User-centred Design vs. Persuasive Technology?

June 17, 2009 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

Just a quickie to say that it’s fantastic to see some higher-profile and thoughtful conversation developing on the web about the influence that designers have in enabling and encouraging people to change behaviour. In an introduction to the concept, Robert Fabricant (VP of Creative at Frog Design) writes:

“…we’re experiencing a sea change in the way designers engage with the world. Instead of aspiring to influence user behavior from a distance, we increasingly want the products we design to have more immediate impact through direct social engagement … but many designers hesitate to pursue [this approach]. Committing to direct behavior design would mean stepping outside the traditional frame of user-centered design (UCD), which provides the basis of most professional design today.”

User-centred design is the default paradigm for industrial designers; the user is king, and the designer’s job is simply to design products that serve the user’s desires as closely as possible. Robert Fabricant suggests that when designers start using persuasive techniques (e.g. those of persuasive technology) then the roles are suddenly reversed; designers start designing according to how they think the user should behave, and the user (knowingly or unknowingly) is led down that path.

The question of whether the use of persuasive techniques is still user-centred design is fascinating to designers. Although Robert Fabricant thinks it’s not, he still seems in favour of the use of persuasive techniques. Others have shared his non-user-centred point of view, but with a more negative tone. In a book review of Persuasive Technology (BJ Fogg’s seminal book on the topic), Robert Johnson writes

“the book portends to be interested in end users – office workers, teachers, students (young and old), and the general public – … in practice, the book is designer-centred and system-centred” *.

Dan Lockton has written a response to Robert Fabricant’s article, in which he touches on whether using persuasive techniques is user-centred or not:

“I would argue that in cases where design with intent, or design for behaviour change, is aligned with what the user wants to achieve, it’s very much still user-centred design, whether enabling, motivating or constraining. It’s the best form of user-centred design, supporting a user’s goals while transforming his or her behaviour.”

I tend to agree with Dan’s position. As I’ve jotted down in the past, when products that have persuasive techniques designed into them are sold on the free market, I can’t see significant problems with designers using persuasive techniques. Taking the useful (but rather tired) example of real-time energy displays, if I buy one to keep a closer eye on my energy consumption, I’m quite happy for it to be designed in a way that will help me influence my behaviour most effectively. I suppose (as Dan says) I’d be a little less happy if there was a disconnect between my original purchase and the behaviour that it tried to encourage in me – say I bought a George Foreman grill that somehow gently nudged into becoming a vegetarian.

What I think is much more interesting (and problematic) is if the state gets involved. One of the aims of the RSA’s work in this area is to explore whether design can make a positive contribution to behaviour change policy. Policy makers are keen to hear of new methods of changing behaviour. For example, the present government is proposing to fit smart meters into all UK homes by 2020 which will be equipped with real-time displays that you can carry about your house communicate energy consumption. To help design these displays, the recent consultation from the Department of Energy and Climate Change seeks:

“…input (from consumer groups in particular) on the type of data that will best incentivise behavioural change (for instance, information on energy use, money, CO2 etc). Getting the balance right between providing enough data to enable behavioural change, without overloading consumers, will be important.”

Here’s a product that you don’t choose to buy, but will be specifically designed to influence your behaviour and distributed to your home over the next ten years. You can always bung it in a drawer though.

Ethical issues abound in behaviour change policy – particularly when more sophisticated insights from psychology are applied. Whether people think there is a role for government to try and change behaviour will always vary from behaviour to behaviour, and it doesn’t make much difference whether the method used by government is regulation, taxes & incentives, information, advertising campaigns, or other forms of design.

* I can’t find the original review, but his words are cited in a later review by Bernardine Atkinson

Comments

  • matthew taylor

    This is a great post Jamie. I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you

    • http://www.thersa.org/projects/design Jamie Young

      Thanks!

  • matthew taylor

    This is a great post Jamie. I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you

    • http://www.thersa.org/projects/design Jamie Young

      Thanks!

  • http://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/author/design4impact/ robert fabricant

    Thanks for the thoughtful response to my post on designmind. I would like to take up the question as to whether I am or am not ‘in favor of pursuasive techniques’. This is not a simple question – yes/no. I haven’t yet found a secure threshold between the poles of UCD and Persuasion. In fact, that is what I am trying to explore in some of my recent posts and articles. I am aware of Dan’s position. but I dont find it that helpful – particularly as a practicing designer who is making things. I don’t find comfort in the Liberal Paternalism model either.

    The fact is that there are a host of different influences that come to bear in any interaction. And a host of different needs that drive user behavior. How do we decide what the user really ‘wants to achieve’ as Dan describes it? Designers are constantly making judgement calls about which ‘needs’ we choose to privilege in our designs. In fact, you could argue this is the central function of a design: to sort through the mess of needs and priortize the right ones. But these are, necessarily, value judgements, whether we want to admit it or not.

    So from that perspective, UCD, starts to seem a bit naive, possibly even a way to avoid accountability for these value judgements. More importantly, I dont think the design community has the right models and frameworks to make these decisions. That is why I am so interested in engaging with folks like Dan and yourself.

    So back the central question regarding persuasive techniques: if you use BJ Fogg’s set of principles as one example of these techniques, then you will hardly find a designer who is not using them. The question is, are they aware of the effect.

    • http://www.thersa.org/projects/design Jamie Young

      Thanks for your comment, Robert. Apologies for sweepingly stating that you’re “in favour” – I agree it’s not really that simple. I like your description of UCD as sorting through and prioritising the user’s needs. I think you’re right that figuring out how designers should (intentionally) apply these techniques in day to day practice wil require some big thinking. I suppose that the RSA’s work (including the Design & Behaviour project) doesn’t really start from the same perspective as a design consultancy; we’ve already decided that we we want to encourage “pro-social” behaviour, and are exploring whether design and technology could contribute to that.

      I think there’s some similarity between your views and a paper by Daniel Fallman that you may be interested in. Here’s a rather long quotation from its conclusion:

      “In this paper, we have argued for why we see a need for a philosophy of technology to emerge within HCI design. HCI as a field has a strongly rooted tradition of empiricism and cognitivism, and the notion of usability is very ‘neutral’. Because of this, HCI has a tradition of being morally ignorant of its consequences. While this is common in many empirical sciences, it seems that current trends in HCI toward an increased interest in issues like user experience, affective qualities, and meaning demands HCI to become more aware in terms of its human, social, cultural, ethical, and political implications. To continue to be relevant, it is important for HCI to understand that it is also leaving the comforting moral aimlessness of traditional usability. Persuasive interfaces bring these matters to a head. Can HCI be purely ‘scientific’ in developing persuasive interfaces? Does it not matter into what our interfaces persuade us?” [link]

      Do you think the ‘philosophy of technology’ that Daniel Fallman mentions is the first step towards the models and frameworks that you mention?

  • http://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/author/design4impact/ robert fabricant

    Thanks for the thoughtful response to my post on designmind. I would like to take up the question as to whether I am or am not ‘in favor of pursuasive techniques’. This is not a simple question – yes/no. I haven’t yet found a secure threshold between the poles of UCD and Persuasion. In fact, that is what I am trying to explore in some of my recent posts and articles. I am aware of Dan’s position. but I dont find it that helpful – particularly as a practicing designer who is making things. I don’t find comfort in the Liberal Paternalism model either.

    The fact is that there are a host of different influences that come to bear in any interaction. And a host of different needs that drive user behavior. How do we decide what the user really ‘wants to achieve’ as Dan describes it? Designers are constantly making judgement calls about which ‘needs’ we choose to privilege in our designs. In fact, you could argue this is the central function of a design: to sort through the mess of needs and priortize the right ones. But these are, necessarily, value judgements, whether we want to admit it or not.

    So from that perspective, UCD, starts to seem a bit naive, possibly even a way to avoid accountability for these value judgements. More importantly, I dont think the design community has the right models and frameworks to make these decisions. That is why I am so interested in engaging with folks like Dan and yourself.

    So back the central question regarding persuasive techniques: if you use BJ Fogg’s set of principles as one example of these techniques, then you will hardly find a designer who is not using them. The question is, are they aware of the effect.

    • http://www.thersa.org/projects/design Jamie Young

      Thanks for your comment, Robert. Apologies for sweepingly stating that you’re “in favour” – I agree it’s not really that simple. I like your description of UCD as sorting through and prioritising the user’s needs. I think you’re right that figuring out how designers should (intentionally) apply these techniques in day to day practice wil require some big thinking. I suppose that the RSA’s work (including the Design & Behaviour project) doesn’t really start from the same perspective as a design consultancy; we’ve already decided that we we want to encourage “pro-social” behaviour, and are exploring whether design and technology could contribute to that.

      I think there’s some similarity between your views and a paper by Daniel Fallman that you may be interested in. Here’s a rather long quotation from its conclusion:

      “In this paper, we have argued for why we see a need for a philosophy of technology to emerge within HCI design. HCI as a field has a strongly rooted tradition of empiricism and cognitivism, and the notion of usability is very ‘neutral’. Because of this, HCI has a tradition of being morally ignorant of its consequences. While this is common in many empirical sciences, it seems that current trends in HCI toward an increased interest in issues like user experience, affective qualities, and meaning demands HCI to become more aware in terms of its human, social, cultural, ethical, and political implications. To continue to be relevant, it is important for HCI to understand that it is also leaving the comforting moral aimlessness of traditional usability. Persuasive interfaces bring these matters to a head. Can HCI be purely ‘scientific’ in developing persuasive interfaces? Does it not matter into what our interfaces persuade us?” [link]

      Do you think the ‘philosophy of technology’ that Daniel Fallman mentions is the first step towards the models and frameworks that you mention?

  • http://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/author/design4impact/ robert fabricant

    Jamie: thanks for the link to Daniel’s paper. the excerpt definitely resonates with me. going to digest the whole thing before commenting on your question about the ‘philosophy of technology’.

  • http://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/author/design4impact/ robert fabricant

    Jamie: thanks for the link to Daniel’s paper. the excerpt definitely resonates with me. going to digest the whole thing before commenting on your question about the ‘philosophy of technology’.

  • http://www.cerebyte.com/ Michael McCauley

    Very interesting article. We have been involved in developing software that incorporates persuasive technology for some time.

    Your question about the focus is an interesting one. Persuasive technology is all about changing the attitudes and behaviors of individuals.

    While most of the recent research has been in the consumer area, including the recent work of the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, we focus on using persuasive technology to maximize organizaitonal performance. It is our goal to “lead” users down a predetermined track while motivating them to engage and support proposed organizational changes.

    This focus would seem to fit very nicely into your “industrial designer” equation. You’ve presented an interesting view that I need to muse on. Thanks for getting my creative juices flowing!

  • http://www.cerebyte.com Michael McCauley

    Very interesting article. We have been involved in developing software that incorporates persuasive technology for some time.

    Your question about the focus is an interesting one. Persuasive technology is all about changing the attitudes and behaviors of individuals.

    While most of the recent research has been in the consumer area, including the recent work of the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, we focus on using persuasive technology to maximize organizaitonal performance. It is our goal to “lead” users down a predetermined track while motivating them to engage and support proposed organizational changes.

    This focus would seem to fit very nicely into your “industrial designer” equation. You’ve presented an interesting view that I need to muse on. Thanks for getting my creative juices flowing!

  • http://www.gunnarswanson.com/ Gunnar Swanson

    All design is persuasive. “Pure” user centered design is no less persuasive; it just persuades users that they were right about what they wanted in the first place.

  • http://www.gunnarswanson.com Gunnar Swanson

    All design is persuasive. “Pure” user centered design is no less persuasive; it just persuades users that they were right about what they wanted in the first place.

  • http://www.ferraby.com/ Robin Ferraby

    Very interesting post thanks.

    I think the idea that things inform behaviour is sure, and needs to be expressed. That takes things beyond ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.

    I think the Industrial revolution has stunted the value side and the holistic health of people in their interactions with the world; at it’s height a person bought a hifi mainly for specification with little experiential motivation. That I think was a product of both the enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, rationality dominance and spreadsheet thinking.

    So to the designer’s role… I feel like to repair the relationship between Industry and people is to empower people rather than to change them. I feel like people are looking for transformation, they desire fullness, so they will seek it. The path of design has added transformation to experience to specification and technology innovation before that, but I feel like that’s industry maturing to the point of recognising consumers rather than maturing to the point of dominating/leading them.

    In this new role designers need to know consumers, holistically, empathising, advocating. I’m trying to steer away from asking is design a value system in the sense that value is out there.

    So to the State’s role… I think it needs design thinkers in the mold I’ve described.. It needs to engage with the narrative, with the intangibles to find the stories on the street.

  • http://www.ferraby.com Robin Ferraby

    Very interesting post thanks.

    I think the idea that things inform behaviour is sure, and needs to be expressed. That takes things beyond ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.

    I think the Industrial revolution has stunted the value side and the holistic health of people in their interactions with the world; at it’s height a person bought a hifi mainly for specification with little experiential motivation. That I think was a product of both the enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, rationality dominance and spreadsheet thinking.

    So to the designer’s role… I feel like to repair the relationship between Industry and people is to empower people rather than to change them. I feel like people are looking for transformation, they desire fullness, so they will seek it. The path of design has added transformation to experience to specification and technology innovation before that, but I feel like that’s industry maturing to the point of recognising consumers rather than maturing to the point of dominating/leading them.

    In this new role designers need to know consumers, holistically, empathising, advocating. I’m trying to steer away from asking is design a value system in the sense that value is out there.

    So to the State’s role… I think it needs design thinkers in the mold I’ve described.. It needs to engage with the narrative, with the intangibles to find the stories on the street.