Asking in the right order

By Geoff Muskett

Pre-article note. I’m trusting you to use these techniques for the power of good!


In ethics there’s a thought experiment called ‘The Trolley Problem’. This is a little morbid, but bare with me.

There’s a runaway railway trolley, on course to hit 5 people tied up unable to move.

On a separate branch line theres one person tied up. You can flick a switch to reroute the trolley onto this branch.

Imagine it’s a silent movie, maybe that’ll lighten the tone.

Flick the switch and condemn one person. Or not flick the switch and condemn 5. Would you flick it?

Most people would flick it. Using the perfectly logical reasoning of saving a net positive 4 people.

The fat man

To extend this experiment, there is no longer a switch and no second branch. Now there is a fat man stood on a bridge above the track.

Remember – silent movie.

Pushing him off the bridge would derail the trolley, saving the 5 tied up people, but condemning him.

Would you push him?

Most people say no. Why? The result is the same. Net positive 4 people.

But it is different. Pushing him is a physical act and an experience that you’d have to live with. So saying no makes sense.

Asking in a different order

Late one night I thought it might be fun to ask my friend, out of the blue, whether she’d push the fat guy. I explained the scenario.

Her reaction was something along the lines of “no way, I’d never murder anyone”.

Which of course is a good reaction.

Then I asked if she’d flick the switch, from the first scenario. Her reaction again, “no way”.

Had I asked in the traditional order, I wonder if the answer would have been different. Maybe. Maybe not.

Either way it got me thinking about the optimum order to ask questions to get a desired answer (not that I had a desired answer in this case).

Swaying decisions in our favour is relevant to any design professional. Particularly web designers, who have the ability to create interactive experiences.

Like it or not, we’re in the industry of convincing people to buy something, or take a certain action.

Car salesmen

I don’t want to compare web designers to slimy car sales people. But it’s wise to take note of tactics if you have something worthy of it’s price.

However, if your product is not worthy of it’s value, you’re are a slimy salesperson. Be cool, use these techniques for good!

In the excellent book ‘Influence’ by Robert B. Caldini, he talks about tactics of car salesmen.

New cars come with lots of optional extras. £100 for super laud speakers. £75 for a faux Camel leather steering wheel, maybe.

A trained car salesman knows to ask for these extras after the big bucks car sale has been made.

The reason for this is simple. The extras seem like pittance in comparison to the price of the car. The car buyer feels they ‘might as well’ pay a mere £75 extra for the luxury steering wheel.

Take the purchase out of the context of having just bought a car. Chances are the buyer wouldn’t spend £75 on a Camel skin steering wheel. Would you?

The basic principal is that less expensive item #2, feels cheaper after seeing the more expensive item #1. On it’s own item #2 looks more expensive, and therefor less likely to sell. The Comparative Effect.

I’ve just booked a holiday at Centre Parcs. Not that I’m complaining, but I’ve just been at the mercy of the very same tactic. Their sales flow is to first book the accommodation, which isn’t cheap, then book the activities. I’m certain Centre Parcs does very well from this technique.

Using these principals in web design

When to ask

Often you’ll see sites with a big header image, their logo, a strap-line and a call-to-action.

Buy now. Sign up. Like us.

Whatever the goal, it’s desperate and premature to ask straight away.

People want to investigate the product or service first. They want information. They want plenty of pictures. They want reviews. They may ask questions.

Few people will buy, sign up, or like, without knowing what to expect. Plus they haven’t had chance to decide whether their mindset aligns with the offering.

Take QVC, or similar god awful TV infomercial, selling humane fly swats for example.

They may start with a mindset-nudging question like ‘have you ever wanted an easy way to rid flies from your living room’.

Then they’ll pack the viewer with information about the swats. Clearly demonstrating how it solves fly problems. Problems that are familiar.

The buyers mindset is established, they’re on-board. Then comes the ask.

As web designers, we can learn a lot from this. It’s about having call-to-actions after the stage has been set.

Giving options

If you’re selling something, letting people choose an option can be powerful.


The duel tariff model of ‘basic’ and ‘premium’ is common for subscription services. I wager that the premium option is often there to entice users to join the basic.

This is the Comparative Effect in full flow. A high priced premium plan makes the basic look cheaper than it actually is.

As long as the subscription is worth the money I don’t feel this is underhanded. It’s just giving users a subliminal nudge towards something that is of use.

Product options and the Apple Watch

Don’t know if you’ve heard but Apple are pretty big deal these days. They know a thing or two about influence. I expect they invest heavily in psychological research behind purchasing.

The company has long been an exponent of the comparative pricing model. Typically with two or three tiers of product. Their current iPad range has 4 tiers, ranging from £659 to £279. The latter seeming like good value, in comparison to the former. And it’s still an iPad.

However, now they’ve gone crazy. The premium Apple Watch is ten grand.

But, knowing what we know about The Comparative Effect, it so crazy? The cheapest model is £299 – a snip when up against £10,000. Plus it made headlines, so there’s another win for the brand.

It’ll be interesting to see if they role extreme pricing models to other products in it’s range.

Nudging mindset

Going back to my ‘fat guy’ question to my friend. The mindset she took was immediately ‘I’m not that person’. So when the option came to flick a switch she stayed true to her acquired stance. Her mindset was established.

This was an obvious and extreme example. But mindset-nudging can be done in a far subtler ways.

‘Influence’ talks about the concept of priming. (I recommend the book, by the way).

It states that a small act, such as signing a petition saying ‘clear up our city’, can have a profound effect.

A study found that people who had signed the petition were likely to agree to bigger requests. Like putting a giant billboard in their garden supporting cleaner streets.

Whereas the people who hadn’t been presented with the petition were far more resistant.

Using the techniques in web design

1. Set mindset.

You could open with a question. Or a poll. Something which asks people to make a conscious decision. The point is to align their mindset with your product or service.

It can be little ask, with a probable answer. Getting ready for a bigger ask later on.

Note: Later on doesn’t necessarily mean in the same visit to your site. It may be in another touch point with that person. Perhaps an video, or on a social network. Wherever.

2. Inform.

Now the user needs info and examples from likeminded individuals. Testimonials, videos, reviews… more social proof (thoughts on social proof another day).

3. Ask.

Now mindset in place and the stage set, purchase options can be introduced.

Using the rule of contrast, have at least two options. One expensive, one less expensive. With the expectation of selling the latter.

By appealing to in-built human characteristics you’ll reap rewards.


PS: This is alternate ending #3. First I wrote an example of how to use techniques in a real scenario. But it felt manipulative.

So I scrapped it and wrote different ending simply saying ‘bare the techniques in mind when designing sites’.

The hesitation was because I hate being marketed junk products. Even worse, I hate my kids being marketed to with junk products.

We’re all susceptible, so I take steps to avoid unscrupulous marketing.

I don’t watch any TV with adverts, so my mind is free from Nestle telling me how healthy Cherios are, failing to mention they are nearly 21% sugar. And free from people like me, but seemingly sportier, healthier, happier, more attractive, drinking Coka-Cola.

I don’t shop at supermarkets because their sole goal is for us to fill their giant trolleys with produce we don’t need.

But ending #2 wasn’t a good wrap-up. It was a bit of a cop out. #3 lays out the process in simple steps, without giving specific examples. It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense, really. Plus this is far from an exhaustive list of psychological buying factors.

Assuming your product is worthy, you can feel good about applying the three steps laid out in alternate ending #3.


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