Introducing Persuasive Technology

Most people would agree that good design (as well as being beautiful) should be usable. Don Norman in his book “The Design of Everyday Things” uses the terminology of affordances (borrowed from the psychologist J. J. Gibson), constraints and mappings to show how some designs are usable and others aren’t. So in describing how a novice scissor-user might approach a pair for the first time:

“The holes are clearly there to put something into, and the only logical things that will fit are fingers. The holes are affordances: they allow the fingers to be inserted. The sizes of the holes provide constraints to limit the possible fingers: the big hole suggests several fingers, the small hole only one.” [1]

In simple ways like this, all well designed and usable products employ an element of psychology. At some point over the last ten years or so, this measure of psychology has been given a booster injection, resulting in more research around design that actively tries to encourage particular behaviours.

“Persuasive Technology” [2] is the name given to the thickest strand of research in this area, and it emerges as a combination of psychology and design/computing from Stanford University. The term was coined by B. J. Fogg (the originator of the Persuasive Technology discourse) to describe:

“…any interactive computing system designed to change people’s attitudes or behaviour.” [3]

Research springing up around the Persuasive Technology discourse studies the various ways in which products (and particularly computers) can persuade, and offers designers a typology of techniques that they can use in the design process.

B. J. Fogg notes that computers (and by extension, some objects) can operate as a persuasive agent in three roles; as a tool, a medium, and as a social actor. Rather than list these just now, I’ll try to regularly write about a product or service (either commercial or conceptual) that exhibits persuasive elements, so keep an eye out here for forthcoming posts…

In some ways, Persuasive Technology offers few new insights that designers don’t already know, but in others – the typology of techniques, the growing body of evidence (1,010 results for “persuasive technology” today), the formal inter-disciplinary discourse, and an annual conference – it brings some academic weight behind the idea of design that changes behaviour.

What’s the advantage in persuading via an object anyway? Various answers are given by B. J. Fogg, including; computers (or objects) are able to be more persistent (often annoyingly so), they allow people to be anonymous, can deal with large amounts of data – allowing them to select different techniques for individual people, they can present information in many ways – text, graphics, animation, video etc., they can be scaled easily and are quickly becoming ubiquitous in our lives.

A list like the one above initially makes me feel pretty negative – silicon persuasive agents infiltrating my life and restricting my choices – and there’s no doubt that there are rough edges (and a massive PR problem) with Persuasive Technology. As noted above though; there’s a pretty gradual scale between design for usability and design that tried to change behaviour.

What’s your initial reaction to Persuasive Technology?


[1] Norman, D., (2002) The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books.
[2] Not to be confused with pervasive technology/computing – although much Persuasive Technology is also pervasive…
[3] Fogg, B. J., (2003) Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. Morgan Kaufmann.


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