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How designing with collective social proof principles can be used to change individual behaviours or attitudes online. A shared user experience (UX) research project.
Let’s have a look into the concept of social proof; a design vehicle for persuading users to respond to a digital experience in a desired way. What are some examples in use? What social proof patterns or components might we turn to when designing? I’ve included a bunch of academic references within, in case that stuff is of interest to you now, or later.
Social proof and persuasion
Social proof is operationalised hereby the deliberate change in individual attitudes or actions, due to real or imagined influence from others who are similar (Cialdini, 2001).
Persuasion, I’ll operationalise as an influence focussed on changing individual attitudes or behaviour using an external source (Guadagno & Cialdini, 2009).
Social proof is an established psychological and anthropological phenomenon. Real-life experiments have validated the persuasive hypothesis that social proofing resolves individual ambiguity on the assumption that the behaviour and actions of peers is a superior decision-making basis.
Note that the concept is sometimes positioned alongside social validation, consensus-based decision making, or “nudging” agents (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008), overcoming individual, impulses (Cheung et al, 2017).
Social proofing user experiences represents a “Design with Intent” (Lockton, Harrison, & Stanton, 2008) opportunity. Eyal and Hoover (2014) illustrate how “triggers” such as social connectivity can “hook‘’’ digital participants into habit-forming behaviour.
Fogg (2003) examines how social interaction plays a key role in persuasion. “A product simply has to track a person’s behaviour and, in some form, share the results with the person’s in-group.” (Fogg, 2003).
Cialdini (2001) identifies six principles including social proof as a powerful mechanism for persuasion when it comes from peers. This is a seminal work in the space and Cialdini principles are now leveraged in the digital space.
For designers, digital influence differences from IRL must be borne in mind: the anonymity of other users, lack of information or assumptions made about other users, and time, cultural, and spatial distances from others.
Social proof is a horizontal, not vertical, form of peer influence. The ‘“lead” (Cialdini, 2006) for individuals to follow comes from others. It is the behaviour of the followers of a social influencer rather than the action of the influencer themselves that confirms a decision.
When the domains of computing and persuasion merge, ethics play a crucial role (Fogg, 1998) Downsides of group think or herd mentality are widely perceived (Derrig, 2016) and backed by research.
Impacts of social-based persuasion will also vary by user context, cohort, and culture. For example, using the Hofstede (2001) dimensions of culture, a more individualistic or low context culture of communications may react differently to a more communal or higher context culture.
Social proof design is amplified by human-computer interactions that gained acceptance as part of the nature of the Web 2.0 ‘living’’ or social nature (Malone & Crumlish, n.d.), evident from developments such as crowdfunding, wisdom of the crowd, trending content, and consumerization of connectivity.
For example, 82% of smartphone users consult their phones on purchases they are about to make in-store and 45% read online reviews before making a purchase. (Ellet, 2018).
Examining design patterns (Alexander et al, 1977) or design systems (such as Apple Human Interface Guidelines or Material Design) reveals common design methods, or “captologies” (Fogg, 2003). Examples of persuasive design social experiences available, include:
- Rankings and ratings
- User reviews
- Trending conversations
- Comments by peers
The implementation of such design patterns is contextual. For example, “testimonials from satisfied customers work best when the satisfied customer and the prospective customer share similar circumstances” (Cialdini, 2001)
Social proof applied
The use of social proof persuasion can be applied across many digital domains, as it represents a rich “digital currency” for designers (SocialsUp, 2020). What follows are a range of digital experiences relying on the use of social proofing:
Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform for innovators, uses social proof as a central persuader. Each innovation campaign shows the number of backers, and the financial amount invested and targeted. Increasing investors and funding amounts drives additional support for a perceived better return on investment.
Etsy is an e-commerce website for handmade items, crafts, and vintage items offered by individual sellers. Social proof for transactions from sellers is offered by prominent star-based ratings, number of reviews, and by and qualitative comments on the item and on the shop from other buyers.
Soundcloud is a music-streaming website for new artists and established acts. Social proof is provided by showing the number of followers, the number of likes, the numbers of tracks plays, as well as qualitative comments from fans. An an initial following become advocates for artist releases and channels, persuading others to join with their support.
Airbnb is a platform for short-term and holiday rentals of accommodation. Shared feedback from users, visible as rating stars and qualitative comments are proof of the legitimacy and value of offered properties to an individual.
Swappie is a consumer-focused platform for selling refurbished Apple iPhones. Persuasion of individuals is done by a series of ersatz ‘home-made’ testimonial videos from individual peers of the target market, buyer reviews shared on the Internet, and social media commentary about the success of opting for an already used phone over a new one.
Despite existing work, the social proof persuasion impact may still be understated (Wienshenk, 2020) and is ripe for deeper research and disruption. Adoption of VR, AI, ML, and cloud-based data integrations also offer new research potential into the mechanics, ethics and efficacy of social proof (Zanbaka, Goolkasian & Hodges, 2006; Pongpradit & Prompoon, 2016).
OK, we took a look at the psychological dimension of digital persuasion through social proofing; concepts, research, and its digital application.
For UXers, remember that social proofing must be designed for, and deployed appropriately, to solve a user experience problem; even combined with other techniques to compound the persuasive impact (Cialdini, 2001).
Your comments and shares on your own psych UX design approaches are welcome!
Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M. 1977. A Pattern Language : Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press.
Cheung, TTL., Kroese, FM., Fennis, BM., & De Ridder, DTD. 2017. The Hunger Games: Using hunger to promote healthy choices in self-control conflicts. Appetite.
Cialdini, R. 1984. Influence: Science and Practice. Collins.
Cialdini, R. 2001. Harnessing the Science of Persuasion. Harvard Business Review. October 2001.
Derrig, RT. 2016. Trump used sophisticated propaganda to win US election. The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/trump-used-sophisticated-propaganda-to-win-us-election-1.2916964.
Ellet, J. 2018. New Research Shows Growing Impact Of Online Research On In-Store Purchases. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnellett/2018/02/08/new-research-shows-growing-impact-of-online-research-on-in-store-purchases.
Eyal, N. & Hoover, R. 2013. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Penguin.
Fogg, BJ. 1998. Persuasive Computers: Perspectives and Research Directions. Proceedings. ACM. CHI 98. April 1998.
Fogg, BJ. 2003. Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. Morgan Kaufmann.
Guadagno, R. & Cialdini, R. 2009. Online Persuasion and Compliance: Social Influence on the Internet and Beyond. In Y. Amichai-Hamburger (Ed.), The Social Net: The Social Psychology of the Internet. Oxford University Press.
Hofstede, G. 2001. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Sage.
Lockton, D., Harrison, D., and Stanton, N. 2008. Design with Intent: Persuasive Technology in a Wider Context. PERSUASIVE 2008, LNCS 5033, pp. 274–278, 2008. Springer.
Malone, E. & Crumlish, C. n.d. Mommy, What’s a Social User Experience Pattern? in Designing Social Interfaces. O’Reilly. https://www.oreilly.com/library/view/designing-social-interfaces/9780596803117/ch01.html.
Pongpradit, P. & Prompoon, N. 2016. Constructing Initial Design Patterns for Online Social Network-based Applications. IEEE. Proceedings of ICIS 2016, June 2016. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/7550802.
SocialsUp. 2020. Social Proof in Digital Success. https://socialsup.net/social-proof-in-digital-success/.
Thaler, RH., & Sunstein, CR. 2008. Nudge. Penguin.
Wienshenk, S. 2020. 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People (Voices That Matter (2nd edition). New Riders.
Zanbaka, C., Goolkasian, P. & Hodges, LF. 2006. Can a Virtual Cat Persuade You? The Role of Gender and Realism in Speaker Persuasiveness. ACM. CHI 2006, April 2006. DOI: 10.1145/1124772.1124945.
All screen captures by Ultan O’Broin.