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Can Apps Help Us Do More?

Article by: Nancy Tobler
November 10, 2014

I remember when the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out. It was 1968 and I was eight or nine years old. My brothers and I went to the local theater to see the film. I remember thinking two things: the film was really long and why do those humans let a computer tell them what to do? I also remember typing my master’s thesis on a computer with a word processer. My brother owned one, and I would go down to his house about 10 p.m. to “get time on the computer.”

My love/hate relationship with technology continues to this day. I try to resist technology telling me what to do. People often stare when I won’t answer my phone. If I am talking to a human, face-to-face, I do not stop that conversation to talk on the phone. It just doesn’t seem right. However, I am typing this article on my tablet. I certainly would not return to the days of handwriting a paper. What does this have to do with apps? When I started looking at what the top business apps are for 2014, I became overwhelmed and then amazed. Technology does so much for us and can do so much more for us.

In thinking about apps, my question is, “What else could apps do for us?” One of my favorite researchers is BJ Fogg out of Stanford University. He wrote the book, “Persuasive Technologies, Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do.” The book covers a wide range of topics discussing computers as tools, media, and social actors. Fogg explains the foundations that many app programmers follow. The most interesting part of Fogg’s thinking is that technology can be utilized to motivate or persuade us to behave in a desirable way. Most of the persuasive apps seek to help users reach health-related goals such as weight loss or healthy eating. However, apps exist for increasing awareness of our impact on the environment and others help us be more technology security minded.

You might be asking yourself, what is a persuasive technology? Basically, all persuasive technologies are based on the idea that attitudes influence our behavior. A persuasive technology provides feedback (either automatically or when you input information) on a goal or behavior you are trying to obtain. Automatic feedback is when the system gathers information based on some sensory input and then provides you with real time data to help you make decisions. For example, one app monitors your sleep cycle. Apparently, you move differently based on how deeply you are sleeping. The app works by putting your phone at the head of the bed. Based on your movements, the phone will wake you during the lightest point of your sleeping cycle. Another example is an app that provides information based on the location of your phone via GPS. Any app that relies on automatic data has a better chance of motivating change. If I have to enter in information to get the results, I may need the app to remind me to enter the information.

Next, I want to talk about the goals conducive to app development. The goal may be to stop a bad habit such as smoking, swearing, or spending time on Facebook (Fogg & Hreha, 2010). Fogg suggests that all bad habits may be the same psychological path. I never thought of my swearing as the same as smoking. However, some of my students’ need for Facebook does seem a bit like a nicotine fix to me. (Hmm… perhaps I will challenge my students to a Facebook/Swearing duel)

Another goal type would be forming a new attitude and, therefore, a new behavior. An app for time management may provide the necessary motivation to shift work toward increased efficiency. If the app worked off sensory (monitored computer activity) and input information (entered time on tasks), the system could be useful to help us realize how much time we spend on unnecessary tasks.

How successful are these persuasive apps? In a review of 95 research studies on persuasive apps, 54.7% of the apps reported positive results—the technology helped the person change a behavior. An additional 37.9% of the studies achieved partial positive results, and 7.4% reflected no change (Hamari, Koivisto & Pakkanen, 2014).

Apps that help us be more aware of ourselves and of our collective actions could provide help in becoming the people we want to be. Most of us have both personal and professional goals that require dedication to achieve. An app that helped you be aware of the areas for improvement and then rewarded you for making steps in the right direction could be a powerful tool.


Fogg, B. J., & Hreha, J. (2010). Behavior wizard: A method for matching target behaviors with solutions. In Persuasive technology (pp. 117-131). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Pakkanen, T. (2014). Do Persuasive Technologies Persuade?-A Review of Empirical Studies. In Persuasive Technology (pp. 118-136). Springer International Publishing.

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Nancy Tobler

Nancy Tobler has a PhD in communication from the University of Utah. She specializes in research on how organizations change,...

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