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Tapping the Powers of Persuasion

B. J. Fogg’s lab at Stanford focuses on the ways technology can influence behavior.

If you compulsively check Facebook, you are not alone, and your behavior, says B. J. Fogg, is no accident.

The Captologist: Stanford’s B. J. Fogg coined the term “captology,” for the study of “computers as persuasive technology.”

In his role as director of the Persuasive Technology Laboratory at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Fogg studies how technology influences behavior. As a consultant to corporations and organizations, he teaches how to design persuasive technologies, those designed to modify behavior without coercion. And as an educator, he’s taught many people who now work at Facebook and Google or who have founded other Silicon Valley startups that rely in large part on the power of persuasion.

“Facebook taps into our need to belong,” says Fogg, who is writing a book about the psychology of the social-networking site. “Checking it is the most efficient way to feel like you matter. Eventually it becomes a ritual.” While most companies can’t hope to become another Facebook, Fogg says that with a careful eye to design, organizations can do more to reach specific goals, whether that’s getting consumers to switch brands or getting employees to lose weight to save on health care.

He cites the glowing pill-bottle caps made by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, company Vitality, which give escalating visual and musical cues to remind people to take their medicine. As time goes on, “the nag gets heavier,” says Fogg. “They increase patient compliance from 50 percent to 80 to 90 percent.” No matter what the business model, he says, “you have to be able to influence behavior to succeed.” [Separate story on GlowCaps coming Oct. 6]

In 1993, as a graduate student in experimental psychology at Stanford, Fogg coined a name for his nascent field: “captology,” for “computers as persuasive technology.” But his interest in technology started much earlier. Fogg describes his dad as a “super-early adopter” who built his own computer, soldering together computer chips with his son. The family had a phone in the car and an enormous microwave oven in the garage–in the 1960s, before most people had even seen these devices. As he learned from studying history, technology could rival language in its power to persuade. “Technology allows you to trigger behaviors in new ways, motivate in new ways, then simplify, automate, and scale up,” he says.

But when he started out in the early 1990s, the Internet was young, and he had to prove experimentally that computers can indeed change behavior. One experiment, for example, showed that people were willing to do more work if the computer gave flattering feedback. The rise of social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter has made the proposition undeniable. “The Web is not about information,” he says. “It’s about influence.”

Fogg says he doesn’t teach a rigid set of design rules for the technology of the moment but, rather, a way of thinking that won’t become less relevant as new technologies emerge. A former student of his, Zaw Thet, says one of the most important things he learned from Fogg is how to establish credibility. Fogg’s credibility principles, available online, apply to Thet’s work as cofounder and CEO of 4Info, which serves ads for mobile applications. Make the site intuitive, provide contact information, and avoid errors, even small ones, the guidelines say. Thet also cites a lesson about sending text messages to customers: while they don’t get buried as often as e-mail messages do, “you have to be careful how you use [texting] so they don’t turn it off.”

Scott Kleper, another former student of Fogg’s, cofounded San Francisco-based Context Optional four and a half years ago and serves as its CTO. The company works with large corporations to manage their presence on Facebook. “As a social-marketing company, we think that people are the influencers,” he says. Kleper, too, points to the importance of credibility online. He says that influencing people through their online friends is a powerful way to build credibility, especially when it comes to charitable giving. Context Optional worked with Kohl’s on a campaign to give away $10 million to 20 schools that were chosen through votes online.

Fogg has identified 15 categories of target behaviors, characterized by type and frequency. Is the behavior new or familiar? Do you want to increase it, decrease it, or stop it altogether? Do you want the change to happen once, many times, or for a lifetime? To help organizations and companies figure out which of the 15 types of behavior they need to initiate to achieve their goal, Fogg has set up The tool is aimed at helping organizations figure out what kind of behavior they want to encourage so that they can develop an appropriate motivational trigger. Motivators may be social, such as a recommendation by a friend on Facebook, or they can be emotional, like an empathy-inducing video.

Asked whether he isn’t simply systematizing the obvious, Fogg responds that this is exactly what he’s doing. Good design for a Web page or a public-relations campaign doesn’t come about by chance. “People have a poor understanding of what causes behavioral changes, and they design around those bad ideas,” he says. “Persuasion is intuitive, but thinking about it systematically is not. Once you hear it, it makes sense–but until then, it’s not clear.”

While he says that “persuasion” is no longer a “dirty word,” he won’t go on record about any of the specific campaigns he’s helped design as a consultant for Nike, American Express, and others. Whatever it is exactly that he does for these companies, however, he’s persuaded them to pay for it. He’s in such demand that he’s starting to hold persuasive-technology “boot camps” at his home in wine country; it costs $1,599.00 to participate. With very little promotion, a recent event sold out in less than two days.

Fogg believes that mobile applications are the next frontier of persuasive technology, and several of his projects are directed at using them to trigger changes in personal health and behaviors that affect the environment. Some of his designs are currently being tested in a clinical trial at the University of California, San Diego, that’s assessing whether text messages and other electronic nudges can help college students improve their eating habits.

He’s also wondering whether the law of diminishing returns will set in. As we are bombarded by more and more attempts to persuade us to click, buy, change our minds, or join a group, some “persuasive-technology fatigue” may take hold, he says. In this cluttered world, he hopes his students gain a new perspective that transcends today’s smart phones or social networks: “I want people to understand persuasive design no matter what happens to the technology.”

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