Things That Make You Go Click – Interview with Nathalie Nahai

23 Minute Read | Interviews

Web psychology is an important consideration for any brand choosing to participate online; so I discussed what makes people click with none other but the Web Psychologist herself, Nathalie Nahai at MozCon earlier this year.

Nathalie is the author of the absolutely fascinating book “Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion” where we learn to know who we’re targeting, to communicate persuasively and to sell with integrity. Three very important elements every digital marketer should embrace – I highly recommend it.

She is also the host of the podcast series “The Good, The Bad & The Dirty: Secret Psychology of Persuasion” where she chats with fellow authors, doctors, psychologists, digital marketers and other interesting people.

Nathalie Nahai (the Web Psychologist) at Mozcon 2014

Photo credit: MozCon 2014 Speaker Photos on Facebook

When she’s not writing books and doing interviews, Nathalie can be found travelling the world, speaking at various conferences and assisting large organisations with fundamentally understanding human behaviour and applying her principles to get better bang for their bucks – so buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Woj: Thanks for joining me!

Nathalie: My pleasure.

Woj: Now, I noticed that you have an “H” in the spelling of your name? What’s the origin of Nathalie?

Nathalie: So, the Nathalie is French. My mom is half Iranian, quarter French, quarter Belgium. Nahai is the Iranian and the “H” in the Nathalie is French.

Woj: Okay, cool. One thing that people may not know about you is that you’re quite an accomplished musician.

Nathalie: Oh, thanks.

Woj: I found out on YouTube that you play acoustic guitar and sing.

Nathalie: I do, I’m also classically trained in violin.

Woj: Oh wow.

Nathalie: Yeah.

Woj: Do you still do that?

Nathalie: Occasionally, if I’ve had a glass of wine LOL

Woj: LOL – So you’re going to get into the karaoke tonight?

Nathalie: No, I shall probably steer clear.

Woj: Any plans to release any more music?

Nathalie: No. Well, I say that. There’s the two albums, then I kind of moved into web psychology and did the book. I will at some point go into the studio and record a couple of tracks and release them just for fun, but no, nothing.

Woj: You should do a track with Mike King.

Nathalie: I was actually saying that last year. He could rap and I could do the little… you know, cute…

Woj: Harmonies?

Nathalie: Yeah, he’s an amazing rapper.

Woj: So, you also sing in French.

Nathalie: Yeah. My first language is actually French. Until I was two I couldn’t speak English. My parents spoke French to me, so it’s actually my mother tongue, even though I can’t speak French that well anymore. It’s a bit rusty.

Woj: Fantastic. So what drew you into psychology and decrypting the mind?

Nathalie: Honestly, I think it started when I was really young. I got bullied for ten years at school, which I f*#$ing hated – Oh am I allowed to say that?

Woj: Sure.

Nathalie: Okay, sorry guys 🙂 I think most people have some bad experiences growing up. People are mean and you have to start navigating those waters. I think that’s where I started understanding that

you could try and unpick why people are doing things, then maybe you’ve got a better chance of survival.

So I think that’s where it originates. Then I accidentally ended up doing Psychology as one of my extra A levels, and I loved it so much that instead of going directly to Art School, which is what I was going to do, my mom suggested that I go and do a BSs in Psych, because the art industry is very difficult, and you won’t make much money. So I did, and that was the starting point really.

Woj: And what drew you into web and digital strategies?

Nathalie: Honestly? Well, after I finished my psych degree, I’d been doing quite a lot of music. I was recording in Atlanta, Georgia and I needed to start understanding websites. Of course this was several years ago. Back then there weren’t that many great websites. I thought I can either pay some guy, at the time is was like two grand, now it’s upwards of ten or whatever it is. So I can either pay this guy a couple of grand every year to design the site, or I can just spend a couple hundred quid and learn how to code and design a site myself.

So I went and learned basic HTML, CSS, and then started learning Flash. Then HTML5 came along, and I thought right this is a sinking ship, why don’t I just quit while I’m ahead. So, that’s how I ended up in design.

The music wasn’t going so well, because I was already 26 years old, there weren’t that many female musicians and folk wasn’t a big thing. So many things that were just a big no, really… So I’d been doing the design stuff on the side, and people were starting to ask me to do their sites because they’d seen what I’d made for myself, and I accidentally became a freelance web designer for a while.

Woj: Wow. I was under the impression you had an agency or a design firm.

Nathalie: Whoa. No. It was freelance. I’ve never really worked for anyone, apart from when I was working in a pub when I was at university. And I was a tarot reader for two years, which was interesting.

Woj: I guess in isolation, web design and psychology are very different disciplines, but they make so much sense when combined. You really have to understand the behaviour of people traversing around your sites, both from a search engine point of view and from a personal point of view.

Nathalie: Well, that’s it. I think especially now that we’re seeing, you know, technology catching up with how we behave naturally. If you look at things like the kinds of algorithms Google are bringing out, and how you can no longer trick the system with heavily loading keywords on the page,

it’s taking a much more naturalistic approach; so, imitating human behaviour. Especially with things like the internet of things, mobile tech, we’re moving closer and closer towards creating just an additional depth to our existing offline reality.

Woj: Yes.

Nathalie: …which is so much more seamless. If you want to get to that point, which is already now, it’s happening, then you have to understand psychology, because that’s… It’s human users at this point until we create AI. It’s the key that unlocks everything.

What stops us buying online?

Photo credit: Part 3 of Nathalie’s book.

Woj: I’ve never studied psychology formally but I know a lot of things around the edges from reading bits here and there. My parents split while I was growing up… I think I was a natural psychologist for it because I had to learn at a very young age how to deal with things. I find it intriguing… blending the two disciplines. How is that working out for you? Are you consulting?

Nathalie: Yeah. At the moment, most of what I do is speaking and training. It’s teaching basically. I speak at a lot of different conferences and with big companies (typically with Fortune 100s). And then the training side, which is kind of the consultancy side, is usually with marketing teams and ecommerce teams, teaching them how to apply the web psychology stuff within specific projects they’re doing. Because…

web psychology is not just about the design of websites; it’s to do with the entire online environment.

Woj: Any kind of touch point really. The consumer’s whole experience.

Nathalie: Exactly. Also, I do auditing to help people redesign their sites from the ground up.

Woj: We do that too!

Nathalie: How’d you find that? Do you enjoy that?

Woj: I do. We work with web development companies, and we guide them in the right direction, because they’ll often design a site without any background information other than what has been supplied by the client, or based on their past experiences. So we audit from a user and search engine point of view, and we also look at click tracking to see how people are navigating around the site.

For example, on one site, we found that people were only clicking two buttons on the homepage. Then when we crawled and examined the site, we found that most of the content was nestled six levels deep. So we took those internal page elements, which got used quite regularly, and moved them to the front page, which had an impact. Also, involving the designers in that process was important. It’s an educated approach, rather than a “we did an upgrade where we just gave you flashy bells-and-whistles…”

Nathalie: Often you don’t need all of that. You just need to make it more coherent, so that everything’s pulling towards the goals you want to achieve.

Woj: How long did it take you to put your book together, and what was the research process like?

Nathalie: From start to finish, about a year and a half. But it started slowly. When I was at uni, I used to do research by printing stuff out and highlight key bits, so I took that approach with the book over the summer of 2011. And then I got to about January of 2012, and I thought,

“Oh shit, I really need to start pulling my finger out and write this book.”

So from when I started in Feb 2012 to about four months in, so February, March, April, May, end of May, I was writing four to six hours a day, four days a week. The goal was 50,000 words. I got to 88,000, and then had to cut it back. Then there was an extra two weeks of design time. We commissioned the covers, but they did a shocking job. The inside stuff, it was just awful. So I designed it myself.

Woj: Really?

Nathalie: Yeah, the infographics, the page design, the front cover, the back of the book, the video that goes with it. It was a long process.

Woj: It’s not a typical book. It’s very vibrant and colourful; it’s actually quite an enjoyable read.

Nathalie: You sound so surprised LOL

Woj: I was, because a lot of the books you get, they’re just text with black and white diagrams. You’ve got the whole engagement going on and you’re kind of living the book in a way. Practicing what you’re preaching.

Nathalie: Well, first of all, that’s the thing. When they came back to me with the initial design, I loved what the editor’s added, they did an amazing job on the content, but coming back on the design and it’s like “you guys have not read the freaking book. If you do this, you’ll undermine the entire thesis. Let me design it, implement everything that I’ve been talking about.”

There’s fun ways to learn, you’ve got to write something which is going to be exciting, and captivating, and provocative, and fun. I think, hopefully, it’s done that.

Woj: Yeah, I think it has.

Nathalie: Thank you.

Woj: I might be a bit biased though 🙂 You’re doing a lot of speaking at various conferences around the world. Always an energetic and vibrant show, and quite positive and uplifting I find.

Nathalie: Thank you.

Woj: What are some conferences that marketers should check out that aren’t necessarily directly about marketing?

Nathalie: Huh, that’s a really interesting one. So, my favourite ones… There’s one that I really enjoy which is quite small, but it’s very specialized, which is why it attracts some great people: Chinwag Psych in London.

Woj: I think I saw a few of their videos.

Nathalie: Yeah, there are some really good ones.

Woj: There was a good neuromarketing one…

Nathalie: It was probably Roger Dooley, or it might have Brian Massey. There’s a whole group of great conversion scientists there. Habit Summit is brilliant. Nir Eyal did one up in Stanford and one in Amsterdam. Those are two really good ones. Another of my favourite conferences that I went to recently was Virtual Community Summit, which Rich Millington put on this year. All about online communities, which you think wouldn’t apply to us, but we all have to create communities in this age, whether it’s followers or through meetups we attend. And it was just so well researched.

Woj: I found Richard’s talk really interesting. We run a meetup group, and it’s just simple things. Setting boundaries, it all makes sense.

Nathalie: There’s so much stuff you can apply to everyday life. Obviously MozCon is my personal favourite, because it’s a three day party with smart, hot people, which is good.

Woj: Which speakers would you recommend seeing?

Nathalie: So, one that I absolutely love because he looks at the psychodynamics of social networking, is Dr. Aaron Balick, he’s amazing. Rich Millington is fantastic, talking about community. And Phil Nottingham who’s speaking shortly, he is absolutely epic. I absolutely adore him. Also, Mack Fogelson from Mac Web Solutions, she’s brilliant.

Woj: She spoke last year, but she’s not speaking this year 🙁

Nathalie: Yeah, she’s not, she does a lot of other work. She’s really good. There’s another who’s absolutely brilliant, one of my favourites, Craig Sullivan who talks about conversion rate optimization, he’s amazing. So there’s a list to get started.

A few of the Web Psychologist's favourite things


Woj: Nice… I want to ask you about psychological tests. Recently I read about Hick’s Law, which looks at choice. It’s basically saying that when people have too much choice, they tend not to choose anything.

Nathalie: Yeah, choice paralysis.

Woj: There was a test with jam displays that showed that more choice leads to less actual selection. What are some of your favourite real world psychological tests?

Nathalie: Well, one thing I really like, you can apply it to anything, whether you’re selling something on a sales page, or you’re chatting someone up for a date, is reducing ambiguity, so as to make someone feel more comfortable. So, if you see a lovely lass or guy, or whomever at a bar, and you’re approaching them to chat, one of the best things you can do psychologically is to frame the conversation, say,

“Look, I’m in a bit of rush, I’ve only got three minutes, I wondered if…”

And then you insert whatever kind of chat up line you want.

It’s the same on sign up forms, I think Hootsuite do this by stating registration only takes 60 seconds.

If you reduce ambiguity, people are more open to having a dialogue with you. So that’s one of my favourite techniques, reducing ambiguity.

Another one is based on the Gestalt principles, and the idea that we don’t like lack of completion. So, if you see an e-commerce site and you’re seeing a range of products, but the screen only shows the top of the products at the bottom of the page, so you see that there’s something extra, it will encourage you to scroll down. Things like that, really simple principles you can employ, whether it’s online or in print, or whatever it might be.

Woj: Okay, interesting. Do you think wearable tech and devices like Google Glass will assist with capturing data for online neuromarketing tests?

Nathalie: That’s interesting… I think the danger that we always face, that we haven’t yet surmounted, is “siloization”, or the segmentation of these different tools. So, you might say, okay let’s go with eye-tracking. Fine, eye tracking, great tool, it will tell you exactly where people focus their attention. It doesn’t tell you anything about your brain’s attention to peripheral cues, the ones that are outside your immediate focus.

Woj: Or things like smells, or…

Nathalie: Or even like, you know, if I’m looking at you, as we’re talking right now, there’s stuff that’s going on in my peripheral vision, stuff that my brain will be taking in without necessarily being consciously aware. All of those things on the side of the page, they all have an effect on your decision making processes. So I think wearable tech will provide us with ways to measure certain quantifiable things about behaviour like eye movements or galvanic skin response. But I think the really big break will come when there’s a holistic way that employs a whole range of these tools in one toolkit…

Woj: Right, in combination.

Nathalie: In combination and within a much broader, deeper psychological context. One which is more qualitative, as well as quantitative.

Woj: So, we’re going to have to be very fearful of articles that come out and draw conclusions based a single device.

Nathalie: Yeah, we like silver bullets. Silver bullets are only good for one thing, and that’s for shooting idiots LOL.

Woj: Ha! Or werewolves.

Nathalie: Or vampires.

Woj: So, from all your research, if you had to set up shop anywhere in the world, where would the low hanging fruit lie? Which is the most vulnerable society?

Nathalie: Oh, wow. I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it. I don’t know. I think that’s quite a barbed question in a way. It’s a good question; it’s a very impressive question… Okay. Well, I think possibly societies that have a shorter history of being online. So places like China for instance, which still has a way to go, or developing countries like India, possibly places in Africa. To be honest, I think persuasion is a tool for good. It’s only supposed to be used for mutual benefit.

Woj: Can it be used for altruistic good (like in terms of third world countries) – how can we use psychology and online tools to benefit others?

Nathalie: There’s a great company based in London called Visual DNA, and they’ve done some really interesting stuff with psychometric data like personality profiling people in countries where it’s very difficult to get credit. So, for instance in Africa, they’ve found that people have to pay in cash because they don’t have a credit history. So if they need to sign up for a credit card, they can’t.

So, they found – we’re moving into a weird space here – but they’ve found that you can accurately predict if someone is a good candidate for credit i.e. they’ll repay it and become a long-term customer, just by looking at their personality traits. So now there’s the potential for guys who don’t have lines of credit to get loans to set up businesses, or buy a house, or whatever, without that history.

However, it doesn’t take a genius to see the flip side. So one has to be extraordinarily careful with these things.

Woj: I saw a really good TED Talk in Sydney recently that mentioned how in third world countries they’re using mobile devices for currency exchange. Like, one guy sits and he just goes XE or a similar website, finds out the currency rate, texts everyone, and all of the sudden that’s what the exchange rate is. They do it with cash.

Nathalie: That’s fantastic.

Woj: So, what are three of the most interesting facts you’ve discovered about global user behaviour?

Nathalie: Interesting question. Well, here’s one that I like about Germany. In Germany if you’re going into e-commerce you have to give free shipping, and you have to pay for people who send stuff back, because otherwise they won’t buy. In Brazil, a lot of it’s cash on delivery. They’ll order something online, the infrastructure is such that a delivery person comes to your door, you then inspect the goods and pay – this like online-offline thing.

Also, in individualistic societies, there are much greater gender differences in terms of things like trust, self-representation online, and how much personal data you like to give out. So those are three off the top of my head.

Woj: That’s cool. What are some obvious mistakes sites make that stop customers from buying?

Nathalie: Okay, perfect example. I’ll give you the top one.

Researchers found that when we’re paying for something, you activate a lot of the same areas of the brain that activate when we’re in physical pain. It’s painful to pay, to part with money.

Now, if you’re considering the small number of people who come to your funnel, who get to the conversion page, who are actually going to pay you for something, you’re already talking about someone who’s in some kind of pain, or so research suggests. So the last thing you want to do is add to that psychological pain by creating something that’s difficult for them to complete.

What you often find is that people create these long forms and don’t test them with their users, and you end up with way too many mandatory fields that really they don’t need, so you’re making the process too long. It’s also punitive, because red asterisks, in the cultures that use them, have a negative association, and then you have all these warnings that pop up if you do something wrong.

Also, the postcode boxes are often two postcode sections instead of one, and people get frustrated. So you’re basically punishing them at the checkout. According to the peak end rule, we tend to remember entire experiences based on the best peaks, the lowest peaks, and the end. So if the worst peak is at the end, then you’re really screwing your customers over.

Woj: You’ve almost got them.

Nathalie: You’ve almost got them, and then you’re kind of going,

“We’re going to land you in a world of pain.”

Test your form lengths. See if you can reduce the form so you’re stripping out all of the unnecessary stuff. And also, instead of creating a negative association, I know this sounds like a really simple hack, but researchers in the Netherlands have found this to be really helpful, when they fill in a form correctly, like in a field, like your name, give people a green tick. In Western culture, green and ticks are full of positive association.

Woj: Yeah. I’ve heard you mention this before.

Nathalie: It’s just a nice little hack.

Woj: I think on one of your podcasts you talk about the checkboxes and positive affirmation.

Nathalie: Precisely. Positive affirmation. That can be one way to alleviate that particular issue, just as an example.

Woj: How important is it to communicate persuasively? Is that something people should be looking at first before they start building a website?

Nathalie: Part of communicating persuasively, is communicating with passion about the core message.

There has to be a core message in the heart of everything you do.

So I would say, yes. Before you get to building a website, or any of that stuff, what are your values as a brand? What are the core values you need to espouse? How will you transmit that or infuse that throughout all of your messages, all of you content? And then understanding how best to adapt that to both the people you’re trying to reach, and the channel through which you’re trying to reach them.

So for people it would be things like mirroring their linguistic styles, clothing if they’re doing videos, gestures, eye contact… all that sort of thing. It’s subconscious cues we look to, and then the channels. I’m not going to mention too much about that, but be formal on LinkedIn, use short characters and be concise on Twitter etc.

Woj: In a TED Talk by Simon Sinek, he attributed Apple’s success to what he described as the ‘why/how/what’ strategy.

Nathalie: I love that talk.

Woj: Where focusing on ‘why’ businesses do what they do is important, as opposed to simply what they do. From a psychological point of view, why does ‘why’ work?

Nathalie: Because we’re drawn to people who are like-minded to us to a great extent. Unless we’re very high dopamine, in which case risk-taking and novelty seeking will kind of go away from that. We like that which is similar. So, if you have a very strong ‘why’, you can say this is why we’re doing it. And those people with whom that message resonates will naturally congregate around you, and there will be a much deeper connection. You’re creating a common cause that people can rally behind, it’s more meaningful. Also, it creates more relational customer relationships, as opposed to transactional ones, which tend to be based on prices…

Woj: The short term.

Nathalie: Precisely.
Woj: One of Caldini’s six principles is reciprocity. How important is reciprocity online? And how do you overcome online communication barriers? Cause it can be hard to evoke emotions sometimes. Although Rand does it really well 🙂

Nathalie: The one thing that I’ve heard recently, that I haven’t considered, which I thought was very insightful was when I was having a conversation with Michael Wu who works at Lithium. Fascinating guy, extraordinarily smart, and actually quite compassionate in terms of his speaking style.

He was talking about using reciprocity to help your customers help you. We’re always talking about serving the customer, what we do for you, what can we help you with. What you’ll find is that in relationships, like if you’re in a relationship and the other person is always doing stuff for you, you feel like it’s imbalanced. I’m not saying that the customer/brand relationship should be the same as an intimate relationship, but…

if you enable people to reciprocally help you out, you create a bond.

I think that’s something that can be used to not only help you research your customers, but to create a more emotionally intimate connection with the people you’re trying to reach.

Woj: Okay. That’s a good answer. Now for a couple of fun questions 🙂 You usually have the five questions at the end of your podcast, so now it’s my turn…

Nathalie: Oh, I love these.

Woj: Security or risk?

Nathalie: Ooh, depends on what kind of risk, but generally risk.

Woj: Priorities or vulnerabilities?

Nathalie: Oh god, as a psychologist… ‘Vulnerabilities’ are the areas for growth, but ‘priorities’ is systematic. Priorities I think.

Woj: Creative, or data-driven?

Nathalie: Creative.

Woj: I was going to say, or a combination of both?

Nathalie: It would be a combination of both, but if I was forced to choose…

Woj: A moderate amount of each would be great 🙂

Nathalie: If they could mate, that would be perfect. Like my dad’s a physicist and my mom’s a psychologist. Then they mated and then there was me LOL Sorry guys, a bit of an odd conversation. I think a combination of the two is always good. When the arts and data meet, you get good things.

Woj: Thank you very much! I really appreciate your time. That’s a great way to end it. LOL

Nathalie: Always ends up going there, doesn’t it? LOL

Does it always go there for you? I’d love to hear your comments, stories about your online psychology experiences and feedback!

Also, Nathalie was kind enough to invite me on her podcast (episode #50), which was a lot of fun – check it out!

Here are some of my other interviews that you may like to have a look at:

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