Coercive versus Persuasive design – not the right differentiator.

Recently, in an attempt to differentiate between “good” and “bad” uses of persuasive design techniques, the term “coercive design” is creeping into the vocabulary. But, is coercive design really a different beast, or is it just persuasive design used for bad purposes?

I think it’s a measure of the finesse with which a tool is applied. You can persuade, using a light touch, or you can coerce, by bludgeoning your consumer into submission. Indeed, you can also be deceptive – another differentiator term – by outright tricking your user. It’s often the same underlying technique or psychological principle that is being used, it’s just a matter of the quantity of arm-twisting that has to occur in order for customers to accede.

For instance, members who see value in LinkedIn’s services might be easily persuaded to give their email credentials so that LinkedIn can scan their contacts and widen their network, reconnecting them with valued ex-colleagues. Another site with a less palatable value proposition may have to coerce, by making functionality available only to those who “pay” with their password. And neither one of these techniques is necessarily deceptive. Both the persuasive and coercive designs can be very up-front about the value proposition. To be deceptive, the site might have to masquerade as your email provider, in order to steal your credentials when you type them in, or hide their intended actions in a Terms and Conditions document that nobody will read.

A sock full of coins

So persuasive and coercive design are differentiated just by the intensity they apply to persuading users. Think kid gloves versus a sock full of coins.

A more useful differentiator is the motivation that the organization has for persuading you. Is it for their benefit, for your benefit, or for the greater good? I think there are four levels of persuasion, which I have named as evil, commercial, motivational and charitable. As I say in my book, Evil by Design, the four levels can be detected by the relative benefits they provide to everyone involved:

  • Evil design makes users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits the designer more than them.
  • Commercial design makes users emotionally involved in doing something that provides an equitable benefit to the designer and the user.
  • Motivational design makes users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits them even though they would not chose to do it unaided.
  • Charitable design makes users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits society more than either themselves or the designer.
Evil, Commercial, Motivational and Charitable Persuasion
The relationship between Evil, Commercial, Motivational and Charitable Persuasion

Real differentiation

This way of separating motivations is more useful because it describes who benefits the most, and in what proportion. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a commercial application of persuasive techniques, unless the end result is supposed to be for a charitable or motivational cause. The line between commercial and evil design is blurry, but it should be relatively easy to work out whether there is commensurate benefit to users in addition to the benefit that a company gets from employing a specific persuasive technique.

The really clever evil designs are those that persuade consumers to continue engaging despite the clear skewing of the value proposition in favor of the company. An example of this blurry line might be online gambling. From some people’s perspective, the practice is evil because the odds are stacked entirely in favor of the house. All players lose money, on average. From another angle, people may argue that they are receiving high entertainment value from the site, and they lose no more money than they would have paid to (for instance) watch a movie, so overall the transaction is more in the realm of commercial than evil persuasion. We can start to be a little concerned if the site appears to be employing motivational language – encouraging people to better themselves via gambling (“Play poker to increase your math skills and powers of concentration”)– and we should be outright dismayed if they lay claim to charitable intentions (“Play roulette here – we contribute 10% of our profits to puppy shelters”). But none of these count as coercive design because there is no element of “do this or else”. In other words, sites can be evil without being coercive, so the term coercive isn’t that useful as a differentiator.

Split types of persuasive design in a more descriptive way

Coercion is just strong persuasion, not a different thing. What we need is a better way of splitting the persuasive design landscape up, and I’d argue that evil, commercial, motivational and charitable persuasion is a better starting point.