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How to nudge for good (and not evil)

Have you ever wondered what your users think of your website? Sure you have. But have you let your users inform (even dictate) your design process? If you're like a lot of website owners in the world, your answer might be: maybe.

Last updated

18 Aug 2022

Reading time

13 min


There’s a lot that goes into designing with your user in mind. If you want to truly understand them, you need to take their opinions and feedback into account. When you do you can lay out a path for them that’s clear and helpful - one that nudges them in the right direction.

So in this post, we’ll be looking at how user feedback informs good design and empowers you to lay out your user’s journey in a way that makes it easy for them.

But...a nudge?

What does that even mean? 

Now, I’ve written about this before. It’s nothing new or groundbreaking. But it is something I’m super passionate about that’s worth addressing here because the way you nudge people reflects on your brand and shapes the way you’re perceived in the marketplace. To be successful you need people to trust you. To feel safe. To know that they’re being moved in the right direction.

And the best way to do it?


Getting nudged at the mall

Depending on where you live and where you’ve shopped before, you may or may not have heard of Express. It’s a place I can only afford to buy from sometimes, and when I do, it’s usually off the clearance rack. I like to go there because the clothes they design make sense for me.

In particular, I go there for their jeans.


I live in Idaho so when I feel like braving the mass of people and crowded parking lot in my area's only real mall, Express is always a place I visit.

And here’s why - they know how to help their customers.

When I went there around Christmas last year, I only wanted two pairs of jeans. That was my mission. I'm one of those guys who buys two pairs of jeans at a time, wears them until they completely wear out, then I go buy two more.

Right when I walked in I was immediately greeted by  Eden. I remember her name because you just don’t meet too many people named Eden (at least not in Idaho). She asked me what I was looking for and after I told her, she walked me over to the massive wall of jeans, and this is when it happened…

...she proceeded to ask me about twenty questions.


She wanted to make sure she knew exactly what I wanted before making any recommendations:

  • “Do you like skinny, straight, casual or boot cut?”

  • “What colors do you like?”

  • “Do you want them to be distressed, clean cut, or somewhere in the middle?”

  • “How are you going to wear them? All the time, or just here and there?”

  • “Do you like stretchy material or denim? Or both?”

  • “What size are you?”

  • “What’s your budget?”

  • “How do you want to feel in your jeans (yep, she really asked that!)?”

Mind = blown.

Eden really cared about what I wanted and wouldn’t show me any jeans that didn’t match my needs. So after the questions, she made two suggestions. I tried them both on, loved them, and got out my wallet.

This is a nudge.

Eden nudged me when she told me what jeans to buy and why they’d be a good fit. She found out what I wanted (not what she thought I might want), and gave me exactly what I was looking for. And the only reason she could give me a proper nudge was because she took the time to learn about me.

In other words, she cared.

Why nudge?

A nudge is just what it sounds like - a push in a certain direction.

They happen in brick and mortar stores and they happen online too. Neil Patel defines a nudging as, “using simple cues  – words or images – to help encourage people to take a specific action. That’s what a nudge is.” It’s the path your design team has laid out, that helps your users navigate your site by telling them what to do and where to go.

Rand Fishkin talks about nudges this way:

“The days of bludgeoning algorithms, networks, and people are over. Modern marketing success in channels like search, social media, content marketing, email, CRO, et al. requires subtle "nudges" to have success.”

Rand Fishkin

But what does all this mean to you?

Like everyone who runs a website, it means that you have to design your site with the user in mind.

The first rule of UX = you are not your user.

Your users see and do things differently than you do because they’re not you. When I was buying jeans, how odd would it have been if Eden offered women’s skinny jeans to me after I told her that I wanted men’s straight cut? Sure it was what she liked, but that didn’t matter.

She’s wasn’t (and still isn’t) me.

Likewise, when you’re designing your site, you need to do it in a way that delights your users and makes it easy for you to nudge them all the way to the checkout page. Your website needs to be a friendly, helpful, knowledgeable guide. Make it simple. Make it easy. And more than anything, be helpful.

The “formula” could look like this:

Understanding your user’s journey > Informs good design > Which enables you to nudge appropriately.

Understanding your user

To understand your users, you need to realize one thing right away - they aren’t a wallet with no face or personality. Your users are real actual people with real opinions, wants, dreams, and desires.

They actually exist somewhere.

When I was shopping for jeans, I bought based on what I wanted, not what Eden thought I wanted. It’ works the same way online. You need to understand your users, and here are two simple ways to do it:

1. Ask questions:

When you can get real-time honest feedback from your users and use it to lay out a clear path for them on your site, you’re already ahead of a lot of your competitors.

The best way to get their feedback is to ask for it. You need to involve your users early and often.

Before anything gets coded or built, you should already have a good idea of what it is that they want you to build. You're in business to solve their actual problems, not imaginary ones.

So, when you have a general idea of what you think they want, loop them into what you’re doing, and see what they have to say about it. Literally, ask them. Find out what’s keeping people from accomplishing their goals, and continue to optimize and create solutions based on their pain points.

You have to find out what they like and don’t like…

  • What makes them wake up in the middle of the night and worry?

  • What’s driving them to click “Buy, ”Sign Up,” or “Purchase?”

  • What makes them abandon ship and go to your competitors?

When you’re confident that you understand what they’re looking for, (like Eden was with me). Then, and only then, should you make the appropriate suggestions.

Your users will give you their opinions because people love being included.

If you want their feedback, just ask for it.

2. Pay attention

Imagine this...

Somebody comes to your website to buy what you’re selling and right before they get to the checkout page, they bounce. Just...gone. And it happens again with the next guy, again the woman after him, and several more times to more people, over and over again.

But why?

The question you need answered is this: why are they leaving? Do they have a change of heart? Get bored? Find something interesting on Facebook to look at? Is something confusing or broken on your website? All of the above?

The only way to know for sure is to pay attention to your user’s journey. To actually visually see it.

And that’s exactly what StudentCrowd did.

They were seeing a lot of traffic, but their conversion rates were almost non-existent. And it wasn't until they really dug in and looked at the data that they found out why. After looking at recordings of what their users were doing on mobile, they found out that almost everyone on their site was leaving because they couldn’t even see the “Submit” button on certain devices.

But they would never have known that if they didn’t pay attention. So they fixed the glitch in minutes, and in just two hours they increased their conversions by 55%.

This is what happens when you stop guessing and start digging. This is the type of thing that creates an enjoyable user experience. 

Hotjar's Director of Design Jonathan Vella recently told me that good UX is about one thing: empathy:

“Recordings are great because they literally show you how visitors interact with your site. You can see them struggling to perform certain actions for instance. If I would reduce it to just one word, it would be "empathy" as it allows you to really empathize with what your visitors are experiencing.”

Jonathan Vella
Director of Design, Hotjar

“When website owners really understand how their online visitors are interacting with their site, it allows them to make the changes necessary to encourage those visitors to spend even more time and money on their website.”

Marc von Brockdorff
Director of Engineering, Hotjar

More time on your site?

Spending more money with you?

Both good things!

But it only happens when you pay attention. And when you do, not only are you increasing your ROI, you’re delighting your users in the process because you’re giving them what they actually want, not what you think they want.

When design goes bad

Last year, I was approached by a talented Developer who had an “amazing idea” that he thought would solve a real problem in a certain niche. He was amped. Excited. Over the moon. According to him, he built something that was going to take off, get funded by venture capitalists, and make him rich. And he wanted me to help him market it.

It was already built, almost ready to launch, and he was certain that in a matter of months, we’d be swimming in money. But you know what happened? Nothing. Nobody wanted to use it.

It was like he built a mansion that nobody wanted to move into.  

I asked him what he based his idea on (that he spent about six months building) and he said that he just “thought it would be something people could use.” He got almost zero feedback up front.

He didn't poll or survey anyone. Nothing.

So come launch day, and 10 months later to the date, it’s still dead in the water. Months of coding, building, and programming wasted. All to solve a problem he thought people had, but in reality didn't exist at all.

This is not a good way to approach design.  

Intercom’s VP of Product, Paul Adams, speaks to this in this post on product design:

“Too many designers are designing to impress their peers rather than address real business problems...if product design is about solving problems for people within the constraints of a specific business, then it simply feels that many people calling themselves product/UX designers are actually practicing digital art. They are Artists. They are Stylists. Executing beautiful looking things, which is certainly an important skill, but they are not practising product design.”

Paul Adams
VP of Product, Intercom

All good design is art, but all art is not good design.

The number one rule of good design is being broken constantly by designers who should know better. Instead of asking “what do our users want?” designers are still creating products based on what they think their users want.

This is bad practice at best, and certainly isn't how you should build. Because when design goes bad, it can go really bad. It’s bad for business, bad for the user, and bad for your bottom line.

Here’re a few examples of what I’m talking about.

Bad nudge example #1:

When you go to sign up for this anti-virus software, the “Update” button is grayed out which makes it look like it can’t be clicked. But, as it turns out, the grayed out button can be clicked.

This is a bad nudge. It’s not intuitive and is designed to trick the user:

Bad nudge example #2:

Amazon is famous for bad nudges that push users to spend more money unnecessarily. Nudges exist in default settings and can set the user up for success, or can be set to the option that makes the business more money.

Here are a few examples of bad nudges (which are part of bad UX) from Amazon. Now depending on who you ask, these could be good or bad. They’re good for Amazon because they’re set up to make Amazon more money. But what about the user?

These nudges can cause a negative perception of the Amazon brand. By setting up defaults that cause the user to spend more money, Amazon is nudging their user in a potentially undesired direction:

If you want to purchase a full season or episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead on Amazon.com, you’re only given one pre-set choice on the purchase screen, which I was personally tricked by a couple times before I realized that I was being duped.

If you’re in a hurry or not paying attention, you’ll spend $41.99 to buy the entire season and not realize that you have other options. They do this purposely and it’s deceptive. Look what happens when you click the “More Purchase Options” link below the button:

Bad nudge example #3

When you’re checking out at Livenation.com, they sneak a Rolling Stone magazine subscription into the Privacy Policy. Yep, this is actually real. Furthermore, to opt-out, you have to check the box. This isn't instinctual, it’s deceptive. Most checkboxes are set up for users to opt-in to something, not opt-out.

And oh yeah, if you realize that you signed up by accident, you have to use snail mail to unsubscribe. It’s a perfect example of a bad nudge that was clearly meant to trick the user:

Hear me loud and clear: bad design leaves a mark on your brand. It doesn’t help you, it hurts you. UX Designer Zoltán Gócza says:

To avoid this bias [that you and your user think alike], you need to learn about your users, involve them in the design process, and interact with them.

Building for the user

To make things pleasant for your user, you need to make their task easier. Your goal should be to delight your users by helping them get where they need to go while laying out their path in the same way you’d want it laid out for yourself.

And to do that? You need to reverse engineer everything.

...You need to have conversations before you build ...You need to truly understand the users intent and mindset ...And when you do, only then should you move forward

User-centric design makes people happy…

  • When you build for the user, you set defaults to the most desirable setting for them, not you.

  • You avoid deception, you make choices clear, and you don’t try to trick people.

  • You make things easy to understand, not complicated.

  • You make your customer onboarding process an intuitive one.

  • When you’re feverishly setting up wireframes and sitemaps, you need to take a step back, look at the user data and ask yourself: “Does this make sense for them?” If it doesn’t, kill it.

  • When you’re pricing your products or services, you need to be realistic.

  • When you’re writing (or auditing) the copy on your site, you need to focus on clarity over cleverness, being helpful over technical, and writing to delight, not to impress.

  • Everything you do should flow logically from one point to the next. When somebody clicks a button that says “Download Now” they shouldn’t be taken to a signup page. They should see a file being downloaded.

This requires a mindset and a company culture that focuses on the user. There isn't room for egos or hurt feelings when you’re designing or building something for your user. They’re the ones with the problem that needs solved. Not you. They’re the ones who will buy your product, or ignore you.

It's not about you…

...it’s about them.

You need to focus on their journey because as a business it’s the only thing that’s going to make you sink or swim.

Time to nudge nicely

If you want to take your business to the next level, you can’t afford to “wing it.” You can’t keep guessing at what works or design things based on how you (or your developer, or boss, or investor) thinks things should be. There’s an entire ocean of people out there, desperate for what you have. They just need to be included, nurtured, noticed, and nudged...and they’ll go from prospect to paying customer in no time.

So, what do you think?

Do you have stories of design gone bad or tips for nudging people that you’d like to share? Hop in the comments and let us know.

And if you want to learn more about setting your users up for success, make sure you check out our "no-nonsense guide to increase conversion rate" to learn how to optimize your site and sales funnel like a pro.

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