Empowerment Vs. Manipulation: A Rant

Tim Mehta, Senior Optimization Strategist

There’s been a heated argument happening between UX and CRO. One side believes in equipping the user to make the best decisions for their specific needs. The other side, while generally well-intentioned, has a sub-group of professionals who believe in using tricks to get users to convert.

Let’s break down both of these…

Manipulation: Using psychological principles to influence (trick) a person to take an action.
Result: Short-term success, poor long-term brand affinity.

Empowerment: Using an empathetic approach to understand the user’s needs, and giving them what is most useful and informative at the right time so they can make the best decision for themselves.
Result: Gradual (and sustainable) long-term success, strong brand affinity.

Empowerment gives the user an opportunity to self-qualify. Manipulation tricks any user to skip the self-qualifying and take an action.

Let’s look at a few examples.

In-Person Manipulation: Liking.

A salesperson gives you an unsolicited (disingenuous) compliment with the intent to get you to like them, which will increase the likelihood that you’ll buy from them.

So you buy from them, thinking their intentions are good because well, you liked them. But this isn’t sustainable. Eventually, you figure it out…

*Listening to audio-tape*

This, my friends, is manipulation 101.

The takeaway from this is also: Consumers aren’t stupid. We eventually come around to these tactics. And when we do, we are very unlikely to engage with a brand that has used them on us.

A digital example of manipulation: Scarcity

Lots of brands will create an unnecessary element of urgency to get you to act quickly without giving yourself the chance to get all the information you need.

You might see this as a simple “limited time” promotion. But a closer look (or a savvy marketer) will show that this is a straight up manipulation tactic. They are limiting the amount of time you actually need to read about the product and make a decision. It takes away from the opportunity to learn about the actual factors that matter when making a decision to purchase. It uses a sense of urgency and scarcity to make us feel FOMO.

We’ve all purchased things simply because they were on sale or because it was a limited time offer. This usually ends up as a regret and gives us negative vibes about the place we bought it from.

A digital example of manipulation: Identity and Friction

This manipulation tactic is one of the most infuriating…

A closer look…

One might interpret this popup as just another common lead generation element. But can we be honest about what the brand who serves up this message is really saying?

Prompt: “Are you an idiot?”
Opt-In Button: “Of course not. I’m smart! Sell me something!”
Opt-Out Button: “Yes, I’m personally and professionally useless”

There is too much micro-aggression and shaming like this all over the web.

There are two principle methods of manipulation happening in most of these instances.

One method of manipulation is within the copy of the opt-in and opt-out selections (Identity).

Refinery29 (Very surprised they’re doing this)


Semper Plugins

Of course I want to improve my SEO. Oh no, I’m not the type of person who is fine with crappy SEO!”

When presented with choices that require us to make to a claim about who we are, we are subconsciously saying these things about ourselves as we weigh the two options. When we claim a certain trait or characteristic about ourselves, we become committed to it and will make irrational decisions to validate it.

The other method of manipulation is found within the design (Friction).

Take a look at the design differences between the opt-in and opt-out buttons of these examples…



(REALLY??) Babylist

Notice how different the treatments are between the “opting in” button and the “opting out” button. The designer gave more contrast and legibility to the button they want you to choose, not necessarily the button that is most useful to you.

Sometimes, they will even make this opt-out button harder to find or click. Or straight up exclude an opt-out button!

The brain goes for the path of least resistance, and there can be a lot of resistance when playing hide-and-seek with an opt-out button.

This isn’t just manipulation, it’s being a jerk.

Want to know what people are thinking when they see these?

Imagine walking into a shop at the mall. An employee walks up to you, “Hello! Would you like to save money today, or are you not interested in being a better person?”

Anyone’s reaction:

On top of that, they pretend to not hear you when you tell them “no.”

The Importance of Context

Context also makes a difference when brands decide to use this shaming tactic.

On some sites, users might already be feeling vulnerable due to the general category they are browsing or problem they are trying to solve. This includes things like health and fitness, or dieting websites.

Ultimate Paleo Diet

This is unethical on a number of levels. It’s the opposite of empowerment: it’s shaming. Again, imagine if someone said that to you in person at the gym.

“Would you like a starter kit to help you lose weight? Or do you know everything already?”

Also, disrespecting your visitors is never acceptable. See some of the reactions that ultimatepaleoguide.com got on Twitter…

The best part here is when the owner of the brand gets involved in the conversation (not sure if they fully understood the point of the initial post).

Click here to see the full thread on Twitter.

It’s a really simple fix. Give a crap. It’s that easy. Care about your visitors, don’t disrespect them or insult their intelligence.

Although, there are brands out there who are getting it (sort of) right with these types of lead generation tactics.

Here are some examples of how to do it better:

It doesn’t take a lot of effort or resources to be respectful of your users. All it really takes is giving them a chance to make a choice of their own.


Ah, much better. A nicely placed, easy-to-find “x” to close the popup. Thank you!


Almost there! Two buttons to close/opt-out that are easy to find and no shaming copy for those who aren’t interested.

These psychological principles should be leveraged for the good of a user, not for a quick conversion.

From the UX goal of matching user needs with helpful content, these manipulation tactics are literally going backward. They are adding friction to satisfy their need for leads while completely ignoring the user’s actual goal.

Good UX presents you with equal or similar treatment for an “opt-in” or “opt-out” selection. Let users qualify themselves, and help nudge them in the right direction along the way.

Optimize for the user, not for conversions.

Start call to action

See how Portent can help you own your piece of the web.

End call to action
Close search overlay