Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably – Part 5: Using Persuasive Design/Technology

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – August 23, 2011

In a series of six articles having the motto "Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably", I investigate how designers – particularly user interface (UI), user experience (UX), and interaction (IxD) designers – can help make a company's workforce behave more sustainably. In this fifth article in my series, I will look at the "using persuasive design/technology" action item – which is the third of four action items I identified for designers. We will see that, on the one hand, this item competes with other approaches aiming at improving sustainability, and on the other hand, that it can also complement these approaches.


Introducing Action Item Number Three: Persuasive Design/Technology

As shown in the "action field/sustainability aspect" matrix from my second article, the "persuasive design/technology" action item probably has the widest application of all the collected items. For more clarity, here is a simplified version of the matrix, showing only this action item:

Sustainability Aspect
 Action Field
Commute & Travel

Persuasive design/technology

Resource, Energy, and Waste Management

Persuasive design/technology, including resource monitoring


The "[]" entries indicate that designers have little impact in the respective aspects.

Using Persuasion in the Sustainability Field

In the "action field/sustainability aspect" matrix, the sustainability aspects represent the overall goals of all sustainability efforts, including those of companies. One such goal, probably the most important one, is to reduce the consumption of energy and resources. This article presents another approach to reaching this goal – one that is particularly suited to the contribution of designers: It is a special facet of persuasion, namely "persuasive design/technology". Just like persuasion in general, it is primarily used to "nudge" people, either directly or indirectly, in the – desired – direction of behaving more sustainably:

But as the matrix above shows, there is more potential in using persuasion and persuasive design/technology. People can be encouraged to reuse products, for example, by using them in new ways after the products' normal life cycle has ended. People can also be animated to recycle products properly, which helps reduce waste and also saves resources. Furthermore, designers themselves, as a part of a company's workforce, can be persuaded to design products that can be disassembled and recycled more easily. In the following, however, I will focus on the reduce aspect, because most persuasive design projects targeted at improving sustainability start here. At the beginning, I will speak more generally of "persuasion" before I explain what "persuasive design/technology" actually means.

Areas of Attack

First, I would like to sketch a rough outline of the areas in a work environment, in which persuasion might help achieve reduction:

Commute and Travel Resource, Energy, and Waste Management


  • Decrease the number of commuters
  • Improve the adoption and increase/optimize the use of groupware as a substitute for commuting
  • Change the commuting behavior towards more sustainable transportation choices:
    • Increase the use of ride-share and public transportation
    • Increase number of people who cycle or walk to work
  • ...


  • Decrease the amount of overall travel
  • Decrease the number of business-related flights
  • Improve the adoption and increase/optimize the use of groupware as a substitute for travel
  • ...


  • Reduce the overall energy consumption
  • Reduce the energy consumption of computers
  • Reduce the use of electric lighting and replace the light sources for more efficient ones
  • Reduce the use of lifts
  • ...


  • Reduce the use of paper
  • Reduce the use of water
  • ...

Waste Management

  • Reduce the amount of waste
  • Reduce the use of toxic substances
  • Reduce the use of compound materials
  • ....

While the more general items on this list do not explain how the listed reduction effects can be achieved, some of the more detailed items point in that direction. The same holds for persuasion itself. Often, the arguments put forth to persuade people are only normative requirements, like "consume less", and do not tell them how to do it. Arguments that tell people how they actually can fulfill the requirements as well are both more helpful and more powerful. I will return to this distinction when discussing the stages of persuasion below.

Administrative Measures Versus Persuasion

Persuasion, that is, trying to influence other people's behavior, is only one possible approach to improving the sustainability record of a company. Other approaches are, for example, employing administrative or technical measures. Depending on the situation at hand, these alternatives can be more appropriate and effective than persuasion. Typically, however, these alternatives are not exclusive and can complement each other in useful ways. For example, when a company wants to reduce the use of paper or the use of electric lighting, both administrative/technical measures and persuasion are at its disposal:

Sustainability Goal Administrative/Technical Measures


Decrease the use of paper
  • Set printers to print double-sided by default
  • Provide online documentation only
  • Print e-mails, documents, marketing materials, and so on only if necessary
  • Reuse paper for personal notes
Decrease the use of electric lighting and replace the light sources for more efficient ones
  • Install presence detectors in restrooms (and offices?)
  • Install energy saving light bulbs
  • Switch desk/room lights off when leaving the office
  • Switch desk lights off when they are no longer needed

We can conclude that, depending on the current situation, the most promising approach or a combination of approaches should be used for attaining the desired sustainability goals.

Approaching Persuasive Design/Technology

Up to now, I often used the more general term "persuasion" instead of "persuasive design/technology", because the overall goal is to persuade people to develop a more sustainable behavior. Persuasion can be done in many ways – the typical way is to use spoken or written language. Another way, the one that I promote in this article, is using persuasive design/technology. Therefore, let's take a closer look at what this term means.

The term persuasive/persuasion design originates in marketing and is regarded as complementing the more traditional design approaches like interaction design or information design. A Wikipedia article about persuasion design (which by the way, was been deleted since I first accessed it) stated:

From a UI/UX design point of view and in the context of this article, the term persuasive technology – or what is behind it – seems more appropriate. According to B. J. Fogg, the author of the book, Persuasive Technology, persuasive design and technology focuses on "the design, research, and analysis of interactive computing products created for the purpose of changing people's attitudes or behavior."

To sum up, persuasive design is often, somewhat negatively, associated with marketing activities and the act of persuading consumers in favor of certain products. However, persuasion can be applied to any social aspect, such as persuading a company's employees to behave more sustainably, which is the subject of my article.

I am somewhat unsure about when to use the term "design" and when to use the term "technology". "Design" refers to the creation of the persuasive technology, whereas "technology" refers to the objects themselves that are used in the persuasion process. Since designers create objects, albeit often only in the form of prototypes or tools for exploration, both terms relate more or less to the same thing in the context of this article, one being more focused on the design, the other more on the use of the "persuasive" technology.

While Fogg limits the term "persuasive technology" to computing technology, I personally prefer a broader concept that includes any artifact designed or crafted by people, including text-based paper signs.

Stages of Persuasion

When thinking about persuasive design/technology, it may be useful to look at the stages of persuasion. Persuasion in general and persuasive technology in particular, can be targeted at and tailored to specific stages or to all of them:

My experience, including the examples presented below, shows that a large number of persuasive activities are targeted at the "awareness" stage, which is the easiest thing to do. More effort is needed to persuade people to actually change their behavior, and even more is needed to persuade them to maintain the changed behavior.

Above, I touched briefly on the distinction between "normative" and "constructive" persuasion arguments. Now that I have presented the different stages of persuasion, we can understand that normative arguments are best suited to the stage of raising awareness. You can make people think by using arguments like "consume less electricity" or "use less paper", but for making people change their behavior and maintain the changes, constructive arguments like "print e-mails only when absolutely necessary" are definitely more helpful.

Approaches to Persuasion

I already mentioned that we can try to persuade people in many ways, for example, by using written or spoken language, or by using persuasive design/technology. In the following, I present a loose collection of approaches to persuasion that came to my attention while writing this article. They are arranged along the two primary mechanisms for persuasion that I have identified: reflection and behavior.


The following approaches rely on people's reflections to cause a change in the desired direction:


The following approaches are aimed at people's behaviors or habits to bring about a change in the desired direction:

In the appendix, I will present these approaches together with examples in a table. For persuasive design/technology, only feedback-based and interactive persuasion are relevant (if you define the term more broadly, aspects of verbal and visual persuasion can also be included).


Some Examples from the DIS 2010 Conference – and Some Attempts to Transfer These to the Workplace

In the following, I will illustrate the "persuasive design/technology" action item with a few exemplary projects that I encountered at the DIS 2010 conference in Aarhus, Denmark. I will also investigate how these projects can be transferred to a workplace environment.

Energy AWARE clock    Watt-Lite    Widgets for monitoring the sleep state of laptops

Figures 1-3: Devices for monitoring energy consumption presented at DIS 2010: Energy AWARE clock for households (left), Watt-Lite for factories (center); two widgets (Coralog and Timelog) for monitoring use of the sleep mode on a computer (right)

Energy Feedback Systems (EFS)

Many persuasive design projects involve devices that provide feedback for energy consumption, sometimes in a simple manner and sometimes in a highly sophisticated manner. In the list of approaches to persuasion above, I call this approach "feedback-based" or reflective persuasion, because these devices are meant to make people observe and reflect their energy consumption behavior – and the authors hope that people will change their behavior as a consequence.

A group of Swedish researchers presented the Energy AWARE Clock (Figure 1) at the DIS 2010 conference. The clock was designed to be used in suburban households and displays a home's energy consumption in a clock-like manner, producing characteristic patterns that can be observed and compared (up to three days can be displayed in parallel). The team's results indicate that the Energy AWARE Clock made electricity use more visible to the household members and thus brought it more to their attention. The authors point out that to be effective, such a device needs to be easily accessible.

The same team also presented Watt-Lite (Figure 2), another prototypical implementation of an ambient display that is used for the purpose of persuasion. Watt-Lite consists of three oversized "torches" projecting a factory's real time energy statistics in the physical environments of its employees. According to the authors, the design of Watt-Lite is meant to "explore ways of representing, understanding, and interacting with electricity in industrial workspaces". That said, the effectiveness of this prototype in a work environment still seems unclear.

Figure 3 shows Coralog and Timelog, two variants of an ambient display that informs computer users about how they use the computer's sleep mode. In this project, an American research team compared an iconic representation with a traditional graph and also gave recommendations for the design of ambient displays that support a sustainable lifestyle. (Personally, however, I would not count these two energy feedback applications as among the ambient displays.)

Effectiveness of (R)EFS

REFS is a new acronym for "residential energy feedback systems". James Pierce presented a study conducted by a team from the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) that investigated two different energy monitors. The study produced somewhat disappointing results: It was obvious that one of the monitors was not used at all by the participants. The other monitor was used and did help people get to know their consumption baseline, its effect on behavioral changes was only minimal. The authors called this the "ineffectiveness of REFS". This study indicates that there is a long way to go between raising awareness and inducing actual behavioral changes.

Ineffectiveness can have many causes. For example, energy is intangible, undifferentiated, and universally available. James Pierce and his mentor Eric Paulos (both from CMU) therefore investigated how energy can be "materialized". They tried to reframe energy as something physical and tangible, exploring design artifacts such as energy mementos and "The Local Energy Lamp" (an ambient display for indicating local energy consumption/production). They hope that their work will inspire designers and researchers of interactive systems who are concerned with sustainability and energy. My somewhat disappointing but not surprising conclusion from this project, however, is that a lot of energy feedback systems are simply ineffective and that the reasons for their failure need further investigation.

The Tidy Street Project: Energy Feedback at Street Level

In her DIS 2010 keynote, Yvonne Rogers pointed out that there is a current trend in HCI to a turn to the "wild" (that is, to turn to the world instead of using the lab). According to Rogers, one reason designers do so is because they want to change people's behavior toward sustainability or improving their health. She presented two of her projects in this vein, one being the "Tidy Street" project (Tidy Street is located in Brighton, England; see Figure 4).

Tidy Street sign    Possible location for a public display    Display prototype

Figures 4-6: Tidy Street sign (left); disused sign arm as possible location for a public display (center); El wire display prototype (right) (from Tidy Street project Website)

This project sprang from research results indicating that home energy usage could be reduced if households were given feedback on their consumption. The researchers wanted to explore this in a public setting, posing questions such as: 'Which properties make feedback more effective?' (Studies suggest that regular and real-time feedback seems to induce saving behavior) 'What is the effect of publicly displaying a household's electricity consumption on energy usage?' 'Where should such a public display be located?' (Figure 5 shows a possible location) 'How should the information be represented?' (see Figure 6 for a display prototype).

Initially, the team proposed displaying both the average and real-time electricity consumption data for each participating household. There were, however, debates within the research team and with the "Tidy Street" residents about which information should be made public and how. The authors report that "residents, perhaps unsurprisingly, were not very enthusiastic about publicly displaying their electricity consumption, the primary reason being that they wanted this to be a community project and they were worried that the displays could be divisive, engendering competition rather than cooperation." So the project team changed its direction somewhat and is currently investigating "how to display information about current demand on the electricity network" and how they "might represent this in order to encourage people to schedule various household chores (such as doing the washing) when there is less demand for electricity." They conclude that "this has environmental benefits and yet does not require participants to reduce their electricity consumption, just to think about when they consume energy." However, considering the Swedish research team's requirement that an energy feedback system should easily accessible, one might question the use of a public display for deciding when to turn on the washing machine.

In an earlier related study by Schultz et al. (2007) in which households were shown how their energy consumption compared to their neighborhood average, the so-called "boomerang effect" could be observed: Households whose consumption was below the standard tended to increase their consumption instead of maintaining their low levels. However, this behavior could be prevented by rewarding people with smilies.

The Clouds and Lights Project – An Ambient Persuasive Display at the Workplace

In her keynote, Rogers also reported on the "Clouds and Lights/Persuasive Ambient Displays" project, which is investigating how physical installations can be an effective form of persuasive technology to encourage more ecological (sustainable) behavior. The research team regarded traditional signage as "in your face", not emotionally appealing, and playing on people's weaknesses and guilts. The project intended to be playful and subtle and therefore has developed an integrated approach comprising (1) an abstract display that lures and nudges people towards a desired behavior at the point of individual decision-making and (2) an ambient public display that enables people to reflect upon their own and others' aggregate behavior. The "Clouds and Lights" project explored this approach at a workplace, namely in a multi-storey office building where people had the choice of taking either the stairs or the elevator (video).

Color spheres    LEDs flicker bue when the stairs are approached    LEDs flicker red when the elevator is approached

Figures 7-9: Color spheres comprised a public ambient display for indicating the use of the stairs versus the elevator (left); LEDs leading to the stairs flickered in blue (center); LEDs leading to the elevator flickered in red (right; photos taken from (video)

People who entered the building first saw the ambient public display that was installed in the stairwell. Figure 7 shows its principle and a prototype. The higher the number of people using the elevator, the higher the orange color spheres moved. The higher the number of people taking the stairs, the higher the gray color spheres moved. Pressure pads at the beginning of stairs and in front of elevators, counted steps and fed the ambient display with data. This was the first point of decision-making, because people here decided which option to use. The second ambient display was meant to lure people towards the stairs and consisted of bands of LEDs in the carpet. When people approached the stairs, LEDs flickered in blue and faster and faster to "support" the behavior (Figure 8). When people approached the elevator, the LEDs turned red as an attempt to drive them away them from using the elevator (Figure 9). Thus, the LEDs were targeted at the second point of decision-making where people might still decide otherwise.

In the researchers' survey, 93% of the visitors reported that they did not change their behavior at all. The log data, however, which the researchers also collected, revealed that more people used the stairs than they reported. People had also issues with interpreting the colors of the ambient display correctly. Considering the invested effort, the overall success of the installation was disappointing.


Transfer to the Workplace and Takeaways

Energy Feedback Systems in Companies

Energy feedback systems are probably the most often-used approach to persuade people to use energy more considerately. They include dedicated devices that people can interact with, ambient displays that provide more general information, and software applications that run on personal or workplace computers. For example, systems in the spirit of Coralog might be installed on employees' laptops and monitor their behavior with respect to the use of the sleep mode or other energy saving measures. Energy feedback can also be provided at the team, department, or location level. For this purpose, an ambient public display might be an adequate solution. The "Tidy Street" project shows, however, that such displays also introduce issues to which I will turn in the takeaways below.

Persuasion at the Workplace

The "Clouds and Lights" project is one of only a few projects that were targeted at the workplace. Its installation effort was high, and the outcome fairly disappointing. In a UI design blink, I reported on a much simpler attempt in this direction at SAP: placing signs next to elevator doors – exactly what Rogers and her research team did not intend to do. In the meantime, the signs have vanished, and I do not know whether the action had any significant effect.

Whereas the SAP activity can be carried out all over the company without too much effort, activities like the installation done by Rogers' team require much more planning and investment. Therefore, they are better reserved to central, high-traffic locations within a company, and should be advertised sufficiently by the high-level management. For example, a physical installation can be placed in the headquarters or in buildings that are important to other locations world-wide. The employees' experiences with the installation could then be distributed across the company via its Intranet and other news channels. We might call this news activity "secondary persuasion" because it involves employees who are not directly in contact with the original installation.

In an upcoming article, I will present a proposal for a prototypical "Employees' Commute Calculator", which will also be in the vein of persuading employees by allowing them to explore alternatives.


There are some takeaways from the projects I have presented and from my discussion at the beginning with respect to using persuasion and persuasive design/technology at the workplace effectively:


Final Word

In this article, I discussed how persuasive design/technology can be used to make a company's employees behave more sustainably – not only for a short period of time but also in a "sustainable" fashion. In short, the goal is to make sustainable behavior "sustainable". I discussed exploratory projects by designers that I encountered at the DIS 2010 conference and tried to transfer these to the workplace scenario. This article clearly indicates that there are obstacles to overcome when applying persuasive design/technology at the workplace. Nevertheless, this approach seems promising, particularly when it is combined with other measures.

In the sixth and final article in my series "Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably", I will turn to the action item "Replacing Physical Objects with Virtual (Digital) Ones".

Note: See also my upcoming article presenting a proposal for an "Employees' Commute Calculator".




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