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Active Learning

7 Elements of Persuasive Design Strategy

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Part 1 of this blog series explored why L&D professionals need to apply persuasive design strategy to the overall design of the learning environment. Now let’s examine the seven guiding principles of PDS:

1. Reduction: Making complex tasks simple.
2. Tunneling: Guided persuasion—giving control over to the experts.
3. Suggestion: Placing triggers in the path of motivated learners.
4. Tailoring: Provide options and learners are more likely to complete the task that they choose.
5. Self-monitoring: Never underestimate the thrill of checking a box or of recognition
6. Conditioning: Reinforcing targeted behaviors.
7. Surveillance: It’s only creepy if you don’t share the results—design for data first.

Before we begin, though,, it’s worth noting that PDS is not about a particular platform or some new technology that requires specific algorithms. Instead, the focus of PDS is on the intent of the designer—to persuade behaviors in the learning environment to reduce frustration, increase engagement, and positively improve mastery. While some of the examples in this post stem from the open source platforms that Remote-Learner commonly uses, the strategies should be seen as universal.

1. Reduction

This is one of the most important strategies. Learners often are required to jump through several hoops just to get to their course. Navigating a site and parsing the content shouldn’t be a chore. Reducing the cognitive load on a learner is vital. If you make something simple to do, learners are more likely to do it (Think: Amazon OneClick). For instance, the decisions made for user authentication is often overlooked, but it can make a huge impact. As the first task a learner is required to complete, making it simple means that a learner won’t be frustrated before they can even enter the site.

Another mistake that many digital learning sites often make is to provide all the options that a learner might need on every page. The result is that the learner is overwhelmed and unsure what their next step should be. A clean and simple interface that uses reduction will easily show them where they need to go for all their needs.

2. Tunneling

Tunneling refers to the practice of directed guidance through an experience. Ideally, this structure of guidance should be almost invisible to the learner. This is much like the process of updating software on your computer. The system walks you through informed steps, but provides structure along the way. This is not a new strategy to educators. However, when tunneling is overused, it can have the opposite desired effect.

A common misuse of tunneling is when a learner is forced into a never ending loop of review and “try again” prompts in an effort to complete a lesson. If the desired behavior is for learners to review material and achieve mastery, reviewing the material should not feel punitive.

3. Suggestion

Suggestion is a strategy that is all about the Kairos—where information is presented to learners at the right time to be most effective in changing their behavior. In other arenas, this can be seen in the use of recommendation engines that often require complex algorithms. As a design strategy, a simpler approach can be taken and produce similar results. In short, suggestions are triggers placed in the path of motivated learners used to persuade behavior and keep them engaged.


For example, if your learners are allowed to self-enroll in courses, having a list of recommended courses would be a gentle push to encourage ongoing use. This information could be based on information stored in their profile or based on the courses they’ve already completed.

4. Tailoring

Tailoring is a strategy that allows for an experience to be tailored to the individual learner. Choice and personalization of the environment are the two main designers can tailor learning experiences. For instance, when making a purchase online, people are often given recommendations for similar items. L&D designers can apply this strategy by suggesting options and letting learners make a choice when possible.

Some learning platforms can help with tailoring, creating a more personal experience for each individual. A simple example is referring to users by name or remembering what they recently viewed. Small changes like a personal greeting during login can transform the site into a social actor that participates in their learning process.

Showing content or instructions that pertain to an individual’s needs creates a feeling of connection to the environment that translates into increased engagement. A common way we combine reduction, suggestion, and tailoring is seen in our approach to designing feedback. An example may be suggesting a learner review content they answered incorrectly during a quiz and placing a link in the feedback to review information combined with offering them the option to move on to the next question. This simple combination of strategies makes a suggestion to review, provides learner choice, and makes accepting either path simple and easy to do.

5. Self-Monitoring

With self-monitoring, learners are made aware of their progress as a way to persuade them to complete their goals. Designers can borrow tools and techniques from gamification. For instance, progress bars and checklists are a common occurrence in web design and often used to monitor a user’s task completion. Badges and certificates are another way to persuade learners to complete tasks or courses.

Keep in mind, though, the strategy behind when and how do we decide to use these tools in the design of a digital learning experience can make all the difference. Case in point: certificates might be awarded for completion of a task or course. This means any learner that completes a course with a passing grade can earn a certificate. However, a badge could be awarded for learners that complete the course with a grade of 95 or higher. The trick is letting learners know in advance what potential badges are available so you can persuade the behavior to earn them.

6. Conditioning

This is a simple but powerful strategy focused on encouraging and reinforcing targeted behaviors. When it comes to conditioning, there is a lot we can learn from digital game design—from when and how to use rewards, to avoiding reward fatigue, to consistent design choices, to the use of course templates that build trust and help to create good habits. A great example of conditioning is getting learners to complete the user profile. Learners that follow instructions to complete the profile are rewarded with access to the rest of the site; meanwhile, learners that do not follow the directions may be limited access.

7. Surveillance

Surveillance refers to the collection of data about learner behavior and performance results. If information is power, then giving that power to learners can be one of the most persuasive strategies of all. People can be very competitive, and tapping into that competitiveness can be a good motivator. Leaderboards are a type of surveillance strategy that uses gamification to award points for specific behaviors. It’s also a great way to combine conditioning and reward positive behavior.

Want to learn more? Join me at ATD TechKnowledge 2018 for the session, “Reimagining the Learner Environment Through Persuasive Design Strategy,” which is part of the E-Learning track.

About the Author
Dr. Page Chen, president and chief innovation officer at Remote-Learner, leads her teams in making an impact through the solutions they provide. With a Master’s degree in adult education, and PhD in instructional design for online learning, she has been designing out of the box solutions for more than 20 years. Her research examines how techniques that incorporate interactive technologies used in other fields, and can also be integrated into an e-learning environment to positively impact learner mastery. By researching proven behavioral design and persuasive technology techniques and combining them with established pedagogical elements, she’s developed a collection of instructional strategies with transformational impacts on the learner experience. In her work at Remote-Learner, she oversees projects for corporate, government, and educational institutions—guiding them to create immersive digital learning environments to support their unique goals and objectives.
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Amazingly valuable article. The examples of common e-marketing applications (one-click, related items) were just brilliant. Thanks.
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Very good ideas to make people learning as culture and enjoy Learning ! Great thinking
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