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Persuasive Architecture: How to Get Your Visitors to Take Action

Take architecture.  Nothing new here; you guys have been building stuff and talking about the related philosophies for millennia.  So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that those of us messing around on the Internet would find a way to co-opt such a handy metaphor. 

We have.  The concept of “Information Architecture,” a field of study and practice that is central to your online efforts, has been with us for quite a while. 

But I’d like to get you thinking about a different and much more powerful metaphor, “Persuasive Architecture,” that marries all the bits and pieces to the Big Picture.  All you have to do is catch the bouquet!

Lots of things come to mind when I think of “architecture”:  design, intention, function, beauty, structure, movement.  I think of how a museum is very different to a fast food joint is very different to a house.  Architecture as a discipline is a merger of science and art, joining the breadth of engineering and aesthetics with human use.1

The best constructions out there do more than just arrange space so you can figure out where you can go; they are built to help you go where you need to go – as that is understood both by you and the architect – in a way that appeals and delights.

Let’s take a walk down History Lane.  About a hundred years ago, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote:

A building should contain as few rooms as will meet the condition which give it rise and under which we live, and which the architect should strive continually to simplify; the ensemble of the rooms should then be carefully considered that comfort and utility may go hand in hand with beauty.2

It’s a cool article, especially if you replace “Web site” for “building,” “Web page” for “room,” “call to action” for “door,” think of “nature” as “functionality” and “materials” as the inherent character of the medium.   You get the idea.

Look also at the development of Landscape Architecture, particularly through folks like Frederick Law Olmsted (best known for his role in shaping Central Park in New York):3

Olmsted applied these principles of separation and subordination more consistently than any other landscape architect of his era. Subordination was accomplished in his parks where carefully constructed walks and paths would flow through landscape with gentle grades and easy curves, thus requiring the viewer's minimal attention to the process of movement. At the same time, many of the structures that Olmsted incorporated into his parks merge with their surroundings. Separation is accomplished in his park systems by designing large parks that were meant for  the enjoyment of the scenery. Smaller recreational areas for other activities and where "park ways" handle the movement of pedestrians and vehicular traffic offset these large parks.4

Even more explicitly, the purpose of this form of architecture was to create space that shaped and guided the “user’s” experience.  Intention was integral to the design – when you stepped over here, you were supposed to see this; when you moved further down that path, you were presented with a secretive opening you simply couldn’t resist investigating.   Fascinating stuff!

To get visitors to take action online, you practice Architecture:  construction as the result of a conscious act; the creation of a unifying or coherent form or structure.

Information Architecture is definitely a piece of the puzzle, even if folks have often used the term in a vague sort of way.  The best definition I’ve found comes from Louis Rosenfeld:

Information architecture involves the design of organization and navigation systems to help people find and manage information more successfully.5

Information Architecture is all about helping folks find the information they are looking for.  It’s about how you optimize your site’s search engine so visitors can find products, how you categorize your supplemental navigation in ways that make sense to your visitors and reflect how they might look for your stuff.  It’s the rudiments of the Qualifying part of the sales process.  Actually, brilliant Information Architecture is like a top-notch reference librarian.

But you don’t only want to help people find your stuff and make it easy for them to interact with your site (the usability part of the puzzle), you want them to take action.  You want them to buy, or subscribe, or qualify themselves as a lead.  So you need to do more than allow them to act; you have to persuade them!

And that’s where Persuasive Architecture comes in.  It’s the aesthetically appealing and functional structure you create to marry the organization of the buying and selling processes with the organization of information.  It’s the only way your Web site is actively going to influence, the only way you will pull (never push!) your visitors along the paths they need to walk to accomplish their goals – and yours.

The dudes here at Future Now really like the building associations; me, I have a fondness for green stuff.  Either way, we’re very excited about this unifying framework of Persuasive Architecture.  So stay tuned … we’ve only just begun! Check out Bryan Eisenberg's article this on applying Persuasive Architecture.

1 With appreciation to Tom Grimes, one cosmic-thinking dude!
2 “In the Cause of Architecture.”  Frank Lloyd Wright.  Architectural Record .  March, 1908.  Reprinted in Frank Lloyd Wright, Collected Writings.  vol 1.  pp 87-88.
3 Also Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux, Ebenezer Howard
5“Information Architecture Revealed!”  John S. Rhodes.


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