Q&A: B.J. Fogg Explains Why Fitness Gadgets Fail

Technologies that aim to change behavior shouldn’t focus on motivation

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Hundreds of apps and consumer gadgets help count your calories, track your workouts, and monitor your progress toward your health goals. But studies show that most people stop using these tools within six months. B.J. Fogg, a Stanford researcher and industry consultant who studies “persuasive technology,” explores whether technology can in fact change human behavior for the better.

IEEE Spectrum: An app can tell me that a large McDonald’s chocolate shake contains 850 calories, and that I’ll have to jog for 2 hours to burn it off. How helpful is that?

B.J. Fogg: There are two types of informational prompts: the “why” information that’s supposed to motivate you and the “how-to.” I don’t encourage the approach that uses constant nagging with the “why” motivation cues. A “how-to” prompt might say: “Here’s how to eat healthy when you’re in this airport.”

Why not focus on motivation?

In general, what you can do with technology is help people do what they already want to do. If you create a technology that prompts people at the right moment, and if it’s something they already want to do, you can change behavior. It’s that simple to say, but it’s hard to accomplish.

How do technologies get these prompts wrong?

When done poorly, triggers will either frustrate or annoy us. They’ll frustrate us if we have the motivation but not the ability to carry out the action. They’ll annoy us if they keep prompting us to do a behavior, but we don’t want to do it—we have the ability without motivation.

You run “boot camps” on designing for behavior change. What’s the message you’re drilling into your recruits?

Pick a behavior you want to do and be very specific, make it really easy to do the behavior, and figure out what’s going to prompt you to do it. If you want to drink a kale drink every morning, you don’t need to work on motivation. You need to figure out how to make it really easy to do and what will remind you to do it. It’s really a design problem.

A correction to this article was made on 2 June 2015.