Nathalie Nahai and the power of persuasive tech
The multitalented Nathalie Nahai is a web psychologist, international speaker and author of best selling book – Webs of Influence: The psychology of online persuasion.
Last week we spoke with her about writing her incredible book and her unusual path from folk singing to web psychology.
In Webs of Influence you talk about your passion for psychology and the human condition, if you weren’t a web psychologist… what route do you think you would have taken?
“Hmmm, that’s a tough one – before design and psychology I was in music for five years, but I stopped that in order to continue with my design work. I love design, but I don’t think it challenges me as much as psychology does. So the two compliment each other well as there are always new areas to explore.
“I’m also passionate about issues surrounding sex, gender and identity as well as equal rights and ways in which to alleviate human suffering, so maybe I would have progressed down that route had I not pursued my current path.”
In the book you cover so much ground, from case studies and design advice, to practical examples that you can employ in your own business. With such an all-encompassing piece, how did you begin the creative process?
“Planning, lots of planning! I had a look at what was already out there, and there was so much research that looked at different aspects of human behaviour that I had to spend a lot of time reading and deciding what was and wasn’t relevant.
“I wanted to talk about areas that I felt were underrepresented online, to strip things back to the basics and take a look at the key areas that people needed access to first, before delving into more specialist areas like conversion rate optimisation, seo etc, that are already covered in great detail.
“I asked myself, what are the key things that are useful to know with regards to human psychology on a universal level? What things apply everywhere? And then I looked at the cultural and individual differences that differentiate us and progressed from there.
“Having been briefed with a 50,000 word title, the book originally ended up at around 83,000 words, and together with my editors we had to chop it back to just 72,000. There’s just so much to write about.”
In WOI you talk a lot about the importance of gaining trust from your audience. To anyone reading this who hasn’t had the chance to read your book yet, what three things would you suggest to increase trust from consumers?
- “Ensure you’re consistent with your message. What is your brand voice? And how are you expressing it through your values through different social channels? You should aim to meet consumer expectations by being as native as you can be across each channel.
- “Make sure you are transparent with them. Don’t use opt-outs, or do any third party importing of mail lists; it’s an easy way to lose trust and it can damage a brand instantly. Also, if you’re doing celebrity endorsements, make sure these people use the product, otherwise it’s pretty embarrassing when your consumers find out that they don’t.
- “Try and mirror the language that your customers use; this may involve you doing some research on some of the pain points they might have. This is especially useful because by doing the research, you’re more likely to service their actual needs and not just operate on assumptions about what those needs are.”
We work with a site called trustpilot to get feedback from our students, how important do you think customer feedback sites are for a brand?
“They are increasingly important. As consumers we often look to our peers for cues on how to behave, and we’ve become very sceptical about the messages brands convey.
“Ultimately we seek reassurance, so a way of exploring product reviews before you buy is invaluable.
“The crucial thing about these sites is that you’ve got to be careful how you deal with your customers, especially when things go wrong. When the shit hits the fan (so to speak), the customer’s story is usually believed to be more accurate, so you need to make sure their grievances are dealt with effectively.”
In your book you talk about the importance of colour when designing a website and how people’s perception of colour changes from culture to culture. We have students from all over the world, are there any universal colours that we can all benefit from?
“This is a difficult one because you need to research your audience and avoid thinking that one size fits all. There’s so much conflicting research surrounding the psychology of colour and some studies don’t even take into account culture, age, or individual differences – so you need to be careful.
“That being said, there are two colours that have a fairly universal response in the people viewing them – and they are red and blue.
“Blue is typically a colour that instils trust and reduces our arousal levels, because of this it is frequently used by social media sites and businesses in the financial sector all over the world.
“Red heightens our arousal levels, and has long been associated with visceral states, so anger, fear, lust. But then in China, it’s also perceived as a lucky colour.
“Essentially if you are using red on your website, its likely to drive lots of action, and that’s why it’s frequently used to advertise sales. But always, always research your audience before playing around with colour – it might not be right for you.”
Image source: Webs of Influence
The book has some great advice on how a business can utilise all their social media channels. Are there any trends on social media that are shocking even you?
“I think one of the most positive trends to emerge from social media was exemplified when one of my favourite actors, Leonard Nimoy, passed away earlier this year.”
“In a celebration of his life, people came together and retweeted his last tweet with the hashtag #LLAP – ‘live long and prosper’.
“His tweet, ‘A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP’ has since been retweeted over 280,000 times and favourited over 200,000 times.
“The sense of unity and shared emotion that you can have online is like no other, especially when you look at the way in which people can get behind really positive expressions of gratitude or admiration. You hear so much about social media being on the negative side of things, so for me this was a surprising example of how great social media can be.”
We’ve recently been speaking to our students about keeping productive when working from home. As a successful author you must be doing things right. What advice do you have for those struggling to stay focused?
“It really breaks down into two things – motivation and focus.”
“If you’re working by yourself and no one is there to crack the whip, then it can be difficult to stay motivated. When I started writing my first book, I made sure that I managed my time well by drawing up a progress sheet and keeping on top of where the time went
“Most importantly, remember to reward yourself when you do stick to your plan so as to keep the motivation going. I shouldn’t advocate this, but some of the best writing I’ve done has been after a glass of red wine in an aeroplane in the sky with no wifi!
“Now there’s lots of research surrounding how long you can stay focused in one session, and I have several friends who have sworn by the Pomodoro method to ensure they don’t hit a wall. The technique advocates working solidly for 25 minutes and then taking a five minute break, requiring that you stay disciplined with your study time.
“Having read some of the primary psychological research around attention and performance, I have found that 45 minutes of solid work followed by a 15 minutes break is the most effective for me – it’s worth testing out to find your optimum timing.”
Women in tech
We loved your podcasts “The good, the bad and the dirty”. Hearing Stephanie Shirley speak about so openly about the prejudice she faced in the early stages of her carer was really interesting. Do you think there are still any barriers for woman in tech?
“I think it really depends on where you are.”
“In the five years I’ve spoken at tech conferences, I’ve only had two uncomfortable occasions where some things were said that were inappropriate – but they were fairly harmless and everyone around me felt equally uncomfortable with the behaviour. So on the whole I’ve actually had really good experiences, and out of the friends I’ve made along the way, the men have been more explicit feminists than the women!
“However, I’ve spoken to quite a lot of women who have come out of the bay area in the US, and they’ve had very different experiences. My mentor is an extraordinary woman (she’s one of the people who holds the most patents in the US), yet she still faces this weird myopic prejudice for being female. She’s based in San Francisco where this type of behaviour seems more prevalent, but it perplexes me how it can still be going on.
“I think that a lot of it comes down to the culture you’re immersed in, and in Europe people seem to be a lot more welcoming and open-minded.
“I think the main issue with gender and culture change is that we are so used to quick fixes. Social injustices can’t be transformed overnight, and if we’re serious about change we need to continuously work on it.”
What to look out for
Lastly, as I know you’re a very busy lady, is there anything in the pipeline that we should keep our eye on?
“One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is how the internet is influencing our behaviours, for good and for bad (and everything in between). I’ve particularly been exploring how some companies are using certain practices to manipulate our behaviours in ways that don’t serve us.
“Examples include notifications that disrupt our productivity, all the way through to things that dupe us into taking actions that we otherwise wouldn’t.
“I’m looking at ways we can humanise the web to empower self-actualisation, and explore ways in which we can design and use technology that will enable us to lead the kind of lives we want live. Whether that’s through a short-term goal of being able to finish your coursework without interruption, to a more long-term goal of being able to spend more quality time with your family without disturbances. Either way, we need to learn how to use persuasive tech without abusing it.”
Where to find Nathalie
Nathalie is currently in the process of writing her second book and is also running a non-profit conference every two years called Humanise the Web, looking at ways we can harness persuasive tech for the better. You can also catch her at the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast and thewebpsychologist.com.
If you’d like to get in touch with Nathalie, you can tweet her @nathalienahai.