Nir Eyal on Persuasive vs. Coercive Technology

Nir Eyal’s 2013 book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” is a study of consumer behavior that grew out of interviews with Silicon Valley firms and psychologists at Stanford University. “I came up with this hypothesis that the companies that were going to succeed online had to understand users’ habits and how to change those habits,” says Eyal, who will be part of J + D’s February 5 panel, The Dark Side of Design. We spoke to him to learn more about his thoughts on the ethics of persuasive design.

When did you first come to understand the potential of persuasive technology?

I was involved with apps back in 2007, when the iPhone store didn’t even exist yet. “Apps” meant Facebook apps. Facebook kept coming out with apps, like one where people were throwing sheep at each other. They weren’t all that interesting, but they got all this amazing traction so quickly, and I wanted to understand that better.

It was just frivolity, but I thought if we could harness that mass adoption and mass behavior change, we could do some good in the world. If we could be as good as Facebook at changing consumer health behaviors, like improving how people eat or exercise, or their financial habits, then you could change people’s lives.

Where is the line between encouraging people and manipulating them?

There’s nothing inherently immoral about trying to persuade somebody. The way we dress, speak, carry ourselves, shake someone’s hands… We do this to each other constantly. I think the line is when influence becomes not persuasion but coercion.

Persuasion is when you help people do something they want to do. When I got started in this industry, the big problem I was hearing from tech companies was that they couldn’t get people to use their products. Until recently, most software was hard to use, complicated, and boring. People have only just figured out how to make products that people actually want to use.

Coercion, however, is not ethical. Those psychological hacks that get a user to do something they didn’t want to do, that’s unethical.

You can trick someone once, but there’s a lot of public shaming going on. Dark Patterns is a repository of techniques and the companies that get called out for trying to use them. The market tends to correct for coercive tactics. Maybe not immediately, but over time.

How can companies build products that are persuasive but not coercive?

There are two questions I tell people to ask themselves:

  1. Do you believe the product you’re working on materially improves people’s lives?
  2. You have to see yourself as the user. In drug dealing, the first rule is never get high on your own supply. I want people to break that rule and get high on their own supply, because if there are any deleterious effects, you will know about them.

There’s a simple market incentive to not build products to screw people. We’re not automatons, we’re not manipulatable puppets on strings. If a product hurts people, they’ll stop using it. The main reason Mark Zuckerberg is making these changes to Facebook is because people are tired of all the rubbish. It’s in his business interest to make it something that people want. If anything, the product needs to be more engaging. People are starting to get sick of it.

How do you differentiate between good and bad habits?

Why do I have the moral justification to say that someone spending too much time on Facebook is bad, but people watching sports is acceptable? People spend their time doing all kinds of things that they find personally meaningful that you may not find meaningful. Is religion a waste of time? If you don’t believe in religion, it may seem like a waste. Is Facebook a waste of time? For some people, it can provide some semblance of a social connection. I think that’s a personal decision we all have to make around how we spend our time. The people who built Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Slack—they still believe that they are improving people’s lives.

Does that mean some people abuse and overuse this product? Of course, but people do that with all sorts of things: television, alcohol, food, sex. It doesn’t mean it’s addictive to everybody. It just means some people abuse it and go overboard.

If people don’t like these products, and they don’t feel like they make their lives better, they shouldn’t use them. I think it’s counterproductive to refer to these technologies as “hijacking your brain” and “irresistible.” When we say that, we make it so.

Register for the February 5 panel to hear Eyal discuss persuasive design with James Williams of the Oxford Internet Institute and Alexis Lloyd, chief design officer at Axios.

This interview has been condensed and edited.