Designing for good behaviour


It’s Monday morning. You’re driving to work where an awesome project is waiting for you. Only minutes later, your excitement is crushed because you’re trapped in a traffic jam. And why? Because somebody was speeding and caused an accident.

Now, let’s say there are two ways to decrease speeding behaviour. One is to motivate good behaviour by providing rewards combined with information, another is to enforce it through punishment. While both are essentially means to an end, the first is considered persuasion and the second is considered coercion. Persuasion is fundamentally different from coercion because it relies on a voluntary change, rather than power. So how can persuasion and technology be combined to change behaviour for the better?

Persuasive technology

It might seem a bit unnerving to learn about persuasion. Not only are we easily influenced, but we can also easily influence (or even manipulate) others. We do that every day on a small scale by the clothes we’re wearing and how we behave. However, persuasive technology isn’t about manipulation or playing with people’s feelings. People view and respond to computing technologies in various ways, and persuasive technology uses motivation in combination with user interfaces to support users in achieving goals. For example, games apply both interactivity and narratives to create persuasive experiences. 

There are endless choices when it comes to choosing a goal. From changing eating behaviour, to promoting home energy efficiency. The most successful examples come from nudging people to do something they wanted to do anyway: 

  • How can we help people remember to take their medicine on time? GlowCaps is a special cap that fits on top of a standard pill bottle, which lights up when the patient needs to take their medicine. It even sends reports about how well the patient is sticking to the schedule. The cap is 86 percent effective in helping people to take their doses.  
  • How can we help people to exercise? allows people to challenge each other in quick if/then challenges. “If I walk my dog for 20 minutes, you will ride your bicycle around the block”. It’s persuasive because people can act quickly, but also provides challenges nearby.  


Designing a persuasive technology 

Persuasive design is practice that support designers to make decisions based on insights from psychology and social studies. These insights can be applied to interface design. It is important to know that many previous attempts to create a persuasive technology have failed, simply because the goal was too ambitious. A good example is helping people to stop smoking, which is a tough long-time habit to break. Persuasive technology guru B.J. Fogg created eight steps to increase the probability of success 

1. Choose a simple behaviour to target

Find an appropriate behaviour to target for change. It’s okay to choose an ambitious goal, but you’ll want it to be feasible as well. A solution is to break it down into a small goal that either ultimately achieves a larger goal, or is an approximation of that larger goal.

For instance, I want to ensure that elderly people (i.e. age 70 and up) are not infected with a new virus until a vaccine is available. Since this is quite an ambitious goal, it can be broken down into people who keep regularly visiting their elderly parents (regardless of the possible consequences).  

2. Choose a receptive audience

Pick an audience that is the most receptive. It’s tempting to choose the toughest audience or all users, but unfortunately neither seemed to have worked well in the past. At the last step there’s the opportunity to increase the audience, but for now we begin small.
An example of an audience can be people that need more exercise. Since this is quite a big group, I want to break this down as well. Mothers with young children seem a good audience, as they often can’t find the time to exercise and/or don’t know how.  

3. Find what prevents the target behaviour 

Find the problem that prevents the audience from performing their target behaviour. You need motivation, ability, and/or a well-timed trigger to succeed. However, if both motivation and ability are lacking, it’s probably time to reconsider the project
An example can be young male drivers who lack the motivation to stop speedingIt’s also likely that a well-timed trigger is missing during driving, so I want to combine both in the solution.  

4. Choose a familiar technology channel 

The challenge here is to choose between available channels and which one matches the target behaviour best. There are many channels to choose from such as social platforms, smartphones, and games. Since people can only change one behaviour at the time, it would be best to choose a familiar channel.
To continue on the example of people with elderly parents, a familiar channel can be smartphone or the television. I think a smartphone could be the best choice since it can provide various triggers throughout the day, whereas a television can only provide triggers when it’s on 

Up until this point you probably noticed that weve followed the steps in sequence. However, if you work for a specific company (e.g. health insurance company) you might not have a choice in audience and/or channel. In that case you can still execute all four steps, albeit in a different order.  

5. Find relevant examples & 6. Imitate successful examples 

Unlike 10 years ago, there are many examples of successful persuasive technologies relevant to a chosen intervention. Even though there rarely is an example that perfectly fits all categories (audience, behaviour, channel), it suffices to find examples of each category individually that matches the project. Afterwards you can combine them into a solution.
Continuing on the example of the mothers, I can find examples of mothers with young children (audience), how they currently (try to) exercise (behaviour), and how a social platform can help them (channel). From combining these findings could conclude that a social platform provides solutions on hothe mothers can exercise, even with young children around. Mothers can exchange tips, but the social platform itself can also provide tips and triggers to exercise.  

7. Test & iterate quickly 

Designing for persuasion is harder than designing for usability, as many attempts to change people’s behaviours fail. That is why rapid testing with many trials is a good way to find out if your idea succeeded in the audience adopting a simple target behaviour. 
Continuing on the example of the young male drivers, proposed solution could be an in-car app that provides well-timed audio triggers and one visual trigger (e.g. a car that gets increasingly damaged according to the car speed)I could do a rapid test by accompanying young males in their rides, while imitating audio triggers and using paper prototypes for visual triggers. The results can be used for improvements, until a behavioural change is observed 

8. Expand on success 

Congratulations, we’ve created a persuasive technology! At this point the behaviour or audience can be scaled up. For instance, creating a more difficult target behaviour to reach, or selecting a wider audience.  

No matter how small or simple, remember that creating a persuasive technology is always a milestone. Small behavioural changes will eventually lead to projects that are going to be successful in changing long-term habits. Additionally, the persuasive design approach can be used in any design project that entails some sort of behavioural change. 
You might wonder how ethical persuasive technology is. Well that’s a whole new topic, but just remember that there’s nothing inherently wrong about trying to persuade someone. A combination of persuasion and technology can lead to great behavioural changes that are better for everyone.