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Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do    by B. J. Fogg order for
Persuasive Technology
by B. J. Fogg
Order:  USA  Can
Morgan Kaufmann, 2003 (2002)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In the inside front cover is a quote from Internet usability guru Jakob Nielsen, who says that this book will 'fundamentally change how we think about technology', and that one of the ways we can use it is to teach kids how to 'overcome manipulation'. He doesn't exaggerate. Persuasive Technology is of interest to computer application and website designers and to their users - the former will learn how to be ethically persuasive, and the latter gain better insights into the techniques that are used to change their behavior.

Stanford's Dr. B. J. Fogg coined the term 'captology' for 'computers as persuasive technologies' that can change our opinions, attitudes and values. The author introduces 'Persuasion in the Digital Age' with both historical and current examples, the latter including websites such as and eBay as well as computer games like Warcraft III. He goes into the advantages - like interactivity, persistence, scale and ubiquity - that computers bring to the task of persuasion.

There are many examples from products that exist solely to persuade someone to change a behavior, to those that include persuasive elements simply to be more effective. Seven categories of persuasive technology tools are covered - Reduction, Tunneling, Tailoring, Suggestion, Self-monitoring, Surveillance and Conditioning - with examples of existing and potential applications, such as the simulation HIV Roulette used to explore health consequences of sexual behaviors.

The author uses an amusing anecdote, as well as the Tamagotchi example, to remind us that people often respond to computers as if they were living beings. He discusses the persuasive possibilities of 'Social Actors' (I was a little surprised that Haptek's morphing Virtual Friends were not mentioned). Apparently we respond better to such computer personalities if they are similar to us, and will even engage in reciprocity with them - that is, we will do something in return for a perceived favor from the interactive character.

A very important section covers credibility of computers and the World Wide Web, and research on the elements of design that make technology appear credible. Common sense would tell us some of these, such as that a quick response to customer service requests increases credibility, but I was surprised that listing an organization's physical address was quite so important. Some of this material can be used to educate kids on assessing a site's value.

While this is all very useful and important material, I found the discussion of the emerging frontier of captology and 'how the mobile and connected qualities of the technologies depicted boost the potential for persuasion' even more fascinating, especially in examples of future (possibly very near future) applications. Which of course leads into the topic of ethical use, and a discussion of concerns about application of techniques like operant conditioning and surveillance (the ethics involved in distribution of violent video games like Mortal Kombat get a mention here also).

The author would like to see computing products evolve to 'influence people in ways that enhance quality of life'. Of course, as in any other development of technology there is also the likelihood of unethical applications. I hope that this book does influence product designers, policymakers and users to work towards ethical persuasive systems. It certainly influenced me to look at websites more critically, including my own. I recommend Persuasive Technology highly as an accessible and comprehensive overview of captology, an important topic in this new millennium.

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