I have always been fascinated by human cognition, the way we make decisions, and how emotions can affect our choices. Design can stimulate our motivation and influence our decision-making process. Psychology and design can seem two very different, distant areas, but they are strictly connected to each other.
Persuasive technology falls between the two disciplines: taking design principles and mixing them with psychological theories. It reveals how to create technologies that can affect our behaviour, habits and decisions without the use of coercion.
Persuasive techniques have permeated our daily lives for decades. Of course, marketing practices are an easy example: TV spots, newspaper adverts, billboards and even charismatic sellers convincing us on the shop floor.
Sometimes, we don’t realise how much design can influence how we perceive a message. By ‘design’, I don’t just mean the aesthetical part of an interface. It also covers how we direct the user experience: planning the customer journey, and how the message is delivered.
The prices of sale items are a good example of how the same ‘message’ can be designed and perceived in different ways. The price of a single item will trigger a very different reaction from us, depending on whether it’s the full price, or has marked reductions in a sale. Placing an item in the sale can be a great motivation for customers to purchase, creating a feeling of urgency.
Technology can be a more powerful, efficient force to engage and persuade us, drawing on the following strengths:
- Interactivity: more than a printed message, interactive technology can achieve more engagement from users
- Intelligence: by collecting and storing a huge amount of data, we can create more customised communication
- Connectivity: technology can create global communities, drawing people from all around the world together
- Diffusion: as we are constantly in touch with technology, it is a persistent force that jumps into our lives in the best, emotional moments
B. J. Fogg is probably the most important author in the field of persuasive technology. His Functional Triad model reveals how technology can potentially persuade us in three different ways:
- As a media, technology provides an environment where users can experience something (e.g. games, virtual reality).
- As a social actor, technology uses the same ‘rules’ as human relationships to trigger social influence (e.g. the use of language, physical presence).
- As a tool, technology can enhance our capabilities.
How Does This Work?
From the Functional Triad, I chose to focus on technology as a tool for my talk. Here are the principles that make technology as a tool incredibly persuasive for audiences.
Two factors drive our decision-making process: motivation and difficulty. If a task is easy, it doesn’t require a big effort from us. So, we’ll happily undertake it even without much motivation. If the task is more complicated, people only act if their motivation is high enough to make the effort worth it.
By making a task easier, technology can increase our willingness to act. A brilliant example of this is the “Buy now with 1-click” button, used by Amazon. Instead of having to click through a long checkout process, users can purchase an item with a single button. As the action is so easy, we won’t spend much time thinking about it. This encourages users to act, buying items more impulsively.
Amazon makes the check out process much easier, by offering with a persuasive fast-track button.
Guiding users during a procedure or an experience step-by-step gives technology a chance to persuade them at each stage. Tunnelling is a successful technique, which stops external noise from distracting the user. This helps them achieve their main goal.
The ASOS checkout process is a great example of this. Once the user decides to purchase an item, the top menu disappears. The layout becomes very simple and clean, to avoid distractions that could deviate the user from their payment journey.
Additionally, the steps are clearly marked with sequential numbers and brief descriptions, clearly explaining the payment process to users. Providing a clear reference that demonstrates how far users are through the payment journey reassures them, and increases motivation to finish the process.
The ASOS check out process clearly explains each stage of the payment process, using a simple layout to avoid distraction.
Content is far more persuasive for users if it has been tailored for their habits, preferences, interests, context, etc. Technology is brilliant for this, without even needing users to provide any input. Systems like Spotify or Netflix are smart enough to recommend new music or movies based on what users have previously listened to or watched. This technique means users will perceive the system as more engaging, as the information shown to them is obviously more interesting than systems that don’t customise information.
Spotify recommends new artists based on what users have been listening to, rather than asking them to define their interests first.
A technology can be more persuasive if it offers the right suggestions at the right moment. iBeacon has a lot of potential here. The small tokens can be placed anywhere, and push notifications to smartphones using Bluetooth.
Retail offers exciting possible applications for this tool in the future. For instance, iBeacons could be placed in a shop, and push notifications to customers about a special offer only happening on that day. This type of communication would be far more persuasive than an email, for example. Only people who are actually in the shop, at that specific moment will be notified – and it’s easy for them to buy.
iBeacon technologies can send push notifications to users that are in a specific location, at a certain moment.
People can achieve better results when technology helps them to monitor and change a habit. Users can easily view their progress, and can be more willing to stick to the new behaviour. After all, the first step towards change is self-awareness, and technology can help us to know more about ourselves. Good examples of this principle are apps like Jawbone, which monitor habits like how much we exercise and how well we sleep.
Jawbone helps people achieve a healthier lifestyle by monitoring their daily activity, sleep quality, food intake etc.
This technique draws on Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning, which can be used to alter people’s behaviors. It reveals how to change habits, through providing positive reinforcement when a user does something ‘good’ i.e. making a step towards the end goal.
Swarm, the app from Foursquare, is a great example of this. Here, the goal of the app is to encourage users to check-in at a variety of locations. When users complete this goal, they receive two types of positive affirmation:
- Concrete reinforcement – receiving a discount in certain restaurants or bars.
- Psychological reinforcement – feel-good recognition via badges, or becoming a ‘major’ of a place.
Swarm provides positive reinforcement when users check-in at locations, to keep them using the app.
Designers can combine all these principles in creative ways, making technologies more persuasive for specific audiences. However, remember that persuasion is a delicate topic, as it involves manipulating users’ decision-making process. The ethical issues implied from this ability would require a completely separate discussion. But, as designers we must keep this idea in mind: we are not just building an interface, but creating experiences that could affect people’s lives, no matter how big or small.
I originally gave this talk at the Pint of Science Festival, and my slides are below. If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating topic, there are a variety of resources linked throughout.