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Title: Persuasive Technology
Author: B.J. Fogg
Publisher: Morgan-Kaufmann
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 1558606432
Pages: 312
Price: $34.95
Rating: 89%

We could say that Persuasive Technology is a colossal book that will change the way you view computers - but that's a lie.  The brilliance of Persuasive Technology is the way it analyzes the way we already view computers.  The only difference is that in the end, you'll be aware of the hidden assumptions that drive people's computer usage, and perhaps have an idea or two on how to harness those assumptions.   

Computers are in a unique position to be able to help people change their behavior.  They never tire.  They're always on time.  Being emotionless, they can be accessed by people for sensitive topics without embarrassment.  And best of all, they can simulate.   

According B.J. Fogg, a director of research and design at Stanford University, there are three ways that computers can change people's lives:  

        They can make it easier for people to do things by making things easier, either by giving people shortcuts to annoying processes (Here!  I'll register this software for you in one click, loading the data from past registrations!) or by reminding them that it's time to exercise.   

        They can provide an experience, allowing people to explore cause-and-effect relationships, such as playing a game that simulates your driving reflexes when you're drunk, such as providing doctors with a simulation of what it's like when you're recuperating from a heart attack.   

        They can create relationships, either with other people (by putting former smokers in touch with each other to share their success stories) or with the program (children's software that gives animated shows and gold stars for completing the exercises properly).   

These are all powerful tools that can help people change their lives in drastic ways - and whether it's getting people to lose weight or to register your software, it's a strategy that all good websites are attempting to harness.  After all, advertising is an attempt at persuasive technology - and if you can persuade customers to use your website, you've won the battle for customer loyalty.   

But this is all fairly obvious.  What Fogg suggests is that we view computers in much the same way that we view people.   

We don't attribute sentience to computers... But we do weigh a program's credibility, its dominance, its trustworthiness, and above all its helpfulness in much the same way we do coworkers and friends.  For example, you'd be far more willing to act on advice from a pharmaceutical site that contained a somber blue texture and no ads than you would from a flashing red-and-orange Geocities site that promised you the low low LOWEST prices on drugs, CHEAP! 

There's one fascinating incident where users were asked to use two programs to research a project: One program was designed to provide the answers that the user wanted, while the other was designed to provide vague, nebulous replies.  After the project was researched, the users were asked to view a long string of color judgments.   

The end result?  The people who got the helpful computers did almost twice as many color evaluations as the nonhelpful users, indicating that people will do favors for computers that help them out

In other words, brand loyalty can not only be created, but it can be created quantifiably, as long as you can persuade them that you're useful.  

Combine the half-human way that people view computers and match it up with the unique way that computers can be tirelessly present when the viewer needs them, and you come up with a frighteningly-compelling vision of the computer as the ultimate salesman, never threatening but always there with the right deal at the right time.   

Fogg goes through an amazing array of persuasive techniques, using a wealth of lab studies to show the reader exactly how computers can endear themselves to the user, showing how subtle changes like Eudora's putting a "Maybe later" instead of "Cancel" on its registration buttons can downplay a user's irritation at pop-up nag windows.  Furthermore, the power of persuasive technology's ability to change lifestyles and make healthier people is stunningly displayed, and Fogg forecasts a future where mobile computers will remind you when it's time to exercise, show you exactly how many calories you're burning as you do it, and then reward you immediately afterwards. 

And therein lies a problem for many users: Although this book is a wondrous walkthrough of the potential of persuasive technology, it's slanted towards benefiting people, not businesses.  Businesses are covered, of course, but the majority of the case studies are health- or psychology-related; it would have been nice to see a few more examples of how e-commerce sites can benefit from persuasive technology.  (To be fair, there's an entire chapter devoted to website trustworthiness, which helps, but there isn't a case study on, say, how uses persuasive technology to encourage repeat business.)   

But that's a minor ding on an otherwise-excellent book, and anyone with half a brain will immediately see several ways that persuasive technology might be applied to their own website.  This is a must-read book, if only because it will make you aware of how your website looks to people... And precisely what that means. 

William Steinmetz, MCSE and A+-certified, worked as a chainwide buyer for Waldenbooks for five years, picking out only the best computer books to send into malls across America.  He currently works as a freelance writer, doing reviews for and editing various websites.  He likes Magic: the Gathering, roleplaying, and other ridiculously geeky activities.