The UX discipline has been busy. In the last two decades, it has formalized the practices of information architecture, experience design, content strategy, and interaction design. Thanks to the insatiable drive of UX practitioners to improve and define the field, it will continue to grow, and persuasive design is the next practice it will supercharge and embrace, folding its techniques into interaction design.
A Framework for Changing Behavior
Persuasive design is the process of creating persuasive technology, or “technology that is designed to change attitudes or behaviors of the users through persuasion and social influence, but not through coercion.” - Wikipedia / BJ Fogg
In other words, it is the use of psychology in design to influence behavior.
There are a few main tenets of the discipline:
- Behaviors can be classified based on whether they are positive or negative, and how long they will be sustained. (See the behavior grid)
- A person’s motivation and ability determine whether they will perform a behavior or not. (See this illustration)
- Insights from psychology can be used to change someone’s motivation or ability, thus influencing the likelihood of a behavior.
- Triggers are single design elements that change motivation or ability.
- Triggers have a strong element of timing; they are most effective when presented when someone’s motivation or ability are already at peak levels.
From a practical perspective, persuasive design is strongly aligned with both business and user goals. It is a powerful way to influence the “desirable” part of the holy trinity of good design (useful, usable, desirable). It focuses on the context that behavior happens in, especially the motivation and ability required to prompt action.
Think of persuasive design as focused more strongly on affecting whether people do something, and interaction design dealing with how they accomplish it if they’ve decided to.
In the Wild
One need not look far to see examples of good persuasive design; they get talked about because they’re exciting. I’ve created a thread on Quora where examples of persuasive technology are continually being added. Here are some highlights:
Manicare Stop That is a nail polish with a bitter taste, helping people break the habit of biting their nails.
Vitamin R helps you stay on task by giving audio reminders that you’re working on something.
Ford’s fusion dashboard with eco leaves creates a feedback loop on your driving, encouraging more eco-friendly driving.
ReadyForZero is giving away stickers that go on your credit card, reminding you not to spend.
The Facebook Like feature is lightweight, in-context exchange of social capital that creates motivation, value, and engagement for multiple people with a single click.
A Steady Trend
Before looking forward, let’s take a quick look back to see how this new discipline fits into a simplified history of user experience:
- Human-computer interaction is about paying attention to people and their relationship with computing.
- Information architecture is about making things findable.
- Interaction design is about making things usable.
- Content strategy is about making things meaningful.
- Experience design is about making things seamless.
- Persuasive design is about making things influential.
The trend goes towards deeper meanings and bigger impacts.
As the design discipline gets better at the basics of understanding and enabling behavior, it moves towards creating meaningful impacts by influencing behavior. But this influence must be built on top of successes in the more basic elements of UX such as good research and seamless usability.
People Are Already Practicing Persuasive Design, but UX Lags Behind
People have created persuasive technologies since the dawn of invention. Advertisements in every shape and context persuade people to buy things. Credit cards make it trivially easy for people to take loans. Weight Watchers turns calories into simple points that can be used to track and manage a diet.
However, the UX field is only beginning to fully embrace persuasive design. This industry is far behind industries such as advertising and marketing, which have studied, tested, and honed the art of influencing people’s behavior for decades. UX practitioners are designing persuasive technologies every day, but are only beginning to formalize the education, ethics, and metrics behind creating them.
Without such structure, we will continue to see cargo cults that inappropriately use techniques, such as gamification. Foursquare, Gowalla, and other services popularized the use of game mechanics to drive user engagement. Unfortunately, many companies have strictly copied the obvious game elements, such as badges and leveling-up, without understanding the deeper psychology at work. These services have seen the power of persuasive design, but lack a true understanding of how to properly apply psychology in UX design.
Why Persuasive Technology Will Change Everything, and Already Is
With a focus on psychology, UX designers can build services that directly help people improve their lives. It’s not new; AA and Weight Watchers were around before the Internet, and they help people through difficult and long-term behavior change. Still, there are big advances to be made. Web services are starting to blur the edges between online and offline interactions. Nike+ and Fitbit track and provide insight into your exercise. ReadyForZero helps people change their behavior and get out of credit card debt. HealthMonth creates competitive / supportive groups of people who improve at the same time.
This is grander than enabling behavior—it is changing behavior. It is also only just beginning. As the practice delves deeper into embedding psychology in design, new approaches will emerge. Researchers at Stanford, for example, have begun to develop the technique of persuasion profiling. This technique builds a profile of which psychological triggers work best for a given person, and uses these triggers to drive new behaviors in the future. In other words, beyond focusing on what content someone might prefer—say, a relevant movie on Netflix or a product on Amazon—this approach determines the how to deliver it most effectively. Where the principle of social proof may persuade one person to buy a product, the principle of competition may work better for someone else.
With Power Comes Responsibility
The ethical questions that arise when designing for behavior change cannot be understated. The UX community has searched for a common ethical framework for some time now, and the need only grows greater.
However, the evil stuff is already happening. Cigarette companies, soda companies, fast food franchises, the fashion industry, marketing agencies, and many other entities have been practicing persuasive design for decades. Often, they design for business goals at the expense of the customer’s money, health, or happiness. It appears that the evil side of the market is far more saturated than the good side. If this holds true, there is hope. Practitioners at smaller companies and non-profits will have much to gain from a greater understanding of persuasive design, whereas mega-corporations have already taken it to the limit.
Furthermore, it’s much easier to talk about the ethics of using psychology in design when everyone shares a common understanding of what that means.
There’s plenty to do. Fortunately, the design community is active and motivated in defining the practice.
Flesh out the frameworks
Flesh out the frameworks The existing frameworks are great beginnings. BJ Fogg’s Behavior Grid has paved the way. They provide the structure around which people understand and discuss persuasive design. Once the community uses frameworks regularly, they will certainly undergo some refinement, and new ones may arise.
Learn and educate
UX practitioners should learn all they can about this kind of design. What are the psychological principles at play? How do you understand them? How do you test them? As they improve on their understanding and discover new methods of using psychology in design, they should continue to share these advances with the community.
Develop more pattern libraries
Pattern libraries full of examples provide a fast education. They give many examples of what has already worked in various situations. Inevitably they get a bad reputation when they are overused, but this shouldn’t outweigh their usefulness as a learning tool. Stephen Anderson’s Mental Notes cards provide a fantastic set of behaviors to reference, and the Design With Intent toolkit is another useful guide.
Persuasive design is the next step in using design to create a positive impact in the world. While it is already being practiced in many industries, the UX community has yet to fully embrace this type of design. Doing so will be the next big step in pushing the UX field forward.