How design can manipulate users

Although a designer’s job is to help users achieve their goals, while helping businesses achieve their KPIs, do all designers treat their users with dignity and respect?

Users are manipulated by design very frequently, but how is this achieved and how does it create a good user experience? Of course, we should remain ethical, offering delightful experiences for users within a product or service, but there has been a lot of debate and even some calls for legislation.

Every day we are manipulated by design, but how aware are we of it? Below is a small selection of the ways design can manipulate you.


With smartphones and smart tech taking over our daily lives, we’re now more accessible to brands than we ever have been before – the constant pinging from your device gives you that uncontrollable itch.

Yes, you could turn off the sound on your device, but even then we are visually prompted to take note – red dots or the larger push notifications are displayed to trigger an interaction. It creates a sense of urgency as if designers are challenging you to clear the notifications.

Think about apps that display messages as ‘read’ or ‘seen’ – you know the person you are in conversation with knows you have ‘read’ the message, so you feel obliged to reply. This might not be great for you but it’s great for the service provider, as you’re helping to hit their KPI for time spent on their site or app.

Pop ups

Pop ups are a perfectly acceptable tool when used effectively, following best practice in terms of design and usability, and when they’re displayed at a suitable time in the user journey. But how many times have you fallen victim to a popup with no obvious way of closing it? There seems to be somewhat of an influx of pop ups that don’t show a cross you can click, which then manipulates the user to interact with the content of the pop up and ultimately click through because they can’t see any other way of navigating away from the pop up.

Hidden sign ups

Ever wondered why some company is sending you emails, which you don’t recall asking for? You have most likely inadvertently signed up for something. That’s not your fault and can be very easily done. Perhaps there’s a tick box somewhere that you’ve missed, hidden next to long paragraphs of text you had no time to read. Or perhaps it was the combination of the language used and the subtle styling that caused you to overlook the seemingly hidden sign up.


The kinds of images used in advertising can also manipulate you into transacting.

Imagine you’re looking to purchase some Bluetooth earphones and the design makes use of imagery that depicts happiness and healthiness. You start to associate that product with happiness subconsciously, and you want to feel like the people in the pictures. That makes you more inclined to make that purchase.

Here’s another example. We’ve all seen the tv adverts appealing for charity donations – they can be heartbreaking to watch, and the person responsible for the production knows that displaying upsetting scenes makes users more likely to connect and donate.


Another commonly used tactic for manipulating users is visual prompts such ‘Hot right now’ or ’23 people purchased this today’. These could encourage you to engage with the brand – perhaps you subconsciously feel like you’re missing out on something, which makes you more likely to click through for further details. While these prompts are useful information if they’re true, they’re an unethical tactic if not.

Likewise, displaying a timer creates a sense of urgency – the user is almost rushed into making that buying decision because they can see that time is ticking.


Colour plays a huge part in design because it evokes an array of emotions, which designers use to their advantage.

Red, for example, demands attention. It has a sense of importance which, when used sparingly, will aid design. When used too much, it can be off-putting – harking back to school days, where teachers would use red pen all over homework.

Blue is one of the most powerful colours in a designer’s armoury. It conveys trust and is calming, most likely because it reminds you of water. Blue is an inviting colour that draws users in, which might be why some of the biggest social platforms use it as their primary colour.

Black is often used for brands looking to promote themselves as elegant or luxurious. It has an element of power about it, and suggests that the brand should be taken seriously.

These are just a few examples of how design can manipulate users. While these can be used for negative intentions, it’s a designer’s job to use these tactics to provide a solution to a problem, guide users to achieve their goals, as well as meeting business goals and remaining ethical.

If you need help defining your UX, find out how our Media team can help you or check out our blog for more expert insight and tips about design.

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