Published April 23, 2015

What Can South Park Teach Us About Persuasive Technology?

You’ve probably heard of so called “freemium” mobile gaming. Think Angry Birds and Candy Crush. According to the brilliant and hilarious show South Park, a successful freemium game is based on five principles:

  1. Simplicity: “Entice the player with a simple game loop.”
  1. Compliments: “Use lots of flashing ‘cha-chings’ and compliments to make the players feel good about themselves.”
  1. Fake currency: “Train the players to spend your fake currency.”
  1. Switcheroo: “Offer the players a way to spend real currency for your fake currency (so they’ll forget they’re spending money).”
  1. Waiting: “And make the game about waiting, but let the player pay not to wait.”

Furthermore, the game “has to be just barely fun. If the game was too fun there would be no reason to micropay in or order to make it more fun.”

Image: South Park Studios/Comedy Central

The discussion came in an episode titled “Freemium Isn’t Free,” in which the show lambastes the business model employed by freemium games because they generate the bulk of their revenues from a small percentage of people who essentially get addicted to the games. We’re not here to judge the business model. But just to give you an idea of why South Park might want to lampoon it, consider the report that app testing firm Swrve came out with in early 2014, claiming that about 50% of a typical freemium game’s in-app purchase revenue comes from less than 0.2% of players.

That can still translate into big bucks, however, if you have a big user base.

Take King Digital Entertainment (KING) for example; it’s the owner of Candy Crush and other mobile games. In the fourth quarter of 2014, the company had 533 million monthly active users. Only about 2% of KING’s users are paying customers, but the company was still able to generate approximately $2.3 billion in revenue during 2014.

Freemium gaming is an interesting example of a much bigger, growing field called “persuasive technology.”

Persuasive technology arose from “captology,” which is short for “computers as persuasive technology.” It’s a term that was coined in 1993 by Stanford researcher B.J. Fogg, who at the time was working as a doctoral student in experimental psychology, attempting to figure out how to computerize persuasion. In Fogg’s words, he was trying to answer the question: “How could you use the power of computers to change what people believed, how they behaved, and how could this then be applied to improve the world in some way?” Captology was later broadened to include smartphones, apps, and other technologies that could be used to influence peoples’ attitudes and behavior.

Despite Fogg’s claim that the goal of his research was to “improve the world in some way,” the idea of persuasive technology rubs many the wrong way. But the fact is that it’s everywhere today, so it’s important to at least know what it is—especially if you want to know when a company is trying to persuade you.

The roots of today’s persuasive technology date back to at least the 1930s when psychologist B.F. Skinner showed that he could induce desired behaviors in animals through “operant conditioning,” which basically means changing the subject’s behavior using various types and schedules of reinforcements. According to part of the Wikipedia definition: “It encourages the subject to associate desirable or undesirable outcomes with certain behaviors.” Pretty simple. We can all probably remember instances when our own behavior was modified in this way, especially if we think back to our youth.

Building on Skinner’s work (which was actually built on the ideas of Edward Thorndike) and other researchers in the decades since, in 2007 Fogg developed a model for technology designers—the Fogg Behavior Model or FBM—that describes behavior as the result of a trigger coinciding with right the proportion of both motivation and ability.

According to Fogg’s Behavior Model website, which is aimed at helping organizations determine what kind of behavior they want to encourage in order to develop an appropriate trigger:

Using my Behavior Model (FBM) as a guide, designers can identify what stops people from performing behaviors that designers seek. For example, if users are not performing a target behavior, such as rating hotels on a travel web site, the FBM helps designers see what psychological element is lacking ....

What makes my Behavior Model different from previous work? First, the FBM shows how behavior is the result of three specific elements coming together at one moment. Next, the FBM explains the subcomponents of each element. In addition, the FBM shows that motivation and ability can be traded off (e.g., if motivation is very high, ability can be low). Finally, the FBM applies most directly to practical issues of designing for behavior change using today’s technology.

Fogg’s been a consultant for Nike, American Express, and many other companies. He also holds persuasive technology boot camps about once a month at his guest home in California wine country. These always sell out—a good indicator of how highly his work is esteemed by organizations of all types who want to enhance the persuasive aspects of their technologies.

Nir Eyal is another big name in the world of persuasive technology. He promotes a scheme called “the hook,” which is a method to build habit-forming products by leading users through a four-step loop consisting of a trigger, an action, a variable reward, and an investment.

The MIT Technology Review article titled “Compulsive Behavior Sells” by Ted Greenwald provides a good explanation of the hook in action:

It starts with a trigger, a prod that propels users into a four-step loop. Think of the e-mail notification you get when a friend tags you in a photo on Facebook. The trigger prompts you to take an action—say, to log in to Facebook. That leads to a reward: viewing the photo and reading the comments left by others. In the fourth step, you inject a personal stake by making an investment: say, leaving your own comment in the thread.

According to Eyal, the final stage, investment, closes the loop by “loading the next trigger” and kicking off a repetitive cycle. Again, to quote Greenwald’s article:

Take Twitter. When you make an investment by posting a tweet, a follower’s reply to your contribution triggers an e-mail notification to your in-box, inciting you to take yet another spin through the cycle.

If you’re someone who compulsively checks Facebook and/or Twitter, you might be feeling a bit used and abused at this point. If so, perhaps you can take solace in the fact that there’s a big push to design persuasive technologies that help us improve our lives too.

Take Jawbone, the maker of popular fitness-tracking bands. The company is much more than a simple hardware maker. Its recently launched UP2 tracker wristband pairs with the UP app on a user’s smartphone to provide what the company calls Smart Coach, “an intelligent system that learns your habits, and gives you personalized guidance and feedback to help you reach your goals.”

A couple of examples of Smart Coach in action would be:

·        The system knows you have a goal of walking 5,000 steps per day; and one day you fall short. It might send you a message telling you that you only reached XX% of your goal today and ask if you want to try again tomorrow. You’d then reply with one click indicating whether you were in or not, and then Smart Coach might follow that up with an encouraging text that reads something like “Sleep well tonight. You can start fresh tomorrow.”

·        The system knows you like to go to bed at 11 p.m., but you stay up later than you wanted to. It might send you a message the next morning which reads, “You missed your bedtime last night, so slip into those PJs a little earlier tonight and perfect your routine.” Again, you could reply whether you were in or not with one click, and the system would follow it up with a message that reads something like, “After less than 6 hours of sleep, foods high in fat seem more appealing. Try some energy-boosting protein for breakfast.”

According to product manager Kelvin Kwong, Smart Coach is based on “our best understanding of how the brain works to get you to act.” And it apparently works. Kwong cites studies which have shown that it helps “people get to bed 23 minutes earlier on average and move 27% more during the day.” That’s not insignificant.

The point of all this is simply that for better or worse, the era of ubiquitous persuasive technology has arrived, and it isn’t going anywhere. And the more digital our lives become, the more opportunities the persuaders will have to draw us into their loops.