The Dismal State of Persuasive Tech

"Persuasive Technology (PT) is a vibrant interdisciplinary research field, focusing on the design, development and evaluation of interactive technologies aimed at changing users' attitudes or behaviors through persuasion and social influence, but not through coercion or deception." Source:

Standford University described persuasive technology as captology- literally the ability to persuade using digital technology. We can ponder about the many varied applications of persuasive technology when we think about exercise and rehabilitation. Here we have a mechanism by which to persuade and motivate the end user towards positive behaviour toward wellness. Yet, persuasive technology, has been embedded into algorithms, since the inception of Pong. Sadly, whether knowingly or unknowingly, programmers have created stickiness drivers within video games to ensure not only repeat visits, but longer periods of time in front of the console, with the hope of getting the end user to conduct in-game purchases. This is indeed persuasive tech turned ugly. To a degree, it is propelling an end-user toward addictive behaviour. Big data can now determine, which types of people are more liable to be persuaded by certain rewards as opposed to others, and these are instituted particularly in massively multiplayer online games (MMOG).

We see thus, that there is a fine line between the positive and negative applications of persuasive technology. It does not help, that there are now so many different sensors, embedded in so many different devices, ensuring ubiquitous connectivity. For the person, for whom digital technology is a means of recovery, ubiquity is powerful and beneficial. But for the person who is hyper-connected ubiquitous technology may well mean a life destined without an ability to disconnect. For the greater part, we are relying on technology to tell us what to do, and in essence we are losing our intuition to make judgments and decisions.

When used correctly, persuasive technology can empower and build intuition. But one need only observe wearers of Fitbits, to quickly ascertain that these digital technologies somehow manage to dumb the senses, despite they are packed with sensors. It is a paradox. The more quantitative data we have streaming from so many different on-board sensors, the less our ability to make sense of it in every day contexts. We rely on dumb apps, to give us smart advice. Indicative however of this techno generational crisis, is the poor logic behind apps built for mobile devices, being embraced for use in large workforces, like university campuses across the world.

One such example was a recent well-being, pedometer-based tracker, the Virgin Pulse Global Challenge that was meant to encourage staff of the University of Wollongong to get moving. I had the option to enter in the number of steps I had completed manually, or to sync an android app, using Samsung health. For one reason or another, 100 days came and went, and neither did I enter the data manually, nor had I synced my phone. Of course, constant reminders telling me I should get moving and that I should enter my steps manually, which rather than encouraging me made me feel somewhat negative, despite that I was moving around. At the conclusion, of the observation period, instead of receiving a qualitative message commensurate to what the app believed I had achieved during this time, I was greeted by an auto email, that noted: "Congratulations you have done 0 steps" and "You have 99 missed step entries" and "watch your celebration video". Needless to say, I found this all a little patronising.

On the flipside, my concern, for persuasive tech that actually works, is that it is likely to know an end users behaviour even more precisely than the end user. The privacy of this data that has been collected for one purpose is paramount. In the future hackers will not only be after logins and passwords, credit card numbers and PINS, but behavioural biometric data which dictates someone's levels of empathy, neuroticism, propensity to purchase/impulsivity, anger levels, sociability, and much much more. How do companies build trust, around the collection of biometric data and how do users learn to trust systems and health providers with the very information that may enhance their life.