Digital Strategy | Guide | UX

Validated methods to increase activity and improve conversion (Part One)

Our Senior Designer, Warren Challenger, reveals the first three of six psychologically validated methods on how to increase activity and improve conversion.

10 January 2017 ( words)
Warren Challenger Warren Challenger

Knowing the fundamental principles that make people act the way they do is key.

In this article (part one of two) I will break down psychologically validated methods on how to increase activity and conversions.

The studies referenced include data onwards from 1961. Each of the studies raises principles which help persuade users to click or convert.

Some of these experiments included were controversial at the time and still are*. Either way, the lessons learned are valuable and have been in practice ever since in many different industries, including marketing, design, and development. Many companies currently use multiples of these techniques and will change them over time as public perceptions and behaviour swings in favour of another approach which is more effective.

#1 Authority Principle

In 1963, Stanley Milgram wanted to explain the cruelty of the Second World War. At the time, the belief was that Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures, a result of how they were brought up. He created an experiment to find out how people react when instructed by an authoritative figure. To do this, he placed an advert inside a local newspaper in New Haven, America. He also hired actors to play the stooge in his experiment. Once the applicants were received, Stanley created two groups, learner (his hired stooges) and teacher (the applicants).

Milgram set up the learner in a room, separate from the teacher and the researcher (Milgram), so the teacher couldn’t see them, but they could hear them. The learner was attached to an electric shock machine. Milgram instructed the teacher to administer an electric shock every time the learner answered a question incorrectly. Before the experiment started, Milgram administered a low voltage electric shock to the teacher so that they could experience the pain of the learner should they answer incorrectly.

The actor was asked multiple questions and gave some incorrect answers on purpose. With each wrong answer, Milgram told the teacher to administer an electric shock. With each wrong answer, the voltage increased and the actor's part became more horrific.

65% of the applicants continued with the teacher’s instructions all the way to the maximum voltage of 450 volts, even when the learner pretended to pass out and breathing had stopped. When the authority figure (researcher) was replaced with a normal person the compliance to up the voltage dropped to 20%.

This shows that people will go to great lengths to obey orders if they believe the person giving the instructions is a figure of authority.

How can this be used?

In a digital world, it’s pretty straight forward to be viewed as an authority figure. Just tell people you are one. There aren’t many people who would read a bio or LinkedIn profile and say “they’re lying” or “they don’t know that”.

With the American election over, a lot of focus has moved towards fake news on the internet and social media. Unfortunately, if something is written, people assume it must be true because it has usually come from a place of authority. Why would Facebook lie to me?

Another way to gain authority is to get someone else with authority to endorse you or your product. 

Plain and simple, brands pay for celebrities or experts to endorse their product. Good enough for Oprah, it’s good enough for you, right? Oprah wouldn't lie would she?

#2 The Jam Study

A study on shoppers and the effect of choice was published by psychologists, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, in 2000. The study was performed on just over 750 passing shoppers in a high-end shop. The study was to see how the shoppers responded to the choices they were presented with. The study was performed on two consecutive Saturdays in the same shop in the same position. On display was a variety of jam ready to be tasted by passing shoppers. On the first Saturday, the shoppers were exposed to 24 varieties of jam. On the second Saturday, the shoppers were exposed to only six varieties of jam.

The study found that the table with 24 jams attracted more attention (60% of shoppers stopped to try the jam) than the table with six jams (40% of shoppers stopped to try the jam). But interestingly, the table with six jams sold more jars by a factor of 10 to 1. That's a 900% increase in conversion rate on the table with fewer jams.

How can this be used?


There is a fairly logical explanation here. The human attention span is declining, shrinking from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2016. Giving more options to users or customers is probably harming your chances of conversion.

Giving users or customers more choice entices more but research by multiple studies shows people actually respond much better to fewer options. Limiting the actions or choices to a customer will more than likely lead to the action you want sooner or right away.

It’s worth pointing out this does not mean simplicity, it means more clarity of choice or action.

The Slack home page is a great example. It’s obvious that Slack simply wants you to sign up and start using their software, this home page focuses users helping them do just that.


#3 Anchoring

In 1974, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman created a survey, they asked people to estimate the percent of African nations that are part of the United Nations. But before they were asked this question, the people surveyed were asked to spin a wheel with the numbers 0 to 100 on it. The people surveyed were unaware that the spinning wheel was rigged to stop at 10 or 65.

Amos and Daniel found the people surveyed who landed on 65 were more likely to guess a higher percentage of African nations within the United Nations, 45%. The surveyed people who landed on 10 averaged the African nations at just 25%.

How can this be used?

Many physical and digital stores do this. One great example is Crazy Egg:


The Pro plan is priced at $99 a month. This high price is placed first in the queue with a user likely to read this price and package first.

Once $99 is read and processed by the user, it’s stuck. Their perception of the value of this product now has a starting/anchoring point. After this, in comparison the Plusplan now seems quite low at $49.

The first price or piece of information is of massive importance. Users seize instantly upon that information using it as the arbiter and determinant of all future considerations.

This works not only on data or a price but on emotion and touch also.

Apple here in this first screen for an iPad are concentrating on how the device feels in your hand. It's a £400-£500 tablet and this page is primarily focused on how it feels.

If you’re thinking about the iPad analytically, you know the feeling of the tablet is relatively low on your must haves for a new tablet. What’s the update or upgrade from past iPads? Battery time? Processing power? Camera? Memory? Any new Apps? New Apple OS?

Not a word is initially mentioned about these points. Just size and touch.

Apple know that if you remember how the iPad feels then you're likely to forget about other concerns. Good tactile memory is at the forefront of your mind and thinking.

When brands or companies try to sell you a product, they love to talk about the millions of benefits their product or services have but this can be a mistake. I'm not suggesting that you remove bulleted lists or the designated area dedicated to mentioning the numerous benefits and features. This is all hugely important information that affects every person when decision-making. However, the first piece of information has the greatest impact upon a person’s decisions after reading. If you’re the first to present that number or information, then you’ve won the anchoring game. A conversion now has much more chance of happening because we have dropped the right anchor.

In conclusion

Effective conversion optimisation ventures beyond changing a button colour or making a few tweaks. The trick is knowing the fundamental principles that make people act the way they do. Come back soon for three more effective conversion principles.

Read more about the studies and experiments here:
Authority Principle by Stanley Milgram
Jam Study by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper
Anchoring by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman

*Since some of these experiments, the ethics code for human subject testing has changed dramatically. More information can be found on the American Psychological Association website, which documents global human research protections. 

Warren Challenger

Author: Warren Challenger