Embedding behaviour modification – paper summary

A growing interest of mine is an investigation of how the design of the environment and information systems to support university learning and teaching can be improved with a greater consideration given to factors which can help encourage improvement and change. i.e. not just building systems that do a task (e.g. manage a discussion forum) but design a discussion forum that encourages and enables an academic to adopt strategies and tactics that are known to be good. If they choose to.

One aspect of the thinking around this is the idea of behaviour modification. The assumption is that to some extent improving the teaching of academics is about changing their behaviour. The following is a summary of a paper (Nawyn et al, 2006) available here.

The abstract

Ubiquitous computing technologies create new opportunities for preventive healthcare researchers to deploy behavior modification strategies outside of clinical settings. In this paper, we describe how strategies for motivating behavior change might be embedded within usage patterns of a typical electronic device. This interaction model differs substantially from prior approaches to behavioral modification such as CD-ROMs: sensor-enabled technology can drive interventions that are timelier, tailored, subtle, and even fun. To explore these ideas, we developed a prototype system named ViTo. On one level, ViTo functions as a universal remote control for a home entertainment system. The interface of this device, however, is designed in such a way that it may unobtrusively promote a reduction in the user’s television viewing while encouraging an increase in the frequency and quantity of non-sedentary activities. The design of ViTo demonstrates how a variety of behavioral science strategies for motivating behavior change can be carefully woven into the operation of a common consumer electronic device. Results of an exploratory evaluation of a single participant using the system in an instrumented home facility are presented


Tell’s how a PDA + additional technology was used to embed behaviour modification strategies aimed at decreasing the amount of television watching. Describes a successful test with a single person.

Has some links/references to strategies and research giving principles for how to guide this type of design.


Set the scene. Too many Americans watch too much TV, are overweight and don’t get exercise. Reducing TV watching should improve health, if replaced with activities that aren’t sedentary. But difficult because TV watching is addictive and exercise is seen to have high costs and initial experience not so good.

The idea is that “successful behavior modification depends on delivery of motivational strategies at the precise place and time the behavior occurs”. The idea is that “sense-enabled mobile computing technologies” can help achieve this. This work aims to:

  • use technology to disrupt the stimulus-reward cycle of TV watching;
  • decrease the costs of physical activity.

Technology-enabled behavioral modification strategies

Prior work has included knowledge campaigns and clinical interventions – the two most common approaches. Technology used to reduce television usually gatekeepers used to limit student access – not likely to be used by adults. There are exercise-contingent TV activation systems.

More work aimed at increasing physical activity independent of television. Approaches use include measuring activity and providing open loop feedback. i.e. simple, non-intrusive aids to increase activity. The more interactive, just in time feedback may help short-term motiviation – e.g. video games. Also technology interventions that mimic a human trainer.

For those not already exercising small increases in physical activity may be better than intense regimens.

The opportunity: just-in-time interactions

Technological intervention based on the value of: that people respond best to information that is timely, tailored to their situation, often subtle, and easy to process. This intervention uses a PDA device intended to replace the television remote control and adds a graphical interface, built-in program listings, access to a media library, integrated activity management, and interactive games.

It tries to determine the goals of the user and suggest alternatives to watching TV in a timely manner. The addition of wearable acceleration sensors it can also function as a personal trainer.


Provide a user experience rewarding enough to be used over time.

Grabbing attention without grabbing time

Prior work on behavior change interventions reveals them to be:

  • resource-intensive, requiring extensive support staff;
  • time-intensive, requiring the user to stop everyday activity to focus on relevant tasks.

This is why the remote is seen as a perfect device. It’s part of the normal experience. Doesn’t need separate time to use.

Sustaining the interaction over time

Behavior change needs to be sustained over years to have a meaningful impact.
Extended use of a device might run the risk of annoyance, so avoided paternalistic or authoritarian strategies. Focus instead on strategies that promote intrinsic motivation and self-reflection. Elements of fun, reward and novelty are used to induce positive affect rather than feelings of guilt.

Avoiding the pitfall of coercion

Temptation of using coercion for motiviation. The likelihood that users will tolerate coercive devices for long is questionable.

Avoiding reliance on extrinsic justification

Optimal outcome of any behavioural intervention is change that persists. Heavy reliance on extrinsic justification – rewards or incentives – may result in dependency that can hurt persistence if removed. Also problems if the undesirable behaviour – watching TV – is the reward for exercise.

Case study

Low cost remote produced from consumer hardware. Laptop provided to manage media library. GUI with finger input.

Provides puzzles that use the TV for display and physical activity for input.

Behavior modification strategies

Most derived from basic research on learning and decision-making – suggestibility, goal-setting and operant conditioning). Examples include:

  • value integration – having persuasive strategies embedded within an application that otherwise provides value to the user increases the likelihood of adoption.
  • reduction – reducing the complexity of a task increases the likelihood that it will be performed.
  • convenience – embedding within something used regularly, increases opportunities for delivery of behaviour change strategies.
  • ease of use – easier to use = more likely to be adopted over long term.
  • intrinsic motivation – incorproating elements of challenge, curiosity and control into an activity can sustain interest.
  • suggestion – you can bias people toward a course of action through even very subtle prompts and cues.
  • encouraging incompatible behaviour – encouragement can be effective
  • disrupting habitual behaviour – eliminate bad habits by the conditions that create them are removed or avoided.
  • goal setting – concrete, achievable goals promote behaviour change by orienting the individual toward a definable outcome.
  • self-monitoring – motivated people can be more effective when able to evaluate progress toward outcome goals.
  • proximal feedback – feedback that occurs during or immediately after an activity has the greatest impact on behaviour change.
  • operant conditioning – increase frequency of desirable behaviour by pairing with rewarding stimuli.
  • shaping – transform an existing behaviour into more desirable one by rewarding successive approximations of the end goal.
  • consistency – draw on the desire of people to have a consistency between what they say and do to help them adhere to stated goals.

Exploratory evaluation

Use it with a single (real life) person to find out what happens.

Done in a specially instrumented apartment, including 3 phases: baseline with normal remote, 12 days at home, 7 days in lab with special remote. Participant not told that this was aimed at changing behaviour around watching TV and physical activity.


Television watching reduced from 133 minutes a day during baseline to 41 minutes during intervention.

Evaluation against the adopted strategies were positive.


Substantial improvement important. Phase strategies in over time. Strategies are initially seen as novel – can use this curiosity. Not all users will react well.


Nawyn, J., S. Intille, et al. (2006). Embedding behavior modification strategies into a consumer electronic device: A case study. 8th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing: 297-314.

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