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By (January 25, 2009) ()

The intentionality of captology has been greatly exaggerated. BJ Fogg’s definition of persuasive technology focuses specifically on the endogenous intentions of the design. Although the characteristic is pertinent and well stated, I disagree with the idea of lack of use for positive side effects of technology. Fogg himself indicates in his functionality analysis the advantages of technology as a tool. I would argue that capturing inputs of human behavior that run counter to the intended reaction but produce desirable results an important aspect of captology.
One of the the examples provided for exogenous intent is the decline of stamp sales in the face of rising use of e-mail. My interest in exogenous behavior lies elsewhere, mainly in the ability of advanced devices to collect data and interaction instances of misuse and repurpose the intent according to what works. Steve Talbott in Devices of the Soul, examining our concurrent desire for invisibility and anthropomorphism in computing says:

“…If we must remain conscious of our own assumptions, it can hardly be less important to prevent others from surreptitiously planting their assumptions in us.”

Endogenous persuasive intent, as created by human designers, softly paternalistic as it might be, is human and is based to one degree or another on exactly that: assumptions. My issue with Fogg’s view is that he narrowly focuses on “endogenous intent built into the product” when in fact exogenous intent just as well built into the product and we would do well to take our measures as designers to account for it my expecting it. it seems like a conceit to expect our designs to work only as intended deemed failures if they don’t persuade according to the original thesis. To bring Talbott back into the conversation, humans already understand the complexity of computing devices as demonstrated by their tendency to respond emotionally to them.

“I cannot enjoy the meanings a friend brings into my life without risking the likelihood that some of the meanings will collide with my own. If computers are like people, I can hardly expect, or even want, to escape the unsettling demands they will impose upon me to rise above myself.”

Exogenous behavior happens. The idea of collecting data on how people actually use technology to refine intended design is not new, we employ in commercial applications in practices such as user testing and crash reports. My speculation is more so about an enlightened approach to persuasive intent, one that allows for designers to respect the emerging behavior of the technology itself, not the user. Jean-Francois Lyotard in ‘Postmodern Fables: System Fantasies’:

“Humans are very mistaken in their presuming to be the motors of development and in confusing development with the progress of consciousness and civilization. They are its products, vehicles, and witnesses.”

A basic example of what this could mean for the design of persuasive technology is the creation of the successful image hosting site, Flickr.com. The creators set out to make an online game, and paid close enough attention to their creation and their users, that what emerged was a photo sharing community. The reason that the image hosting became the primary focus was that the exogenous persuasive capabilities weren’t ignored. In the creator’s own words:

“Had we sat down and said, ‘Let’s start a photo application,’ we would have failed,” [Caterina] Fake says. “We would have done all this research and done all the wrong things.”

Perhaps we can avoid doing more wrong things by just making sure we recognize the right thing when we see it.


January 25, 2009


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