques used by both online services and device manufacturers and the potential risks of persuasive design techniques to young people. Advice on how young people can minimise the impact of persuasive design and regain control over their digital use are also explored.
What is persuasive design?
Have you ever scrolled down through a social media feed or news website and found that new posts and stories kept appearing? Have you ever tried to reach the bottom of the page but found that you can’t – that it goes on forever? That is ‘infinite scroll’, a technique used by some online platforms and services to keep your attention and encourage you to stay on the service for longer. It is just one of many techniques employed by online services and device manufacturers to encourage you to spend more time using a device or service. These techniques are commonly referred to as ‘persuasive design’.
Why does persuasive design exist?
While some online services require a paid subscription and many videogames require a one-off purchase to own and play, many of the apps, social media platforms and games used by both children and adults are free to access and fully use. Of course, they are not free to run – companies invest millions (or billions) of euros in developing, maintaining, and hosting these services.
So how do they make any profit? With persuasive design techniques. These techniques are carefully designed to encourage you to use a device for longer or stay longer on an app, game or website. This can generate revenue for a service provider in many ways:
- Advertising – As most devices require you to look at a screen, showing adverts to users is one of the quickest and easiest ways for an app or game to make money. They sell the advertising space/slots to third-party companies who then display adverts for their products or services. The longer a user looks at their screen, the greater the opportunity for them to see more adverts. It can also increase the likelihood of them interacting with an advert to purchase something, which allows the app/game to earn commission.
- Data collection – A device or service will likely collect data about their users – either personal data or data around the behaviour of each user. This data has value and may be sold to third-party companies. It may also be used by the service to refine their methods to keep a user engaged for longer.
- Investment/obligation – Particularly with online games, the longer a user plays for, the more invested they become in their achievements and progress in the game. This may make them more likely to commit to optional in-app purchases, particularly if these can ensure they can speed up their progress or remain competitive with other players.
Activity: Match the technique to the correct description
|Infinite scroll||Automatically loading new posts or stories as you scroll down the page so that you never reach the end.|
|Variable reward||Stories or videos with misleading or extreme titles deliberately designed to grab attention or evoke emotion.|
|Notifications||Making ‘I accept’ or ‘Okay’ buttons larger than other options to ‘nudge’ a user to press them.|
|Use of colour||Encouraging users to interact or respond (for instance, two blue ticks on WhatsApp, Snapchat streaks, ‘likes’ and reactions).|
|Nudge techniques||Sending notification messages, vibration, or visual reminders to convey an ‘important message’.|
|No saving/pausing||Automatically starting another video (the next episode or a related video) to keep users watching.|
|Clickbait||Offering time-limited discounts on purchases or encouraging users to interact with something/someone for fear of missing something important.|
|Autoplay||Use high-profile celebrities or influencers to recommend a product or service, to influence their followers to buy it.|
|Time-limited features||Encourage users to repeat behaviours to receive something they like or enjoy.|
|Gambling mechanics||Designing games to prevent saving regularly or featuring live gameplay in real time.|
|Endorsements||Introducing paid games of chance that may tempt users into spending money with a low likelihood of success.|
|Social obligations||Using red/orange circles as app icon notifications and bold colours on buttons.|
Did you correctly match the techniques to the descriptions? Before checking your answers below, for each technique, can you think of at least one app/game/service used by your students that possesses this feature?
|Variable reward||Encourage users to repeat behaviours to receive something they like or enjoy.|
|Notifications||Sending notification messages, vibration, or visual reminders to convey an ‘important message’.|
|Use of colour||Using red/orange circles as app icon notifications and bold colours on buttons.|
|Nudge technique||Making ‘I accept’ or ‘Okay’ buttons larger than other options to ‘nudge’ a user to press them.|
|No saving/pausing||Designing games to prevent saving regularly or featuring live gameplay in real time.|
|Clickbait||Stories or videos with misleading or extreme titles deliberately designed to grab attention or evoke emotion.|
|Autoplay||Automatically starting another video (the next episode or a related video) to keep users watching.|
|Time-Limited features||Offering time-limited discounts on purchases or encouraging users to interact with something/someone for fear of missing something important.|
|Gambling mechanics||Introducing paid games of chance that may tempt users into spending money with a low likelihood of success.|
|Endorsements||Use high-profile celebrities or influencers to recommend a product or service, to influence their followers to buy it.|
|Social Obligation||Encouraging users to interact or respond (for instance two blue ticks on WhatsApp, Snapchat streaks, ‘likes’ and reactions).|
Why do these techniques work?
Persuasive design techniques have been carefully engineered to exploit the way our brains process and prioritise information and focus our attention. Features like notifications, where your device will buzz, display a message, or show a red circle on the app icon, are all designed to grab our attention, so we resume using an app or device. The colours chosen for notifications and buttons are deliberately chosen to attract attention and encourage engagement, although the theories behind colour psychology are somewhat muddled.
Nudge techniques, such as making some buttons larger while others are smaller, or displaying items in a particular order, can also be used to influence a user’s actions by drawing their attention to objects that the developer wishes them to interact with. They may also encourage users to give away more personal data than is necessary.
Some techniques stimulate the production of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a hormone associated with positive mood and habit-forming behaviours. It is also linked to addiction. Variable reward features and gambling mechanics are both used in games and social media apps to build anticipation, which promotes dopamine release.
Social obligation techniques can also have a powerful effect on some users – knowing that other people are encouraging you or expecting you to do something can persuade you to comply.
Emotional tactics can also influence behaviour – clickbait or content that evokes strong emotions gets our attention more easily, and situations where we feel uncomfortable or bored will encourage us to seek out something new to occupy our attention. Our current mood can also affect the choices we make, what we choose to do and how we communicate with others.
These are psychological vulnerabilities that we all possess as human beings, and these features are designed to exploit these vulnerabilities for financial gain.
What risks do persuasive design techniques pose to young people?
While persuasive design exists to generate more income for online companies, there are also several risks they present to us as users, particularly young people.
This short video highlights several of those risks and why children should be protected from them:
The following are risks that young people may face:
- Impact on physical health – The primary role of persuasive design is to increase screen time or interaction with a device. Extended sessions spent looking at a screen may lead to DES (Digital Eye Strain), which can result in sore or tired eyes and headaches. This 2022 study found that more people reported experiencing DES during the Covid-19 lockdowns, where they used their devices for longer. Similarly, this study reflects the impact that extended device use can have on children’s posture. Other research points to an increased risk of obesity in relation to sedentary lifestyles that extended device use encourages. Regarding sleep, the impact of blue light from screens has been fiercely debated but there is no firm agreement on the true extent of the impact this has on sleep. There is also a mixed picture on using technology close to bedtime, but it is reasonable to conclude that stimulating the brain close to bedtime (by watching a film, playing a game, or scrolling social media) is likely to make it harder to fall asleep.
- Impact on mental health and wellbeing – Evidence is more mixed when it comes to the impact of extended screentime/devices use on mental health. There is some evidence to suggest that more time spent online may result in lower self-esteem, and higher levels of anxiety and depression. However, the reasons behind this are unclear, and may be more to do with the social interactions and offline activities (exercise, hobbies, etc.) that young people were missing out on, rather than a direct effect of spending time using technology.
- Impact on financial wellbeing – Young people who are affected by persuasive techniques to spend money may end up spending more than anticipated and end up with money problems or may not recognise when they are getting value for money in their online purchases. They may also feel pressured into spending money when they don’t want to.
- Changing mood – The levels of dopamine in the brain affect mood – high levels promote pleasant emotions, alertness, and motivation, whereas low levels can lead to tiredness, less pleasant emotions (feeling unhappy or down), issues with sleep, memory and attention. If technology use is constantly producing dopamine, there are consequences to when those dopamine levels drop. This could lead to mood swings that result in unpredictable behaviour or less ability to discern other risks.
What can I help young people to do to minimise the impact?
It may feel like there is little you can do to prevent the effects of persuasive design; it is exploiting our psychological vulnerabilities. However, there are ways to take back choice and control. Here are some things you can do to support your students:
- Encourage a balanced digital lifestyle – This will vary from child to child, as it is dependent on age, habits, interests, and access to technology. Encouraging a good mix of offline and online interests can help ensure that technology is not the sole focus in a young person’s life. Too much of any one thing will always end up with negative outcomes eventually, and technology is no different! A mix of activities can help ensure children lead active healthy lives, which will promote both physical and mental wellbeing.
- Discuss persuasive design techniques – Helping your students become aware of the methods used to alter their digital behaviours is a powerful way to give them more control. If they are more aware, they are more likely to spot these techniques and make a conscious decision, rather than be exploited.
- Explore settings together – Most newer computers, smartphones, games consoles and tablets have settings to help manage some persuasive design techniques. For example, many devices allow you to control which apps can alert you with notifications. Turning notifications off for many apps/games means that there are less attempts to get you to look at your screen. Other tools allow you to track time spent on different apps and put daily limits in place or adjust the level of blue light emitted by the device.
- Work with families – Raising awareness in parents/carers about the nature of persuasive design can empower them to do more at home to regulate their child’s technology use. Establishing routines and boundaries is a powerful way to ensure technology use happens on their terms, not the terms of the online companies.
- Discuss online financial purchases – Talking with your students about in-app purchases and loot boxes can be a useful way to help them identify the ways in which companies may encourage them to spend money. Loot boxes are considered by many national governments to be akin to gambling, so discussing the gambling odds related to receiving a rare item in your purchase can also help students recognise whether a purchase represents value for money for them.
Further information and resources
Want to learn more about how persuasive design works and how to minimise the effects, both for yourself and for young people? You may find these resources helpful:
- Better Internet for Kids Resources – Educational resources from across the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres. You can search for ‘persuasive design’ or ‘screen time’, for resources in your language and for resources for different age groups.
- CO:RE Evidence Base – A database of publications and research on youth online experiences. Searching the database with ‘persuasive design’ allows you to browse and read relevant research related to this issue.
- School of Social Networks – This resource for primary-aged children, teachers and parents/carers provides information and advice on a range of online issues, including around loot boxes and healthy digital behaviours. There are accompanying activities that teachers can use in the classroom and parents can use at home.
- Pathways: How digital design puts children at risk – This report from 5Rights provides further detail on why persuasive design features put children at risk, and recommendations for minimising these risks.
- The Centre for Humane Technology – Offers free educational resources (aimed at ages 11+) for educators to help their students understand and explore issues such as persuasive design.