Monday, April 27, 2009

Beyond Biofeedback

In the 1970s my mother was working on a Master's degree in psychology and like many others in the period she was interested in the concept of biofeedback that encourages the monitoring of bodily functions to control stress and pursue strategies of well-being. I well remember having the biofeedback machine set up in the dining room, where various test subjects would recline on our orange shag carpet to be hooked up to the gizmo for their benefit. Today at the Persuasive 2009 conference, I couldn't help but think about the biofeedback machine as I listened to some of the talks about persuasive technologies.

Katarina Segerståhl described her work with exercise training with heart rate monitors as an example of "concrete software technologies" based on a "persuasive systems design model" to persuade people to incorporate lighter exercise and more flexibility exercises rather than subscribe to short-lived and injury-prone exercise regimens where the feedback loop boiled down to no-pain-no-gain assumptions. Many actually used the device in "a game-like manner," but the team discovered that not all were motivated by getting a reward, since some said "I want it to kick my ass" or, as Clifford Nass would predict based on his work on credibility, distrusted an overly friendly voice of support that was seen as too simple-mineded to be trusted.

Segerståhl was followed by Anja Meiland Ranfelt, who discussed the HANDS project for autistic teenagers who benefited from an "HIPD" device. However Ranfelt was stymied by questions about her project's rhetorical dimension, an aspect of persuasive technology that was key for the next presenter, Wolfgang Reitberger, who created a pervasive interactive mannequin or "PIM mannequin" for shop windows that acknowledged the importance of what classical rhetoricians called kairos or capitalizing on the right time and the right place. Talking inspiration from Philips Homelab, Reitberger lauded the benefits of real shops over online shops because they provide sensory perception, immediate gratification, and social interaction. Echoing new media theorists who argue for the continuing relevance of the flâneur, Reitberger asserted that "shop windows are an important interface" because they provide the attractions of attention, engagement, and information.

Later in the day presenters returned to studies of persuasive technologies that encouraged physical activity, which like energy conservation seemed to be one of the targeted behaviors for technologically enhanced persuasion at the conference. Sunny Consalvo of Ubifit systems opened by citing Locke & Latham's work on Goal-Setting Theory to introduce the Ubifit garden, which combines a fitness device with the individual’s mobile phone to record and track different types of physical activity. In the information representation of the garden, different types of flower represented different kinds of exercise, and butterflies appeared when a fitness goal was attained. Thus, a single screen could represent a week of physical activity and month of goals achieved. (Although yoga or swimming couldn’t be as easily inferred by the device, user input could provide accommodation for this.) Consalvo admitted, however, that the goal-setting sources were often not preferred as was the medical advice. To users, apparently the appearance of the personal trainer was very important, which is interesting given the emphasis of other systems on physiological data. Although somewhat counterintuitive to those who might be using social network sites for fitness regimes, Consalvo discovered that many users felt that deplying networks with strangers was more effective, because they felt that they could make more excuses with friends.

Joyca Lacroix's talk on "Understanding User Cognitions to Guide the Tailoring of Persuasive Technology-based Physical Activity Interventions" reiterated Consalvo's point that users wanted persuasive technologists to "customize, customize, customize," which can be difficult to do she claimed because "technology allows for that," but humans are oriented around continuous feedback. She showed information about the Philips exercise program at In addition to exercise

In the final panel of the day about how mobile computing has an important role to play in persuasive technologies, Kendra Markle of the Kaiser Permanente health network and not only discussed work on exercise but also explained her group's initiatives that used mobile devices for stress management, cognitive behavior therapy, and mindful meditation. Alongside her, Kevin Patrick emphasized the lasting value of the Texting 4 Health conference and listed a range of programs that included mDiet, e/Balance, my/Balance, PALMS, SMART, and CitSense. Collectively the speakers emphasized how these devices facilitated goal setting, reminders, tracking, rewards, and social support.

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