Archive for the 'introductory' Category

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.

Chimney Brushes, Design, Behaviour and the RSA

Joseph Davis's Brush

Joseph Davis's Brush

Designers have a pretty variable record when it comes to thinking about the impact of their actions on society. Although their history includes ingenious idealists like George Smart and Joseph Davis [1], who (among others) designed chimney sweeping brushes that paved the way for the reduction and eventually outlawing of the inhumane use of “climbing boys” to clean chimneys, industrial design has also been described by Victor Papanek with the words:

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them, and possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest…” [2]

Papanek goes on to vent at industrial designers for their part in the creation of such over-consumption. Recently however, the more altruistic form of design (now often referred to as “social design”) has made a recurrence, and includes products and services intended to improve people’s – particularly those living on the margins – quality of life, the sustainability of society (including, unusually for designers, encouraging reducing consumption rather than driving it) and other such laudable aims.

The RSA has a long history of involvement in this sort of design, from awarding George Smart their gold medal in 1805 (and Joseph Davis the silver in 1806), to the Design Directions briefs set over the last few years, which explore how design can help meet the key challenges facing today’s society.

One key challenge that has become a hot topic of the public sector in recent years is the need for individuals to change their behaviour; it crops up on the popular shelves of bookshops in books like Nudge, on the desks of policy makers in the form of reports and in the Great Room at the RSA in the form of a speech by David Cameron to name a very select few.

The reasons behind this attention are varied but include; emerging massive and complex problems like anthropogenic climate change that require bottom-up as well as top-down action, a desire to involve citizens in more decision making, and increased understanding and awareness on the part of government of the effectiveness of softer interventions in addition to traditional incentives and legislation.

The RSA’s vision of closing the gap between the society we currently inhabit and the one we aspire to also involves a degree of behaviour change. We’re all fallible and often end up behaving in ways which are inconsistent with our values and the society in which we would prefer to live. And although that individual behaviour (like leaving our telly on standby) can seem inconsequential, sometimes the cumulative effects (like a power station’s CO2 emissions) are damaging to everyone.

Encouraging behaviour change is notoriously difficult, but novel approaches are emerging. Research from the interface of psychology and design, for example, offers new possibilities for transforming how we use everyday objects like cars, mobile phones and domestic appliances.

In a world in which the products and services we use increasingly influence the pattern of our lives, perhaps design that changes behaviour is as socially valuable now as the 19th century chimney brushes were. The RSA is exploring the potential for a project that will investigate the role of so-called “persuasive technology” and other techniques from design to help create the society we aspire to.

How do you think the products and services you use everyday change your behaviour? What do you think the RSA could bring to this field of research? It would be great to hear what you think, particularly if you are interested in behaviour change or design and/or you are a Fellow of the RSA.


[1] There seem to have been quite a few chimney sweeping brushes submitted to the RSA in the early 1800s. BM Forster of the Society for the Suppression of Climbing Chimney Sweepers wrote of Joseph Davis’s device: “I am convinced that chimnies may be swept as cleanly and effectually, as is commonly done with climbing-boys, so that the difference to the families who employ your machine will be, that they have the same comfort of a clean chimney, and are satisfied that they no longer use a method which is full of horrors and a disgrace to a civilised country”.

[2] Papanek, V., (1985) Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. Academy Chicago.


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