Personal Informatics: Polite, Pertinent, Pretty and… Persuasive?

For the last two years I’ve been working on Dopplr, a service to help people travel smarter. I’ve been trying to explore new ways to organise and design social networks. I also tried to visualise an awful lot of data, and on top of that, do it in a way that delights our users. And that’s what I’m going to talk about at the Business to Buttons conference in Sweden this coming June.

In the time I created all of the above, I believe we’ve seen the rise of a class of services I call ‘personal informatics’ (about which Eilidh wrote an article) – a class of which Dopplr is a member.

Last year Tom Coates (product manager of FireEagle, and a well-known thoughtful practitioner in matters of social software) and I gave a talk at Web2.0Expo San Francisco, “Polite, Pertinent, and… Pretty: Designing for the New-wave of Personal Informatics“. This presentation looked at interaction design principles to maximise the humanity of personal informatics services and minimise privacy issues. Since then I’ve realised there’s a fourth ‘P’: ‘Persuasive’.

There are both implicit and explicit persuasive roles that such services can adopt and, in concert with the other ‘P’s, this becomes a valuable design strategy.

Persuasive Design is a field that has been in the ascendant since Stanford professor B.J. Fogg popularised the term in his 2003 book. Essentially, it is as designer and writer Jeremy Faludi describes: “crafting a product’s user experience so that the user’s actual interaction with the product changes their behaviour.

It’s particularly interesting to consider this approach to the data-rich world of personal informatics. The data itself is coming from their behaviour in the world, after all: their travel in relation to Dopplr specifically, but you could also think of things like exercise for services such as Nike+ and Nokia Sports Tracker, or their music-listening in terms of and Spotify.

So, how to employ persuasive design in the representation of personal informatics? Surely, you have to truly represent a user’s data back to them. Yes. I think that’s the basic tenet to stick to – one might group it under the ‘polite’ heading of the four ‘P’s. But the act of representing a user’s data, harvested from their behaviour or interactions with a service, is the completion of a feedback loop. And the nuances of how you deliver that feedback can produce different persuasive outcomes.

The most basic persuasive outcome is the most negative: you fail to present the data in an interesting and compelling way and you persuade the user of nothing. Or worse, not to bother returning to engage further in the service.

There are acts of micro-persuasion that can be factored into your service design, which might engender large outcomes. For instance, in Dopplr’s carbon calculator (created in partnership with AMEE) we respond to a month with no reported trips with a simple “we envy you”. Erika Hall’s “Copy as Interface” is a great guide to acts of micro-persuasion in interface design. And Stephen Anderson recently gave a great presentation on “The art and science of seductive interactions” which looks at these techniques in some detail.

At the larger scale of persuasion, there’s the opposite of the nightmare scenarios I described above: present the user’s data back to them in an interesting and compelling way that makes them engage with the service more frequently and more deeply.

This was what we were attempting with our ‘Personal Annual Report’ – a summary of the user’s data over 2008, visualised in what we hoped were interesting and beautiful ways and in the context of both their social network and the larger Dopplr community.

It succeeded, and also proved to be a significant user recruitment and retention asset. It also generated a lot of great marketing – both word-of-mouth (and blog) and in the traditional press.

I’m going to be talking in detail about the ‘Personal Annual Report’ at this year’s From Business to Buttons conference, and going deeper into the role of macro and micro persuasion in the design of personal informatics. I’m looking forward to discussing it with some of you there – hopefully you’ll be persuaded…

About From Business to Buttons

Held in lovely Malmö in southern Sweden, From Business to Buttons is the meeting place in Europe for interaction designers, business strategist and usability experts. This year it will be held on June 11-12.

Dopplr carbon footprint screenshot by sebastiankippe

Matt Jones

Matt is Creative Director at with a focus on design strategy, interaction design and information architecture for mobile and digital.

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