The New Art of Persuasion: Brands That Help You Improve Your Life
Tom Mulhern in Brand

My wrist reminded me to run yesterday. And my other wrist teamed up with my shoe to measure how far and fast I went. Meanwhile my music app egged me on with up-tempo tunes.

This is persuasive technology in action. Simple tools and apps can prompt and enable us – in the moment, and with very little friction or prep-time – to do things we actually need and want to do, but might not get around to without a nudge. Designed to integrate with our life and add to it, this technology provides a very high benefit relative to what it asks of us in terms of time, attention or energy.

A pre-digital version of this concept you might be familiar with is the strings people would tie around their finger to remember something important, step-on bathroom scales, or the post-it on the fridge door that told you what to pick up at the grocery store. The modern version uses a few more chips and whistles…

  1. Your smart device processes all the data and then shows you things and whispers in your ear buds;
  2. Sensors – often in smaller, dumber devices like my Nike+ Fuel Band – listen, watch and feel;
  3. Networks of all sorts synchronize and store information – location, time, sensor input; and then
  4. Some kind of app in the cloud (there I said it) monitors, tracks, slices, dices and juliennes the information, setting up all sorts of cool add-ons, such as Nike+ Missions that let me convert my “fuel” to social good.

Persuasive technology is not persuasive speaking, advertising or propaganda. It is not about someone else directing you. It’s about you directing you. The Nike+ system, which started out a few years back with the shoe pod and the Nike+ app for iPod, has grown to include multiple devices – not all made by Nike. And the purpose of all of it is to help you track and control your performance by setting goals and measuring progress toward those goals monthly, weekly, daily, and now in real time (As of 9:09am, my Fuel Band tells me I’m at 820 toward my daily goal of 4,000).

Of course along the way, I’m buying more and more Nike gear and I’m sharing lots of data with Nike that I expect they will use to make their products better and more attractive to me. In the course of about two weeks since I bought my Nike+ Sport Watch and Nike Free shoes with the shoe pod, I’ve spent another $200 on Nike stuff, and I’ve spent about two hours with Nike online. Oh yeah, and I’m blogging about it.

Think about what this means for the relationship between brands and consumers. Brands that continue to play the game of trying to persuade you to love them and buy their products will be left behind by brands that join forces with you and use persuasive tools to help you accomplish your own true goals. This basic idea – that brands need to team up with consumers and stop “selling” to them – has been around for a while. What’s new now is that, as they used to say on a certain TV show, “We have the technology.” And we’re learning to use it.

So what does this mean for those of us who design brand experiences? Do the retail environments, websites and other brand experiences we design help consumers do something they want or might want to do? Does the design help them get smarter, faster, stronger or happier?

How do we help retailers fluidly integrate technology to increase the actual value consumers get from each and every visit, whether they buy something or not? Ten years ago, the answer might have been an interactive catalog or a branded kiosk. That catalog and that multimedia brand story are in our pockets now. The new and better answer – more like Nike+ – is that we need to design and build in persuasive technologies that will help people achieve their goals. This new technology, integrated with old technologies like shelves and people in order to nudge you toward doing things that make your life better.

What do YOU think about brands that make life easier? What brands make your life easier?

Tom Mulhern, a strategic planner in Gensler’s Chicago office, works at the intersection of people, space, and technology. He consults with clients and design teams to identify and create contexts for great design. Tom is fascinated with the synergies of office space and the challenges, and unexpected synergies, that designing a great workplace present. Got a workplace design question? Shoot Tom an email at
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