ixd theory :: the power of persuasion

I don’t think it’s ever okay to trick someone to do something, even if it is good for them. But even as I type this, I know there are times when I have used persuasive techniques on people, and this sounds manipulative. I’m not sure why the word persuasion is connected to trickery, perhaps all the years of advertising has cast a negative light on the concept. This is unfortunate, because I believe understanding the mechanics of persuasion is a powerful key in design.

I don’t think it’s manipulative to offer my nephews a movie treat in turn for emptying the dishwasher. They need to learn the importance of the task, and how contributing to the household chores helps make the house feel like a family home. But emptying the dishwasher is not fun, especially when there are some many other fun things to do. By offering a reward for their participation, my nephews get a pleasurable motivation in return for taking the time to do the chore. In the end, everyone wins. Hopefully, as time passes, I will only have to trigger them by asking, and saying thank you will be a big enough reward.

I’ve also used persuasive triggers to drive web behavior. With Pacific Blue Cross, we made a web form easier to complete and responsive to input, and more people bought travel insurance online, instead of calling the help line. We knew that most people were fairly motivated to buy travel insurance on their own, but the difficulty of the process resulted in many lost transactions. We looked at factors such as the time to took to complete the form, the mental difficulty of the process and the cost of the purchase. We made the form responsive to input, so it presented only the information that particular visitor needed. We also provided real-time calculations to make it easy for the visitor to compare and choose several travel packages at once. The result was changing a paper-based transaction to an online behavior. In this case, our understanding of triggers, motivation and ability was a huge help to the customer. I could hardly call this trickery.

But let’s return to ethics. It is highly conceivable that these mechanics can be applied with less honorable intentions, such as encouraging impulse buying or the consumption of harmful goods. I think the alcohol industry has this area covered. But when we are designing a system to help people, and they have explicitly agreed to a behavior change, then we are duty-bound to use persuasive techniques to make the best system for them. The explicit agreement to the change is key, and often, this comprises of signing up for a service or buying a product. It would be wrong not to “trick” the person with persuasion, because ultimately, this is what they are asking us to do. Now we can certainly debate the value of the types of behaviors people are asking to change, but I believe that if we choose projects with human dignity and the betterment of society in mind, we can steer clear of these issues.