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How Persuasive Technology Can Change Your Habits

Principles from psychology can alter behaviors and beliefs

3 min read
Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEIf you’re looking to break a habit like smoking or start a new one such as saving more money, you may need a nudge from your digital device.

Persuasive technology—a term coined by Stanford researcher B.J. Fogg—involves incorporating insights from psychology into the design of products like mobile apps and wearables. The goal is to modify people’s habits and beliefs.

Behavioral science—the study of human (and animal) actions—is playing an increasing role in software design, whether to keep users coming back to the same website or encouraging them to play the next level of a video game when they’re ready to quit. The same techniques can also be applied to help people improve their lives.

“The Holy Grail of behavioral change is helping someone take small steps to accomplish a goal until it becomes a permanent habit,” says IEEE Senior Member Samir Chatterjee, a persuasive-technology pioneer. But designing technology to help people form or break a habit—also known as behavioral engineering—is not easy.


If people want to change a behavior or belief on their own, they first need motivation. If they’re not motivated, though, persuasive technologies might be able to alter their attitude or behavior without coercion or deception, Chatterjee says. He founded the Innovation Design and Empowerment Applications (IDEA) Lab at Claremont Graduate University, in California, where his students develop persuasive technology applications.

One way to get people to alter their behavior is to simply remind them: with a mobile app that, for example, dings when it’s time to drink a glass of water or to get up and walk. But for someone with little desire to change a habit, alarms alone likely won’t do the trick. Therefore, persuasive technology designers consider the interaction of three factors: motivation, ability, and triggers.

If, for example, people are physically able to exercise but lack motivation, triggers can help. Triggers come in many forms. They can include things a person is looking forward to—like an upcoming wedding or an annual health checkup—as well as close friends who have achieved a similar goal. Such triggers can be built into systems to motivate people, Chatterjee says.

An app can send you reminders that, for example, your sister’s wedding is three months away, which could remind you that you have a suit or dress you need to fit into. Or, syncing the app with social media or an online forum can be a great way to encourage an individual by finding a community that shares the same goals.

The app QuitNow, designed for people who want to stop smoking, for example, offers an online community where smokers share their progress and check up on one another. More than 2 million people using QuitNow have successfully stopped smoking, according to its developer, Fewlaps, a software company in Girona, Spain. The app incorporates a financial trigger as well, tracking daily cigarette usage and the money saved by reducing the number smoked.

Making an announcement through an app or social media helps keep people accountable to others, Chatterjee says. Informing friends and family on Facebook that you plan to run a marathon or write a book will hold your feet to the fire, as opposed to keeping your goal a secret, he says. “It’s harder to change behavior of those who feel alone in their goal.”


If triggers are not working, another option is to focus on a person’s ability to accomplish a goal. That might involve setting more attainable milestones, such as saving 2 percent of each paycheck instead of 5 percent. Another aid is simplifying the process of logging information into the app by offering voice activation or a smartwatch version.

Persuasive tech designers also consider offering a reward system for good behavior. It might include earning a badge when a milestone is reached, or “gamifying” the experience by collecting points that can be applied toward unlocking, say, a new feature of the app.

Such rewards are even more important when users are about to quit on their goal. To guard against that, developers can build their software to sense inactivity and then contrive to inspire users to continue.

The field of persuasive technology requires input from many disciplines—including data analysts, behavioral scientists, game theorists—to better understand users and keep them coming back. Or, Chatterjee says, to get them to even use the app in the first place.

Data can help inform how people are using an app and when they are most and least active with it. Behavioral scientists can provide insights into why people quit when they do, and suggest how to motivate them to stay on track. And game theorists can build in rewards or gaming experiences to encourage people to keep going.

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