I Hereby Command You - Try a Little Persuasion

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Nir Eyal is a brilliant writer who discusses the intersection of technology and psychology. His latest article, published in TechCrunch, discusses why so many "behaviour change" apps - e.g. dieting and exercise - have a quick drop-off rate, i.e. they fail. Quite simply, these apps cause people to feel required to do something as opposed to persuaded. People hate encroachments on their autonomy, even encroachments that they themselves have voluntarily adopted (see Egypt, Morsi, 2013). On the other hand, people naturally gravitate towards behaviours that they feel they are choosing of their own free will. In Eyal's terms this is the choice between "Wanna and Hafta."

This psychology has a long history. In Jewish tradition - I actually discussed this at my own Bar Mitzvah many years ago - there is a saying that "greater is the one who is commanded and complies than the one who is not commanded but does so anyways." This saying appears to run counter to our modern (and even ancient) sensibilities; after all, isn't the volunteer the greater giver? Behind this worldview, however, lies the same psychology as Nir Eyal's. One who is commanded feels a natural desire to push back, rebel; I don't like "hafta." One who overcomes his/her natural inclination to rebel is greater than one who has no such resistance to overcome.

My wife is heavily involved in my consulting business, but rarely becomes involved directly with clients. My wife is not a technologist, a business person, an operations expert, or a marketer. She has a Bachelor's, two Master's and almost a PhD in psychology. Her training in and insights into the motivations and reactions of human behaviour are invaluable, whether I am helping a customer deal with a recalcitrant but critical executive, redesign organizational incentives, or design a new product strategy.

The growing awareness of the necessity of understanding human behaviour in all fields of business, but especially in technology, which exists to change the human condition, has led us from the days of unintelligible and illogical Microsoft Word menus to sleek app design and user persona study before even launching a business.

It is important to remember: psychology is just a tool to reach a business goal, and should be used in its service. In the case of the diet apps, they failed because they did not change long-term behaviour; they nonetheless successfully changed short-term behaviour. If their goal is lifelong change, the app failed. But if the goal is short-term change, for example, if the creators of the app intended not to get people to change long-term behaviour, but only to get then to experience healthy eating, then a few weeks of compliance, whether compulsory or voluntary, can be considered a success. Using the psychology of your users to change how your app behaves or to change what your goals are can both lead to successful outcomes.

Finally, metrics speak for themselves: more than 350,000 downloads of any app is success.