Is There a Role for Persuasive Design Thinking in Libraries?

Post by Deirdre Costello in EBSCO Discovery Service

EBSCO’s User Research team recently hosted Amy Bucher, Organizational Psychologist at Johnson & Johnson, as the first speaker in our Coffee & Cannoli Lecture Series. We created a Storify if you want to see how her ideas unfolded on Twitter, and my teammate Beth Sauer writes more in-depth about this event here.

Amy works for the Health & Wellness team at Johnson & Johnson, where she uses design psychology to help users make healthy decisions with their values in mind. While I’m comfortable with persuasive design being used to help users improve their health, Matthew Reidsma (@mreidsma) chimed in with a valid concern:

Matt points out here that there’s a short distance between encouraging users to make good decisions and forcing them to make a specific decision. So where is the line between using design to suggest that there’s a healthy choice and not offering any choice at all?

The practice of forcing users through a workflow that’s ideal for the product or service provider, but not necessarily ideal for the user, is called a “dark pattern.” You’ve probably seen some examples: when the “unsubscribe” option for a particularly noxious email newsletter is practically invisible, or when you go through the entire process of customizing an app to your liking only to find that everything you’ve chosen requires a premium subscription. You can learn more at

Dark patterns are problematic; they frustrate the user and don’t do much to inspire trust. So without veering over to the dark side, is there a role in libraries for the kind of design that might encourage one behavior over another?

I think the answer lies in the gap between what users report wanting to do and what they actually do. Based on the User Research team’s work, we know that college students want to create a high-quality research product. They want to learn and be proud of the work they’ve done. But the choices they make during the research process don’t always reflect those goals: they rely heavily on Google and Wikipedia, don’t persist when they face obstacles using library resources, and often don’t take full advantage of what they have access to through their library.

That’s where I think there’s potential for persuasive design – in helping students close that gap. When you make the information literate path the path of least resistance, you encourage good student habits and facilitate the goals you share with them: to get them access to high-quality information so they can engage with it in meaningful ways.

If any of that rings true for you, you may agree with me that there is an opportunity for a version of persuasive design in the academic library experience. Without crossing over to the dark side, obviously.

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