Sparking Action Through Design

You’ve been sitting at your desk for hours. You know you should stand up and walk around. You’ve read the articles about blood clots and obesity but you’re slammed with work. Maybe a little lazy too.


What would persuade you to get up?


This is the question researchers explored when they invented the “Breakaway,” a virtual dynamic sculpture. Imagine a digital version of those wooden figurines artists use when they sketch the human form. This figure progressively slumps over, the longer the subject sits, until it eventually lays on the ground. Researchers found that the slumping sculpture persuaded subjects to take more breaks by enabling them to visualize and reflect on their choices.



This is a beautiful example of a data visualization, one effective type of persuasive technology designed to change human behavior. Persuasive design carries tremendous potential. This is especially true for the areas of health and wellness, where even small changes in behavior can lead to significant changes in overall health. Ever greater the potential when we bring persuasive technologies into the field of user experience research.


SPARK is playing a part in driving this conversation. And the field is listening.


In June, Spencer Gerrol packed the house at the Action Design Meetup in DC. The night’s topic, “How to design data visualizations to inform, delight & change behavior,” drew over 180 attendees from the UX field and beyond. With an emphasis on health and wellness, Gerrol discussed how we can better present data to capture the human imagination in a way that produces action.

His talk covered the theories of psychology that underpin this innovation and best practices for its real world application. Here are some highlights!

Persuasive technology is rooted in fundamental theories of social and behavioral psychology. Remember cognitive dissonance theory from college? Yeah.

We all want to be healthier but we often act in ways that are inconsistent with that desire. (Think about how you sit at your desk too long.) When we realize that our attitudes are inconsistent with our behaviors, we experience the psychological discomfort of cognitive dissonance. (You know you should get up but yet you’re still sitting.)

The danger associated with cognitive dissonance is that we often overcome the discomfort by rationalizing our actions or avoiding reminders of them. (This makes us sit even longer.) The healthiest way to deal with this dissonance? Change the behavior itself.

In order to produce behavioral change, we must set important goals that are challenging yet realistic, as well as measurable and incentivized. Good goals increase our motivation to meet them. (You probably won’t run a marathon today, but standing up and walking around more…now that’s a good goal.) What would move you to change?



We’ve covered the theory. Let’s come down from the clouds. Here are some best practices for real-world persuasive design.


Abstract & Reflective

In his presentation at Action Design, Gerrol explained that data abstraction, as opposed to using raw data for tracking behavior, encourages individuals to more actively reflect on their behavior. In the example of “Breakaway,” the slumping sculpture evoked a visual story that enabled users to understand their choices better than the raw metrics and story-less tick of a standard timer.


Unobtrusive & Private

The slumping sculpture was also effective because it was unobtrusive to the subjects. While reminders by nature imply some amount of interruption, it is critical that the interruption not be intrusive as this can be counterproductive and even lead the user to ignore the technology altogether.

When your obtrusive alarm clock blares in the morning, awaking you from a deep and dreamy slumber, you know it’s all too easy to slap it off and fall back asleep. Oh, to be a teenager again!

Similarly, the technology should offer a degree of privacy. While we may want to leverage the motivational value of sharing content, providing positive competition and accountability (enter social media), we also want to ensure users have control over what is private so that they don’t feel as though their privacy is invaded. Sorry, big brother.


Aesthetic & Positive

Looks do matter. In the “Breakaway” example, the sculpture’s design was aesthetically attractive, lending credibility and engaging value to the technology. It also employed positive reinforcement to motivate behavior change. When the user stood up, the slumping sculpture straightened up too. Research supports that punishment is not likely to sustain interest in the long-term. That’s right, Drill Sergeant. I mean, “Yes, Sir! Drill Sergeant!”


The Big Picture

Whether you are trying to raise money for your nonprofit, encourage people to sign up for your newsletter, motivate people to join your movement, or sell more widgets, design must incorporate a deep understanding of the fundamental workings of the mind in order to create real and lasting change. What behaviors are you trying to change? Are you applying the principles of psychology to your designs?