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Persuasive Web Design, Part 4: Diffusion of Responsibility


Don't let your visitors
pass the buck

We've all heard of cases where someone's lying sick on the sidewalk, and hundreds of people just walk by without offering help. What's going on here? And how can this possibly apply to web design?

What's going on is "Diffusion of Responsibility". We see the person on the sidewalk, but figure either:

  • "Nobody else seems alarmed, so it can't be that serious", or
  • "Boy, that guy seems sick. Luckily there are lots of people around. Someone more qualified than me will help him"

And we keep walking.

Now, if there were nobody else around, the situation would be different. We'd be forced to evaluate the situation ourselves rather than rely on the reaction of others. And there'd be nobody else to pass the responsibility on to. We'd act.

Diabolical as it sounds, we can take advantage of "Diffusion of Responsibility" when selling things online. The trick is to ensure visitors understand it is their responsibility to act, not someone else's. For example:

  • If you're selling alarm systems, consider messaging to the effect that it's the father's responsibility to protect his family.
  • If you're trying to convince parents to get their kids a vaccinated, place the responsibility squarely on one parent, e.g. "It's every mother's responsibility to make sure their child is vaccinated."

Obviously, this technique can't be used everywhere. But where it does apply, it's extremely powerful.


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