Persuasive guidelines for behaviour change

Posted on May 6, 2009


Sunny Consolvo's talk at CHI09 A theme of CHI for me this year was behaviour change.  This reflects the growing recognition that technology is at best only part of a solution.  Sunny Consolvo and her colleagues presented an interesting set of design strategies that support behaviour changes in everyday life (paper). They propose that persuasive technology developed following their guidelines will “help people get from the lifestyle they have to the lifestyle they want”.

They focus on lifestyle behaviour change:

The discrepancy between desired and actual lifestyle can be in part attributed to simple everyday decisions. Sometimes those decisions support her desired lifestyle; other times they do not. Often, it is a pattern of “poor” decisions that prevents the individual from achieving her desired lifestyle]. Making an occasional poor or arbitrary decision is seldom a serious problem.

The guidelines are based on the experiences in several persuasive initiatives (Breakaway, Fish’n’Steps, Houston)

Abstract & Reflective. Use data abstraction, rather than raw or explicit data collected from the user and any technologies, to display information to encourage the user to reflect on his/her behaviors by showing the user what s/he has done and how those behaviors relate to his/her goal.

Unobtrusive. Present and collect data in an unobtrusive manner, and make it available when and where the user needs it, without unnecessarily interrupting his/her everyday life or calling attention to him/her. It should also support occasional ignorability.

Public. Present and collect the data, which is personal in nature, such that the user is comfortable in the event that others may intentionally or otherwise become aware of it. Because the data needs to be available whenever and wherever the user needs it, it is likely to be something that s/he wears/carries, resides in a shared/common space, or uses while in the presence of others. The technology should not make the user uncomfortable in those situations.

Aesthetic. If the display and any accompanying devices function as a personal object(s) that may be used over time, they need to be inquisitive and sustain interest. The physical and virtual aspects of the technology must be comfortable and attractive to support the user’s personal style.

Positive. Use positive reinforcement to encourage change. Reward the user for performing the desired behavior and attaining his/her goal. When the desired behavior is not performed, the user should not receive a reward nor a punishment, but his/her interest should be sustained.

Controllable. When appropriate, permit the user to add to, edit, delete, and otherwise manipulate data so that it reflects the behaviors that s/he deems suitable. The user should be in control of who has access to what aspects of his/her data. Credibility is also important, inaccurate measurement leads to frustration

Trending / Historical. Provide reasonable and accessible information about the user’s past behavior as it relates to his/her goals. Historical data should accommodate changes in lifestyle goals over time and provide for the portability of data across devices

Comprehensive. Account for the range of behaviors that contribute to the user’s desired lifestyle; do not artificially limit data collection and representation to the specific behaviors that the technology can sense or monitor.


They report on a trial of UbiFit Garden.    The wallpaper of the users’ mobile phones grow a virtual garden that grows as they perform physical activities through the week.   Despite being a prototype, the system met the criteria (with the exception of the slightly bulky pedometer) and was considered a success in terms of supporting behaviour change.  

The implications of this work beyond the application described.  Behaviour lifestyle change is a long term endeavour that pervades everyday life.   The lessons learned here have wider application, especially to sustainability:

– how to make recommendations without being annoying

– the dangers of misinterpreting the situation and causing distrust through erroneous advice

– social influence as a motivator

– the positive nature of the garden (rewarding positive patterns)

– recognition of lifestyles as complex patterns of behaviours:

The seemingly mundane choices that individuals make every day often impact whether they achieve their desired lifestyle. As aforementioned, this is complicated by the fact that infrequently making a poor or arbitrary decision is seldom a disaster. Rather it is a pattern of such decisions that typically prevents the achievement of lifestyle goals.  If the individual considers each decision in isolation, and not based on a history of decisions, it is easy for her to make a “poor decision,” as it often leads to immediate satisfaction.