Source orientation and persuasion in multi-device and multi-context interactions

At the Social Media Workshop, Katarina Segerståhl presented her on-going work on what she has termed extended information services or distributed user experiences — human-computer interactions that span multiple and heterogeneous devices (Segerståhl & Oinas-Kukkonen 2007). As a central example, she studies a persuasive technology service for planning, logging, reviewing, and motivating exercise: these parts of the experience are distributed across the user’s PC, mobile phone, and heart rate monitor.

In one interesting observation, Segerståhl notes that the specific user interfaces on one device can be helpful mental images even when a different device is in use: participants reported picturing their workout plan as it appeared on their laptop and using it to guide their actions during their workout, during which the obvious, physically present interface with the service was the heart rate monitor, not the earlier planning visualization. Her second focus is how to make these user experiences coherent, with clear practical applications in usability and user experience design (e.g., how can designers make the interfaces both appropriately consistent and differentiated?).

In this post, I want to connect this very interesting and relevant work with some other research at the historical and theoretical center of persuasive technology: source orientation in human-computer interaction. First, I’ll relate source orientation to the history and intellectual context of persuasive technology. Then I’ll consider how multi-device and multi-context interactions complicate source orientation.

Source orientation, social responses, and persuasive technology

As an incoming Ph.D. student at Stanford University, B.J. Fogg already had the goal of improving generalizable knowledge about how interactive technologies can change attitudes and behaviors by design. His previous graduate studies in rhetoric and literary criticism had given him understanding of one family of academic approaches to persuasion. And in running a newspaper and consulting on many document design (Schriver 1997) projects, the challenges and opportunities of designing for persuasion were to him clearly both practical and intellectually exciting.

The ongoing research of Profs. Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves attracted Fogg to Stanford to investigate just this. Nass and Reeves were studying people’s mindless social responses to information and communication technologies. Cliff Nass’s research program — called Computers as (or are) Social Actors (CASA) — was obviously relevant: if people treat computers socially, this “opens the door for computers to apply […] social influence” to change attitudes and behaviors (Fogg 2002, p. 90). While clearly working within this program, Fogg focused on showing behavioral evidence of these responses (e.g., Fogg & Nass 1997): both because of the reliability of these measures and the standing of behavior change as a goal of practitioners.

Source orientation is central to the CASA research program — and the larger program Nass shared with Reeves. Underlying people’s mindless social responses to communication technologies is the fact that they often orient towards a proximal source rather than a distal one — even when under reflective consideration this does not make sense: people treat the box in front of them (a computer) as the source of information, rather than a (spatially and temporally) distant programmer or content creator. That is, their source orientation may not match the most relevant common cause of the the information. This means that features of the proximal source unduly influence e.g. the credibility of information presented or the effectiveness of attempts at behavior change.

For example, people will reciprocate with a particular computer if it is helpful, but not the same model running the same program right next to it (Fogg & Nass 1997, Moon 2000). Rather than orienting to the more distal program (or programmer), they orient to the box.1

Multiple devices, Internet services, and unstable context

These source orientation effects have been repeatedly demonstrated by controlled laboratory experiments (for reviews, see Nass & Moon 2000, Sundar & Nass 2000), but this research has largely focused on interactions that do not involve multiple devices, Internet services, or use in changing contexts. How is source orientation different in human-computer interactions that have these features?

This question is of increasing practical importance because these interactions now make up a large part of our interactions with computers. If we want to describe, predict, and design for how people use computers everyday — checking their Facebook feed on their laptop and mobile phone, installing Google Desktop Search and dialing into Google 411, or taking photos with their Nokia phone and uploading them to Nokia’s Ovi Share — then we should test, extend, and/or modify our understanding of source orientation. So this topic matters for major corporations and their closely guarded brands.

So why should we expect that multiple devices, Internet services, and changing contexts of use will matter so much for source orientation? After having explained the theory and evidence above, this may already be somewhat clear, so I offer some suggestive questions.

  1. If much of the experience (e.g. brand, visual style, on-screen agent) is consistent across these changes, how much will the effects of characteristics of the proximal source — the devices and contexts — be reduced?
  2. What happens when the proximal device could be mindfully treated as a source (e.g., it makes its own contribution to the interaction), but so does a distance source (e.g., a server)? This could be especially interesting with different branding combination between the two (e.g., the device and service are both from Apple, or the device is from HTC and service is from Google).
  3. What if the visual style or manifestation of the distal source varies substantially with the device used, perhaps taking on a style consistent with the device? This can already happen with SMS-based services, mobile Java applications, and voice agents that help you access distant media and services.

References

Eckles, D., Wightman, D., Carlson, C., Thamrongrattanarit, A., Bastea-Forte, M., Fogg, B.J. (2007). Self-Disclosure via Mobile Messaging: Influence Strategies and Social Responses to Communication Technologies. Adjunct Proc. Ubicomp 2007.
Fogg, B. J., & Nass, C. (1997). How users reciprocate to computers: an experiment that demonstrates behavior change . In Proceedings of CHI 1997 (pp. 331-332). Atlanta, Georgia : ACM Press.
Katagiri, Y., Takeuchi, Y., Nass, C., & Fogg, B. J. (2000). Reciprocity and its cultural dependency in human-computer interaction. In Affective Minds: Proceedings of the 13th Toyota Conference, Shizuoka, Japan, 1999 (pp. 209-214).
Moon, Y. (2000). Intimate Exchanges: Using Computers to Elicit Self-Disclosure from Consumers. Journal of Consumer Research, 26(4), 323-339.
Nass, C., and Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.
Schriver, K. A. (1997). Dynamics in document design: creating text for readers. New York, NY, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Segerståhl, K., & Oinas-Kukkonen, H. (2007). Distributed User Experience in Persuasive Technology Environments. Persuasive Technology 2007, Lecture Notes in Computer Science. (pp. 80-91). Springer.
Sundar, S. S., & Nass, C. (2000). Source Orientation in Human-Computer Interaction Programmer, Networker, or Independent Social Actor? Communication Research, 27(6).
  1. This actually is subject to a good deal of cross-cultural variation. Similar experiments with Japanese — rather than American — participants show reciprocity to groups of computers, rather than just individuals (Katagiri et al.) []

Update your Facebook status: social comparison and the availability heuristic

[Update: This post uses an older Facebook UI as an example. Also see more recent posts on activity streams and the availability heuristic.]

Over at Captology Notebook, the blog of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, Enrique Allen considers features of Facebook that influence users to update their status. Among other things, he highlights how Facebook lowers barriers to updating by giving users a clear sense of something they can right (“What are you doing right now?”).

I’d like to add another part of the interface for consideration: the box in the left box of the home page that shows your current status update with the most recent updates of your friends.
Facebook status updates

This visual association of my status and the most recent status updates of my friends seems to do at least a couple things:

Influencing the frequency of updates. In this example, my status was updated a few days ago. On the other hand, the status updates from my friends were each updated under an hour ago. This juxtaposes my stale status with the fresh updates of my peers. This can prompt comparison between their frequency of updates and mine, encouraging me to update.

The choice of the most recent updates by my Facebook friends amplifies this effect. Through automatic application of the availability heuristic, this can make me overestimate how recently my friends have updated their status (and thus the frequency of status updates). For example, the Facebook friend who updated their status three minutes ago might have not updated to three weeks prior. Or many of my Facebook friends may not frequently update their status messages, but I only see (and thus have most available to mind) the most recent. This is social influence through enabling and encouraging biased social comparison with — in a sense — an imagined group of peers modeled on those with the most recent performances of the target behavior (i.e., updating status).

Influencing the content of updates. In his original post, Enrique mentions how Facebook ensures that users have the ability to update their status by giving them a question that they can answer. Similarly, this box also gives users examples from their peers to draw on.

Of course, this can all run up against trouble. If I have few Facebook friends, none of them update their status much, or those who do update their status are not well liked by me, this comparison may fail to achieve increased updates.

Consider this interface in comparison to one that either

  • showed recent status updates by your closest Facebook friends, or
  • showed recent status updates and the associated average period for updates of your Facebook friends that most frequently update their status.

[Update: While the screenshot above is from the “new version” of Facebook, since I captured it they have apparently removed other people’s updates from this box on the home page, as Sasha pointed out in the comments. I’m not sure why they would do this, but here are couple ideas:

  • make lower items in this sidebar (right column) more visable on the home page — including the ad there
  • emphasize the filter buttons at the top of the news feed (left column) as the means to seeing status updates.

Given the analysis in the original post, we can consider whether this change is worth it: does this decrease status updates? I wonder if Facebook did a A-B test of this: my money would be on this significantly reducing status updates from the home page, especially from users with friends who do update their status.]

Definitions of unconscious processing in cognitive and social psychology

John Bargh, Professor of Psychology at Yale, and his ACME (Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Emotion) Lab are doing very exciting work. I had read some articles by Bargh some time ago (e.g. Bargh & McKenna 2004) and encountered his work in the context of debates about how objects can automatically activate attitudes that apply to them. But it hasn’t been until recently (following a discussion with James Breckenridge) that I’ve begun to really engage with the larger body of research Bargh and his collaborators have produced — and the interesting reflections and arguments found in the reviews of this and related work that he and his collaborators have written.

I expect I’ll be writing more about this work, but in this and some follow-up posts I want to just say a little bit about the general character of the research and, more specifically, how this work engages with and employs definitions of ‘unconscious’ and ‘unconscious processing‘.

Bargh & Morsella (2008, in press, page numbers are to this version) highlights how cognitive psychology and social psychology have operated with different definitions and different emphasis in investigating what they call “unconscious”. For cognitive psychology, “subliminal information processing – […] extracting meaning from stimuli of which one is not consciously aware” – has been paradigmatic of the unconscious (p. 1). That is, its study of unconscious processing is the study of the processing of stimuli of which one is unaware. On the other hand, for mainstream social psychology research, including work with priming, “the traditional focus has been on mental processes of which the individual is unaware, not on stimuli of which one is unaware” (Ibid.).

This is a striking difference that, as Bargh & Morsella illustrate, has consequences for how “dumb” or “smart” and “limited” or “pervasive” unconscious processing is. If unconscious processing is limited to processing of subliminal stimuli, then it doesn’t have much to go on. But the social psychology definition — the liberal, process-awareness definition — allows us to call a lot more things unconscious processing.

I recognize shortcomings with the cognitive psychology definition — the narrow, stimulus-awareness definition. And Bargh and Morsella’s statement of the process-awareness definition does enable them to say some striking things (e.g. about automatic activation of motivations).

But I also wonder whether this redefined term can bear much theoretical weight. Specifically, I have two concerns:

  1. this definition makes what is unconscious depend on each person’s knowledge of the causes of their actions — and this can get tricky in unintuitive and highly individual ways
  2. this definition seems to count on having good identity conditions for the kinds of objects to which ‘unconscious’ is supposed to apply (e.g. events, processes), but identity conditions (which are often hard to come by in general) are tricky for this domain in particular.

These are familiar problems in philosophy of mind, and they deserve consideration when designing theoretically useful definitions of unconscious processing. I aim to take up each of these issues in more detail in another post.

Bargh, J.A., & Morsella, E. (2008, in press). The unconscious mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Bargh, J.A., & McKenna, K.Y.A. (2004). The Internet and social life. Annual review of psychology, 55, 573-590.