Using behavior change for more than “the dark arts” (coercion & manipulative persuasion)

Personally, I’m interested in voluntary, non-coercive action: helping people do things they want to do, but have struggled with.

But, I can’t kid myself — Action Design directly builds upon research into coercion and persuasion, which I half-jokingly call “the Dark Arts”.  For example, many of the cognitive mechanisms that I use have been studied in the fields of consumer behavior, marketing and sales for decades; in 1957 Vance Packard decried the tricks that advertisers use, in The Hidden Persuaders; the techniques have only become more advanced since then. Companies exist to sell their services or products, and so they’ve invested heavily over the last few decades in understanding how the mind works to drive those sales. Books such as Underhill’s Why We Buy and Lindstrom’s Buyology detail how companies have used everything from experimental testing of product placement in stores to fMRI brain scans to understand how we, as consumers, tick. Behavioral economics and the psychology of judgment and decision-making, both of which I rely heavily upon here, study many of the same cognitive mechanisms but in different contexts. The brain is the brain, whether it’s telling the body to buy soap or to exercise more.

So why come up with something new?

What’s been lacking, I believe, in the study of “stuff that’s good for you” (exercise, good diet, financial control, etc.), has been an honest assessment that we’re actually doing much of the same thing as companies selling their products – we just aren’t doing it as well. Realistically, most diet programs, personal finance tools, political advocacy campaigns, Bible study groups, etc., have always been about changing people’s behavior. We’ve just tried to hide from that fact, and we’ve just been ineffective.

So, Action Design seeks to speak directly to the folks who what to help with “stuff that’s good for you”, rather than to salespeople in general.  That starts with confronting the issue of behavior change head on. Action Design means changing behavior. Overcoming the constraints people face to changing their live requires something akin to manipulation (of the environment, of the task, or even of the person).  I figure that if you say that you want to build a product that’s designed to help someone, don’t dance around the issue: get off your butt and actually do it.  There’s no point to designing these products if they are ineffective.  Use the psychology to help people take control of their own lives. It can be uncomfortable position to take, but I believe it’s absolutely necessary to be effective.

Second, once you start digging into the process of building products that help people take action (voluntarily), it becomes clear that there are some key differences between Action Design-y products, and approaches in marketing and sales.  While the brain is the brain, the types of products that are required to engender different types of behavior are quite different.  For example, pushing someone to buy a product that they wouldn’t otherwise buy is a very different task than helping an ex-alcoholic stay on the wagon.  Also, if you assume people want to take a particular action (but haven’t been able to), then you can focus on the relevant research and dispense with discussions of preference generation, dissonance, manipulation, etc.  When you’re working with software applications (perhaps with physical accompaniment like the Nike+ Fuel Band), then that narrows the range of possible psychological mechanisms and delivery tools the designer can work with.

So, Action Design builds on research literature into decision making, and that literature has been used for many purposes, some good and some bad.  I think we can do something different with the  research, by focusing specifically on how to build software that helps people change their behavior. We’ll see how it goes.