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Persuasive technology is broadly defined as technology that is designed to change attitudes or behaviours of users through persuasion and social influence, but crucially not through coercion. The fundamentals of Behavioural Science are at the heart of persuasive technologies. When unregulated and misappropriated, technology that looks to touch human behaviour can have unintended or even unethical consequences. At its best however, persuasive technology can step in where other strategies fail, able to accompany us on our devices to help prompt us, support us, guide us towards achieving voluntary, positive, and lasting behavioural change which truly benefits us as individuals 

The potential for achieving genuine, lasting change and ability to help populations in need of support has resulted in its exponential growth in the field of digital health in recent years, where its usage is typically classified into 2 types. The first being when it is focused on the promotion and prevention of issues. This approach involves fostering awareness, promoting positive behaviours to maintain good health and habits, as well as reinforcing behaviours to review or detect early. 

The second being when it is focussed on the treatment of diagnosed conditions. This tends to involve improving the understanding and competencies of patients so that they can better manage their condition and follow the prescribed treatment more easily. 

Its effectiveness has been provenwith recent research stating the use of persuasive technologies (in both types just mentioned) is nearly 100%. This is specifically when the behavioural objectives are related to dental health, diet, sexual health, physical activity, and positive habit building. However, they noted effectiveness is slightly reduced when it’s applied to smoking and substance abuse.

 

Did you know..?
92% of health and wellness apps using persuasive technology yield highly positive results.

 

Achieving Positive ChangeThe Role of Motivational Strategies 

For a long time, behaviours and behavioural change belonged within the realm and study of Psychology. However, in today’s interconnected world, it is now not uncommon for Behavioural Science to be present when designing technological solutions aimed at people. Artificial Intelligence experts, UX designers, product managers, marketeers, software developers, all benefit from being able to gain better insight into behaviours when creating experiences for peopleAs a result, persuasive technology has infiltrated wide range of every day mobile applicationscomputer games, and smartphone functionalities, which you wouldn’t always associate as being supported by Behavioural ScienceAs with all aspects of technology, when used correctly and carefully, with a well thought through strategy, it has the power to enhance everyday life. Some of the applications developed in the digital health space are an excellent example of the positive influence all the different parts working in unison can have. So, what are the different pieces of the puzzle that come to deliver positive change?  

Digital Health apps frequently employ multiple motivational or persuasive strategies. The traditional elements we all recognise from using health related apps are also unsurprisingly the most successful nudges and techniques to build and reinforce behaviours and a solid starting point for persuasive technology according to studiesProgress monitoring, reminders or alert messages, feedback (both visual, textual, or audio) and positive reinforcement all contribute to encourage a patient on their journey. Then through the advancement of new and emerging technologies, simulations and virtual re-enactments of situations are becoming more widely used and opening up more opportunities for persuasive tech, especially to help people get more accustomed to new, unknown or complex behaviours.  

When reviewing the most popular apps, they often had collaborative and cooperative motivational strategies such as social support and knowledge exchange which turn out to be very popular with users, and that helped towards driving adoption and self-awareness. Though intrinsic strategies are most effective for driving meaningful engagementthere is no harm in seasoning solutions with elements that trigger extrinsic motivation (rewards, medals and pointsto generate balanced, sustained participationUltimately, it is important to bear in mind that the success of all these strategies is mediated by the level of personalisation and customisation that they allow. The more they can be adapted to meet the individual’s needs, the better the results. 

 

Putting it into Practice 

Let’s consider an example health application, focussed on helping clinically obese patients make permanent, positive changes. By using persuasive technology, intervention becomes more accessible as it lands into the palm of the user’s hand – allowing for an effective, personalised experience where the individual feels the technology speaks to them, on their terms, in their space. And this personalisation doesn’t need to come at the cost of rigour, for example with the example app, it could be set to run across a duration of 12 months, following a structured but automated program with weekly training sessions. The treatment could be multidisciplinary; touching on diet, physical activity, sleep, psychology, coping with stress and general health to offer a multifaceted look at health and wellbeingThe strategy could set challenges for users to select and take on depending on which ones best suit their preferences, needs and interests. As part of making the content and journey more engaging, challenges or tasks can be grouped (for example, into 50 training sessions) into a variety of formats, such as virtual simulations and trials or social and support groups where you can share your concerns and experience. The follow-up of their progress would be done through immediate and continuous feedback over time. You might be thinking, ‘but what if I don’t remember to go onto the app, or simply don’t have the motivation or desire to do so?’ The app would issue consistently frequent alerts or reminder messages to ensure the treatment is carried out. And for extra motivation, users would receive positive reinforcement comments and also virtual rewards such as points and special badges for their good workGoing that step further and tapping into personalisation, mentioned earlier as a main key to success, each patient throughout the program would also have a personal trainer who would virtually support and guide themThis would significantly help to enhance the main components that make up the programme: self-control, personal trainer communication and feedback, group support and the implementation of a semi-structured intervention adapted to each patient. 

Studies have shown that in comparison to more traditional face-to-face interventions with the same objective, this kind of digital intervention allows 4 times as many patients to be treated for the same cost. With this in mind, not only are these types of apps that are based on persuasive technology beneficial for the end users in terms of preventing and treating health problems, but it can significantly help to improve how things are done across wider organisations and communities as well. Perhaps the inclusion of motivational strategies in persuasive technology represents a glimpse into what the future of digital health could and should look like. And perhaps the future of persuasive technology can learn from positive applications across health and wellbeing to pave the way for more positive experiences at the intersection between people and technology.  

References 

  1. Orji, R. & Moffatt, K. (2018). Persuasive technology for health and wellness: State-of-the-art and emerging trends. Health Informatics Journal, 24(1), 66-91. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1460458216650979 
  1. Orji, R., Vassileva, J. & Mandryk, R.L. (2014). Modeling the efficacy of persuasive strategies for different gamer types in serious games for health. User Model User-Adap Inter, 24, 453–498. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11257-014-9149-8 
  1. Väätäinen, S., Soini, E., Arvonen, S., Suojanen, L., & Pietiläinen, K. (2019). Potential direct secondary care cost benefits of HealthyWeightHub – Virtual Hospital 2.0 digital lifestyle intervention. Finnish Journal of EHealth and EWelfare, 11(4), 342–356. doi: https://doi.org/10.23996/fjhw.82457 

 

 

Developing an online professional development plan can enable employees of all profiles and situations. And the key to successful and sustained growth lies in Behavioural Science. 

 

The traditional workplace has changed dramatically in the last decade, and seems to be on a path towards even more change. Flexible hours have replaced 9 to 5. Virtual learning is overtaking the two-day training course. Remote teams are on the rise. There is evidence everywhere of businesses investing to keep up with the expectations of the modern employee – greener, brighter, stimulating office spaces or vast e-learning platforms being two common examples. But what about updating internal processes to match with the new practices? Consider remote workers and their professional development. For many years, companies have established professional development plans for employees, but these approaches are almost never tailored to the needs of remote employees. Too often people fall into the trap of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, or they focus efforts entirely on ensuring productivity rather than considering the growth of individuals.

If one were to update the design of these programmes, with remote workers or freelancers or any of the emerging employee profiles in mind, it becomes highly valuable to incorporate approaches founded in Behavioural Sciences to better understand the person at the centre of the plan.

Behavioural Science is the empirical study of human behaviour. It emphasises how people are different and hence need to be understood differently, how context matters, and guides us towards adopting new positive behaviours. It can tell us what works and what doesn’t and can help us design solutions that generate a desired change.

Behavioural Science has also experienced radical transformation in recent years in its application and delivery. Through technology, we can now obtain a lot more information and understanding about individual characteristics, habits, motivations, drives (or behavioural phenotype) and subsequently optimise interventions. Behavioural design then translates the findings of the behavioural studies into effective products and services.

So, how to apply this theory to the scenario of online professional development plans, designed with remote workers in mind? Let’s take a look.

  1. Personalised Planning

Any broad or widely applicable plan has to offer options and choice to employees. Options allow individual employees to feel a sense of ownership or personalisation with their experience.  Furthermore, allowing free choice when goal setting will increase their drive and intrinsic motivation towards the end objective.

The theory indicates that goals should be accomplished through various actions, rather than only applying one rigid path to achieve a positive result. To begin with, it can be as simple as setting a goal like “improving skills related to my role” for an online professional development plan.

The idea is to not define achievement purely through office-based actions, instead to allow more self-determination and for employees to prove their progress in ways within their control. This way, they will feel like goals are within their reach.

Simultaneously, some parameters need to be set for the employee’s benefit as well. The plan should be clear and supported by sufficient detail so that the employee quickly understands how to perform the necessary actions or behaviours in order to achieve the objective they’ve set. Behavioural Science theory explains that specifying the frequency, duration, intensity and context of an action makes it easier to achieve or replicate. For example, for the goal “improving skills related to my role,” an associated behaviour would be to take a 40-hour expert course. This behaviour in turn can be divided into smaller actions to make it easier to complete. So you can take what seems like a vague objective of proving you have improved your skillset, and break it down into tangible, provable actions like each working day between 3pm and 5pm for 4 weeks accessing your online development plan and completing different modules of your chosen expert course.

Within the plan, one can even apply gamified elements to reinforce commitment – such as including a button or box that will give employees a sense of accomplishment when they finally press or tick it. It sounds simple but can be highly effective. Research states that an explicit commitment (I want to tick off things on my list) increases the likelihood that users will complete their goal.

Behavioural Science, because of the name, can sound daunting when all you feel you need is a quick fix or an easy win

  1. Clear instructions & Multiple resources at your fingertips

As already mentioned, clear instructions or ticking boxes help to keep people on track. Especially when working remotely, as it enables employees to work through tasks and actions autonomously, knowing what they need to be getting on with.

Across professional development plans, previous studies have identified how employees frequently prefer to receive practical support from the company. This is when the company provides them with the resources and content required to carry out the actions necessary to achieve the objective they’ve chosen.

However, it’s important that companies strike the balance between providing information and resources, without oversaturating employees. Users of vast online courses often remark that they don’t know where to begin when there is so much information available to them. Rather than huge amounts of information, it’s more valuable to provide clear pathways employees can follow, especially for those sat in front of their desktops remotely.

  1. Social support

As well as having materials at their fingertips, being able to count on mentors or online advisors also makes it easier for employees to effectively and efficiently achieve their goal. Knowing they have a designated ‘someone’ they can turn to with questions regarding their progression helps employees feel comfortable within their plan. This is particularly useful for remote workers who are not able to simply turn around and ask a question to a colleague.

Employees also value the support of their teammates and co-workers during their development. Research supports the inclusion of virtual social areas for remote employees and their effectiveness for reinforcing recognition and feedback. With a timeline or wall element, similar to those on social media platforms, employees can post their achievements and colleagues can applaud their progress and celebrate those achievements. Rereading the wall’s history can help to raise self-esteem and increase the self-efficacy of remote working employees particularly when feeling overwhelmed or emotionally disconnected.

These online environments allow relationships between remote employees to be established and strengthened each day, reinforcing and creating a group identity. These contexts also facilitate the transmission of informal knowledge. Studies show that innovation and commitment flourish when employees have the ability to participate freely in “interest groups” or similar working teams.

Creating safe spaces to grow and fail is hugely important in any company – setting them online helps users feel removed from reality, and more likely to try and try again 

  1. Reinforcements and Self-Evaluation

Any professional development plan should include the employee receiving positive feedback from managers, because it avoids the employee feeling too scrutinised or controlled. Feedback should be balanced, and the purpose should be to reinforce the employee’s progress. If an employee is based from home or is remote to the team, feedback can sometimes be the main occasion the employee has contact with their manager or team, making the context of feedback even more valuable. Ensure feedback is given frequently, and in a range of contexts for remote employees in any development plan.

As part of those different opportunities for feedback, self-evaluation can also be included as encouragement that the employee records and monitors their own behaviours and progress.

It should be noted that multiple studies show how people react differently to self-monitoring. Some employees will stop participating because their motivation decreases when they perceive their results as negative. This can be avoided by ‘reframing.’ A behavioural technique that involves the correct interpretation and action the employee can take, alongside the negative result in the same message.

For example, “You got 5/10 and so you haven’t passed this module. It’s a shame, but this is definitely one of the more complicated modules in your development path, so maybe check out some of the reading links and come back soon and try again! We know you can do it!” This type of messaging prevents employees from associating their results with feelings of intense failure and demotivation. Creating a safe space to grow and fail is hugely important in any company, and it can be easily provided through the medium of digital solutions as they make the user feel somewhat removed from ‘reality’.

  1. Signs of action and habit formation

Whenever a person is asked to carry out behaviours or take action, we must recognise each of the steps they take towards achieving their goal. Behavioural Science emphasises the importance of reinforcing both the steps taken towards the milestone and the time when the user completes the objective. With the help of technology, this reinforcement can reach remote working employees in real time.

Behavioural Change research often advises the introduction of prompts and stimuli that encourage action. For example, automatic prompts or notifications can be effective because they remind us to perform the behaviour at the right time and the reasoning behind it. Similarly, by performing the behaviour repeatedly, it ends up creating a habit. However, Behavioural Science illustrates that habit brings habituation, which can cause the employee to become bored and abandon the experience. Maintaining long-term engagement and commitment requires the online professional development plan to include gradual tasks and changing or growing challenges. It’s very important to start with tasks that are easy to perform, making them increasingly difficult, yet achievable, until the result is ultimately reached.

 

With all these behavioural strategies and techniques, we can design a professional development plan (suitable to the needs of remote working employees or similar profiles) without it needing to be labour intensive or adapted several times across the company. Scientifically informed, it can offer multiple growth opportunities to those employees which will therefore result in enhanced company productivity. Behavioural Science, because of the name, can sound daunting when all you feel you need is a quick fix or an easy win. But really, it comes down to understanding the audience, the people you’re trying to connect to or gain something from. We’ve come a long way from expecting employees to carry out actions or behaviours “because I said so”. Consider the power behind “because I want to”. So, if offices are changing, if what we consider an employee is changing, along with schedules, routines, a day’s work – maybe we need to update how we support and structure all of that as well.