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Mindful Technology vs. Persuasive Technology

On Monday, I had the pleasure of visiting Malcolm McCullough’s Architecture 531 – Networked Cities for final presentations. Many of the students in the class are from SI, where we talk a lot about incentive-centered design, choice architecture, and persuasive technology, which seems to have resulted in many of the projects having a persuasive technology angle. As projects were pitched as “extracting behavior” or “compelling” people to do things, it was interesting to watch the discomfort in the reactions from students and faculty who don’t frame problems in this way.1

Thinking about this afterwards brought me back to a series of conversations at Persuasive this past summer. A prominent persuasive technology researcher said something along the lines of “I’m really only focusing on people who already want to change their behavior.” This caused a lot of discussion, with major themes being: Is this a cop-out, shouldn’t we be worried about the people who aren’t trying? Is this just a neat way of skirting the ethical issues of persuasive (read: “manipulative”) technology?

I’m starting to think that there may be an important distinction that may help address these questions, one between technology that pushes people to do something without them knowing it and technology that supports people in achieving a behavior change they desire. The first category might be persuasive technology, and for now, I’ll call the second category mindful technology.

Persuasive Technology

I’ll call systems that push people who interact with them to behave in certain ways, without those people choosing the behavior change as an explicit goal, Persuasive Technology. This is a big category, and I believe that most systems are persuasive systems in that their design and defaults will favor certain behaviors over others (this is a Nudge inspired argument: whether or not it is the designer’s intent, any environment in which people make choices is inherently persuasive).

Mindful Technology

For now, I’ll call technology that helps people reflect on their behavior, whether or not people have goals and whether or not the system is aware of those goals, mindful technology. I’d put apps like Last.fm and Dopplr in this category, as well as a lot of tools that might be more commonly classified as persuasive technology, such as UbiFit, LoseIt, and other trackers. While designers of persuasive technology are steering users toward a goal that the designers’ have in mind, the designers of mindful technology give users the ability to better know their own behavior to support reflection and/or self-regulation in pursuit of goals that the users have chosen for themselves.

Others working in the broad persuasive tech space have also been struggling with the issue of persuasion versus support for behaviors an individual chooses, and I’m far from the first to start thinking of this work as being more about mindfulness. Mindfulness is, however, a somewhat loaded term with its own meaning, and that may or may not be helpful. If I were to go with the tradition of “support systems” naming, I might call applications in this category “reflection support systems,” “goal support systems,” or “self-regulation support systems.”

Where I try to do my work

I don’t quite think that this is the right distinction yet, but it’s a start, and I think these are two different types of problems (that may happen to share many characteristics) with different sets of ethical considerations.

Even though my thinking is still a bit rough, I’m finding this idea useful in thinking through some of the current projects in our lab. For example, among the team members on AffectCheck, a tool to help people see the emotional content of their tweets, we’ve been having a healthy debate about how prescriptive the system should be. Some team members prefer something more prescriptive – guiding people to tweet more positively, for example, or tweeting in ways that are likely to increase their follower and reply counts – while I lean toward something more reflective – some information about the tweet currently being authored, how the user’s tweets have changed over time, here is how they stack up against the user’s followers’ tweets or the rest of Twitter. While even comparisons with friends or others offer evidence of a norm and can be incredibly persuasive, the latter design still seems to be more about mindfulness than about persuasion.

This is also more of a spectrum than a dichotomy, and, as I said above, all systems, by nature of being a designed, constrained environment, will have persuasive elements. (Sorry, there’s no way of dodging the related ethical issues!) For example, users of Steps, our Facebook application to promote walking (and other activity that registers on a pedometer), have opted in to the app to maintain or increase their current activity level. They can set their own daily goals, but the app’s goal recommender will push them to the fairly widely accepted recommendation of 10,000 steps per day. Other tools such as Adidas’s MiCoach or Nike+ have both tracking and coaching features. Even if people are opting into specific goals, the mere limited menu of available coaching programs is a bit persuasive, as it constrains people’s choices.

Overall, my preference when designing is to focus on helping people reflect on their behavior, set their own goals, and track progress toward them, rather than to nudge people toward goals that I have in mind. This is partly because I’m a data junkie, and I love systems that help me learn more about my behavior is without telling me what it should be. It is also partly because I don’t trust myself to persuade people toward the right goal at all times. Systems have a long history of handling exceptions quite poorly. I don’t want to build the system that makes someone feel bad or publicly shames them for using hotter water or a second rinse after a kid throws up in bed, or that takes someone to task for driving more after an injury.

I also often eschew gamification (for many reasons), and to the extent that my apps show rankings or leaderboards, I often like to leave it to the viewer to decide whether it is good to be at the top of the leaderboard or the bottom. To see how too much gamification can prevent interfere with people working toward their own goals, consider the leaderboards on TripIt and similar sites. One person may want to have the fewest trips or miles, because they are trying to reduce their environmental impact or because they are trying to spend more time at home with family and friends, while another may be trying to maximize their trips. Designs that simply reveal data can support both goals, while designs that use terms like “winning” or that award trophies or badges to the person with the most trips start to shout: this is what you should do.

Thoughts?

What do you think? Useful distinction? Cluttering of terms? Have a missed an existing, better framework for thinking about this?


1Some of the discomfort was related to some of the projects’ use punishment (a “worst wasters” leaderboard or similar). This would be a good time to repeat Sunny Consolvo’s guideline that technology for persuasive technology range from neutral to positive (Consolvo 2009), especially, in my opinion, in discretionary use situations – because otherwise people will probably just opt-out.

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