A few weeks ago, I had the chance to speak with Dr. BJ Fogg, author of Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do and founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University about persuasion, emotion and what it is that makes Web 2.0 so darned persuasive…
In part 1 of this interview, Dr. Fogg and I discussed what it is that makes computers so efficient at persuasion. In part 2, we’ll discuss persuasion, designing for emotional shifts, and Web 2.0. In part 3, we’ll discuss how Dr. Fogg incorporates persuasion into projects.
In 1998, Stanford University awarded Dr. BJ Fogg the Maccoby Prize for four years of experimental research on how computers can change people’s attitudes and behaviors. He then founded the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab and began teaching at Stanford (Computer Science & School of Education) on his area of expertise.
In addition to teaching and directing research on campus, Dr. Fogg leads innovation projects for Silicon Valley companies. As a psychologist, he brings an unusual perspective to working on technology innovations. He holds seven patents, and he has an additional eight patents pending. Dr. Fogg is the author of Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do, a book that explains how computers can motivate and influence people. He is the co-editor of Mobile Persuasion: 20 Perspectives on the Future of Behavior Change.
Dr. Fogg’s life’s work is to shape technology innovation in ways that benefit the world and make people happier. He believes two principles are essential for achieving these goals: designing for simplicity and building relationships of trust. For each principle he has created practical frameworks that help designers create better products.
TvG: Hello BJ!! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
BJF: Hi Trevor! No problem. Nice to talk with you again.
TvG: So how long have you been studying persuasion?
BJF: Since I was 19… formally anyway. And before that informally since I was maybe… about 15.
TvG: How did you get interested in persuasion?
BJF: Well, I was doing a master’s degree and became interested in document design. And I was interested in how one could create and convey information in a way that way usable, accessible and persuasive.
I got those three words from a paper written by a woman named Karen Shriver, at Carnegie Mellon. She called it “document design”, which is now called “information design”, but back then, no one knew what to call it. It brought a number of my interests together, so I dove into that and read everything I could on it. I designed a course on document design and taught it in 1989.
Of those three things, the persuasive part was the most interesting to me. The course also talked about something on the horizon called “hyper-text” and at that time nobody in my social world knew what hyper-text was, so it really felt on the edge of things.
In addition to teaching, at the time I was running a consulting business called Avatar. We were trying to push the envelope in using computers to design and share information. One of my clients was a direct mailer who was getting a terrible response rate, far less than 1%. So we suggested that they distribute PC disks to their customers. The client balked.
I figured this was a little too far ahead of its time. So after running that company for a couple of years, I went back to do a PhD and the most fascinating thing for me was computers and persuasion. This whole hypertext thing had created a non-linear way of designing experiences and this became a passion of mine.
I went from thinking about document design to thinking about persuasion in non-linear contexts. I applied to the Stanford Communication Department and detailed how I wanted to study this. I thought others had already worked on using computers for persuasive purposes, assuming researchers were already exploring this field.
As it turns out, Clifford Nass was doing his work on computers as social actors, although he hadn’t published anything yet on this topic. What I had proposed fit neatly into where he was headed. So from day one at Stanford, I knew my focus was computers and persuasion. I saw everything I studied through that lens: persuasive technology.
After a year at Stanford, I realized that not much had been done to investigate computers and persuasion. It was too new. That seemed impossible to me, so I continued searching for existing material. It took me another year to come to grips with the fact that no one else had really explored this topic.
At the time I was doing experiments to show that computers could change attitudes and behaviors. At the time, those experiments were controversial. I remember presenting one at CHI and having people ask me “do you really think you should be doing this kind of research?”
TvG: You mean questioning the ethical implications?
BJF: Yeah. They said “computers aren’t supposed to be doing this.” Or they thought there must be artifacts in the experiments. They said “computers aren’t going to be changing people’s attitudes!”
TvG: This reminds me a lot of the ethical questions raised by other fields related to psychology like Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). People claim you shouldn’t be trying to purposefully change people’s behaviors. But the reality is that behaviors are being changed by computers (and people) all the time and it’s better being done purposefully and consciously than accidentally and unconsciously, whether it’s with computers or other people.
BJF: Right! So little by little, the experiments were accepted as they were duplicated at other labs. However, I think the real pivotal moment came when the Tamagochi became popular and people saw their kids becoming attached to this device and crying when it died and so on. I think that answered some of the criticism more directly than science did. It was first hand experience. Parents said “my kid is emotionally attached to the Tamagochi!” So while I was doing my research, that dynamic was playing out culturally. After I finished my Ph.D., I was fortunate to stay at Stanford and create a lab.
TvG: Why do you think technology is capable of being so persuasive?
BJF: Until 2003, I believed that the best human persuaders would always be better than the best computer persuaders. I’ve changed my mind since then. In certain contexts today, I think that computerized persuasion can be more effective than the best human persuaders. And as we move forward, there will be even more contexts where the computer is better at persuading. It’s kind of scary, but I think it’s true.
TvG: Why would you say Captology and Persuasive Technology are such important topics right now?
BJF: Websites can now capture and track the results of different persuasion strategies. The ability for computing systems to track what persuasive strategy works and what does work is happening now. They can then call on this information later without our knowledge. They can then also sell this information. This allows for the creation of a “persuasive profile” for individuals.
So on Amazon for example, they can track whether presenting a new book will entice me to buy. If it does, then the strategy of novelty could go down in their database as being one that motivates me to purchase.
If I go back to the site and they say “your friend Trevor recommended this book” and I buy it, then the database records that a recommendation from a credible friend will motivate me to buy. I think it’s happening now, but nobody wants to admit there’s a mapping of our “persuasion profiles” that’s going on right now.
I’ve asked companies directly, and they say they are storing data in aggregate but not for individuals. I don’t believe that’s true. This information about us, as individuals, is too valuable to not collect. These companies can store it up and call on it again later. They can sell this info to realtors, politicians, etc.
The other thing is the ability of persuasive agents to reach us in the context of our everyday lives through mobile technology and in-car systems. If I’m walking around downtown, with GPS, they can send me an ad or a coupon for a store as I pass by. That’s a boring example, I think, but you get the idea.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview with Dr. BJ Fogg, where we’ll discuss persuasion and designing for emotion.