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The Era of Persuasive Computing? June 22, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I’m at Swiss Requirements Day, and possibly the most interesting keynote address was in a language I don’t understand – German.  While I missed the jokes, most of the slides were in English, so I got the gist of it.  The talk was given by Prof. Dr. Elgar Fleisch, a behavioral economist at the University of St. Gallen, and concerned the concept of persuasive computing.

That’s right, persuasive (NOT pervasive) computing.  Persuasive computing is the ability to get people to react a certain way depending on how information is presented to them online.  For example, if I show a chart of your energy consumption using comparisons that rank you near the top, you are more likely to conserve energy than if I use a scale that shows your consumption closer to the bottom.

Clearly this has marketing implications that might be considered evil by the average person, but Dr. Fleisch emphasized its ability to do good.  I don’t have the confidence he seems to that it won’t be used to manipulate people for selfish ends, but the concept remains relevant today.

I’m reminded of the books of Edward Tufte, such as Envisioning Information.  Tufte spent a long and fruitful career examining the best ways of making information accessible to people.  If we present data in a way that is understandable and actionable, people will take action.

I mention this topic because it reminded me of something Kent Beck had said at a keynote that I relayed in a previous post.  He claimed that when you deployed more frequently, technical disputes didn’t have to be resolved by strength of personality or by dint of organizational stature.  Instead, you deployed one approach (or possibly both), and if it didn’t work, you simply changed it the following week or month.  Persuasive computing is much the same way, as long as deployment is fast and easy.  If the message isn’t having its intended effect, we can change the message until it does.

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