Should Technology Persuade Us to Do the Right Thing?

Technology, Design
 
 
Sencity’s interactive mailbox, MailboX, makes sending a letter a whole lot more fun than those red post boxes we’re all used to.  Photo courtesy of Sencity.

Sencity’s interactive mailbox, MailboX, makes sending a letter a whole lot more fun than those red post boxes we’re all used to.
Photo courtesy of Sencity.

Words by Thomas Crow
Photos courtesy of Sencity and South China Morning Post

How do you persuade people to do the right thing? And, when should you? It’s not an easy question, and when technology gets involved it becomes far more complicated.


Technology manifests itself in almost every single aspect of our modern lives. Social media platforms beckon us to spend ever longer on our newsfeeds, while Apple’s trademark catchphrase “There’s an app for that,” sums up how completely our human urges have become digitised. So, what happens when technology starts affecting your behaviour?

Persuasive technology is a way to design things to persuade others. Using psychological triggers, a piece of technology can persuade you to behave how the designer intends.

If you’ve heard the phrase before, it probably hasn’t left a good impression. After all, it’s how social media keeps us logged on. But it’s not all bad. Persuasive technology can be used to create good shortcuts for old problems, too. For instance, many cities adopt fines for littering. Approaching the same problem with persuasive technology would encourage people to use bins more – either by making them more exciting or sparking user curiosity.

When used in an altruistic way, it can encourage people to adopt healthy behaviours, like exercising more, staying on treatment plans when unhealthy, recycling, or reducing crime.

Less altruistic uses can include making certain behaviours – like social media – addictive or reducing an individual’s freedom. Like most technology, persuasive technology is amoral; it’s all in how we use it.

One of the experts in the field, Stanford University behavioural scientist, BJ Fogg developed the Fogg Behaviour Model. It describes three elements needed to encourage somebody to adopt a desired behaviour: motivation, ability and prompt.

Take, for instance, Facebook.

If you have a Facebook account you’ve probably complained about it. Maybe you feel you use it too much, you don’t see enough of your friends’ news through the sponsored content, or maybe it’s just boring. Despite this, many of us continue to use it. Ask yourself why that is. Maybe it’s your primary way of keeping track of distant friends. You may use it for business or to manage your social groups. That’s your motivation.

Motivation is the thing that keeps you coming back. Importantly, the amount of pleasure or benefit from Facebook has to be greater than the pain it inflicts on you while using it. If Facebook doesn’t get that equation right, you stop using it.

The next element in the Fogg model is ability. If you have difficulty using computers you probably spend less time on Facebook. Unsurprisingly, this shows up as a generational difference. If Facebook began charging money to use it, you may rethink logging in, especially if money’s tight. The more hurdles in our way to using persuasive technology, the less likely we are to use it. For this reason, persuasive technology designers try to make using the technology as natural as possible.

Finally, the trigger. It’s the spark that encourages you to use the technology. Facebook has its iconic notifications tab. A little red bubble lets you know something new has happened and you click on it. If you’re a particularly hardcore user, you’ve probably spend some time refreshing the page for that notification to pop-up. Maybe you even get alerts on your phone or email.

 
A slam dunk in Sencity’s Tetrabin. Photo courtesy of Sencity.

A slam dunk in Sencity’s Tetrabin.
Photo courtesy of Sencity.

 

If Facebook feels addictive, it’s because the company spends a lot of time figuring out how to keep you online. In fact, they have an entire research division for it. But websites aren’t the only form of persuasive technology. You can also find them in the real world too.

One example is Street Pong, designed by Urban Invention founders in Germany. First made famous in 2012, the idea to install the retro video game, Pong onto pedestrian crossing buttons to encourage their use and reduce jaywalking.

Steven Bai is CEO of the New York based persuasive technology company, Sencity. His team comes up with new technologies and then demonstrates them in public spaces in New York, Sydney and Hong Kong. He sees the positive side to persuasive technology through his work.

“Persuasive technology is not a very positive term. People think of it as forcing you to do something. But from a psychological perspective it’s a very positive, powerful way of thinking. It has the power to sustain change in people’s everyday lives,” says Bai.

Bai has developed persuasive technologies such as MailboX and Tetrabin and unveiled them at Vivid Sydney over the past few years. Following Fogg’s behaviour model, he is able to make urban environments more interesting using technology.

“From my perspective, I think there are two very important components. One is familiarity. Embedding familiar elements into a context help people to reduce the amount of time required to trigger a new behaviour,” says Bai. “The second element of our own practice is playability. Playability is not goal-oriented but it keeps sustaining interest for the public.”

 
Steven Bai, the CEO of Sencity. Photo courtesy of Sencity.

Steven Bai, the CEO of Sencity.
Photo courtesy of Sencity.

 
The Shenzhen traffic police’s webpage, launched in March 2018, displayed photos and names of jaywalkers.  Photo from  South China Morning Post .

The Shenzhen traffic police’s webpage, launched in March 2018, displayed photos and names of jaywalkers.
Photo from South China Morning Post.

 
 

But then there’s the other side of the coin. Misuse of persuasive technology is ominously known as a dark pattern. In short, it’s a way to trick or coerce people into behaviour that is not in their best interest.

On example of how persuasive technology can be misused happened recently in cities throughout China. To reduce traffic congestion in 2017, photos of jaywalkers and other people committing anti-social behaviour were shown on billboards to publicly shame them. The government also uses this tactic to shame debtors who owe the government large sums of money.

So how do we make sure persuasive technology is working for us and not against us?

Persuasive technologies academics, Daniel Berdichevsky and Erik Neuenschwander developed eight rules for designing persuasive technology in the late 90’s. Many of these rules focus on keeping creators accountable and treating technology like other forms of persuasion, but the golden rule is: “The creators of a persuasive technology should never seek to persuade a person or persons of something they themselves would not consent to be persuaded to do.”

While persuasive technology can sound scary, there are some very real benefits behind it. Persuasive technology can be used in health, to encourage patients to remember and stick to treatment plans, or help people eat better and lose weight.

Companion apps, like the one in the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, trigger alerts and monitor weight to help users stick to their diet. Similarly, the Australian Quitnow smoking app offers games to distract from cravings and reminders of personal goals. Both these apps use persuasive technology to help break bad habits.

Persuasive technology is a powerful tool that can be both used and misused. Experts can create ethical frameworks and governments can legislate its use, but at the end of the day, the only way to ensure persuasive technology is working for you and not against you is to be aware of it.

So next time you get an urge, think about how technology is contributing to it and how you’d like to control it.

 

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Thomas Crow is a science journalist who writes about science and society. Occasionally he even gets to write about them working together. Follow him on Twitter @scicrow.