There's a lot of academic research around the areas of persuasive technology and design for behavior change. It's getting more exposure as technology has allowed products and services to have an increasingly pervasive role in people's lives.
But where does persuasion live? How do we recognize these products in the wild? And what has caused the tipping point for the growth of these products and services?
Data, Feedback, and Smart Products
The primary characteristic of our new, pervasively connected world is the ability to collect data passively (think Runkeeper or Mint.com) or with minimal effort required (Foursquare). And not just collect the data, but present it back—via feedback loops and visualizations—in a meaningful way to the user. These are smart products that have personalized intelligence about our behavior.
We can see lots of examples of products that don't utilize data that are designed to influence behavior. These are “dumb products.” Which doesn't mean that they're dumb in the derisive sense, but products that contain no intelligence about the person who uses them. Take for example the oft-cited bitter nail polish that's designed to keep people from biting their nails. It's a good example of persuasive design. But it contains one single universal feedback loop for every person who uses it—the bitterness you taste when you bite your nails.
But now we have an explosion of smart products, which passively collect data about you and your specific behavior, and tell you a story which is designed to directly influence you. This is a byproduct of our Internet of Things progress—now even our toothbrushes and dog leashes can be outfitted with sensors to collect data about our personal behavior. Now that sensors are available at the consumer level—GPS, accelerometers, RFID—anything can become a data-collecting smart product.
I refer to this wave of products and services as “Behavior Change as Value Proposition.” These are products that have an explicit or implicit value proposition based on influencing your behavior. They've been around for a long time: smoking cessation and weight lose programs just to name a couple. But these highly personal solutions are exponentially enabled thanks to sensor technology.
Telling Stories with Data
We've been telling stories and layering in context with data forever. One of the more famous examples, championed by Edward Tufte, shows Charles Minard's map of Napoleon's 1812 march into Russia. It layers geographic data, chronological data, quantity (of soldiers), temperature over time, and more. The data tells a rich visual story, which of course could influence behavior. But the feedback loop is, of course, after the fact, and the data collection was likely rigorous and time-consuming. (you can imagine now how this information is collected in real-time and influences military campaigns in real-time)
Where do these new products and services map on our landscape of products and services?
Let's look at a spectrum, where on one end you have utility: something designed to offer the user useful tools, typically to manage information. On the other end is “persuasion” the idea that what is designed is intended to influence the behavior, perception or attitude of the user. Clearly it's not binary. It's plotting on the spectrum is based on the intent of the designer and the value to the consumer.
You can imagine the traditional utility application. (quadrant #1) Gmail helps you manage your email. iTunes lets you manage your music files. Flickr your images. Basecamp for project management. They're designed—to various extents—to enable you to manage information, or “digital objects,” with a certain amount of flexibility. Sort how you want, list how you want, tag how you want, equalize how you want, group how you want, share how you want, etc.
At their core, they're value propositions as utilities designed to make your life easier. Some more configurable, others more constrained, but utilities nonetheless.
But what about this new wave of products? (quadrant #2) Products not designed around your digital “things” but around your behaviors? Products that are designed to influence. We see products like Mint.com, Nike+ and Runkeeper; Weight Watchers and NutriSystem; Nest for energy consumption. This is just a small sampling of products where the value proposition is directly related to your behavior. They have high “awareness of intent” because of their declared value propositions relating to influencing your behavior. The intent is key. They balance persuasion in the interest of the customer.
(Regarding quadrant #3, persuasion of someone strictly in your own benefit or self-interest is manipulation. Not declaring your intent, and particularly concealing it, is deception. Clearly when a service seeks to hide it's intent, and/or persuade strictly for it's own self-interest, you are in the ethical muck.)
All these are based on collecting data and providing feedback loops. They turn data into information, which tells a story, which in turn, influences how you make decisions and act on the knowledge.
Imagine how you got feedback on your finances 20+ years ago. You had to manually enter your transactions into your check register (in research terms, it required you to self report your purchases). This was unreliable, and your feedback loop was a (less than accurate) balance, and a scannable list of your transactions. It's hard to tell a story with any meaning, beyond simply how much you had in your account.
Then came spreadsheets, which made some of the work easier, doing the adding and subtracting and allowing you to more easily scan these transactions over time. But it was still manual reporting and didn't present a story which had a lot of meaning or richness.
In the 90s we got Microsoft Money and Intuit's Quicken, they initially still required manual entry—self reporting—but now they did the heavy lifting with the feedback loops, allowing you to visualize your data in a number of ways over time, telling a rich story from your raw data. This made it more effective in influencing behaviors around your finances, saving and spending.
Now we have applications like Mint.com, which—once you hand over your log-in credentials—collects your financial behavior data completely passively and accurately, telling a rich story about your finances over time through visualizations, as well as other feedback loops such as alerts and product recommendations. We've gone from utilities that had a relatively neutral intent to manage your information to an application that wanted to make that information more actionable, influencing your future behavior based on visualized feedback.
Scaling Self-determination, Pushing Persuasion
Services like Mint.com are still at the surface a utility (manage your financial data), with an implicit intent to influence your behavior around your finances (set goals, spend smarter). You still have a lot of self-determination with regards to how you harness your information to influence your behavior.
But more and more products are having an explicit influence, with a more prescriptive way to use them. They require you to increasingly relinquish self-determination as a prerequisite for use. Consider Ready for Zero, a service that helps you reduce your debt and curb your spending. While someone who uses the service opts in to use it, the service is basically a “tunnel” or wizard (guided persuasion), with limited options to what's prescribed by the system. This makes the product more niche than a service like Mint.com, but it will have a more direct, measurable impact on your behavior, which many people are seeking.
It will be interesting to see how far these products and services go. There's an increasing demand for services that further constrain choices and self-determination in order to see tangible results. And how businesses balance applying behavior design principles in a way that provides them sustainable business models while maintaining explicit consumer value will be a critical challenge. Even services that use incentives, at their core, require intrinsic motivation to engage with them (the internal motivation to use them, in contrast to an external incentive like a financial reward).
Most people know that the Amazon One-Click feature is designed to influence you to purchase more, even if it also has consumer value in making your purchase easier. While there is an awareness that we are being influenced with these products, actually asking for this influence in our lives, as we become familiar with the principles, patterns and heuristics, will these techniques continue to be effective? At some point the customer will know exactly what terms such as “social proof” mean. The question is, when that happens, will it still be persuasive? Like many things that seem mysterious in the beginning, consumers eventually end up paying attention to the man behind the curtain.