Cover Image for The Sirens: Product design strategies that get users to keep their commitments.

The Sirens

By Nacho Parietti

How can a product designer use conscious design to affect behavior? Let me introduce you to one of our enemies, the harmful behavior that produces joy. Smoking, drinking, watching tv, cheating, you name it... In my practice, I call them Sirens.

**SIRENS: In Classical Mythology, a monster part women and a part birds known to lure sailors to destruction using their seductive singing to crash the boats into the rocks.**

A Siren is a temptation that appeals to our primitive self even when we recognize them as prejudicial to ourselves. This is one of the most obvious behavior problems we all can relate to. When we sit down and reflect on the actions, the things we deem do not correlate with what we end up doing in everyday life. Our rational, cold thinking self cannot keep our irrational part in line, and we end up taking some actions we bowed not to do.

The brain dual system theory can explain this phenomenon. It states that we have two functioning systems in our brain, a rational conscious self in charge of planning and logic and an automatic system that seeks to satisfy the immediate needs and keeps us functioning (if you haven't heard about this one, go to the source). Our conscient system is expensive to use, so our body only uses it when it's strictly necessary.

Ulysses pact

Luckily, classical Mythology also teaches us how to deal with sirens.

When returning from the Trojan war, as told by Homer in the Odyssey, Ulysses escaped the siren lure using behavioral design. When approaching the islands where sirens dwell, aware of the danger they propose to the ship and their crewmates but not willing to lose the chance to savor the Siren's song, Ulysses devised a plan. He instructs his men to tie him to the mast, ordering them to ignore whatever he may say while under the sway of the spell, and order them to stuff their ears with beeswax to dampen all sounds. When the sirens sing their irresistible song, Ulysses fights to follow them to certain death but cannot do so, thanks to the actions he took earlier.

 Odysseus and the Sirens (1891) Painting: John William Waterhouse

Using his rational thinking Ulysses restrain himself, knowing that an irrational version of himself won't be able to fight the temptation of the sirens. This same strategy has been used to design products that allow you to make pacts with yourself and help you keep them. One of my favorites and one of the most literal takes on this strategy is K Safe, a box that only opens after some time has passed.

Siren amulet

Another ancient strategy to deal with this problem is using an amulet to help you drive the sirens away. An amulet is a magical small piece of jewelry that protects the wearer against a particular evil, danger, or disease.

Unfortunately, magic is not a force that can be relied on, but you can use an object to make your rational system pop out of sleep and help you remind your logical decision. It does not to be tangible, for me when I stopped smoking because my wife was pregnant, was the thought of becoming a dad.

To choose your amulet, you should be aware of how to wake your rational side effectively. System 2 (rational) is awaked by the unexpected or powerful stimuli, so choosing something you really dislike or especially bright could work better. Most famously, Mementos Mori is a charm that reminds the user that they are mortal and usually depicts skulls and bones.

I haven't seen any product design following this strategy, so I have worked on a design for a physical product that uses this concept as a base, but it is still not commercially available. If you are interested, let me know.

Peer support

There are times when an amulet is not enough, and there is no possible way to restrain yourself ahead of time. In those cases, we use the help of other people to help us be better. Jane McGonigal's SuperBetter has a strong component of peer support. In Superbetter, you recruit allies (friends, family, and community) who help you keep on track while improving your quality of life.

If you really want to be controlled by your peers, offer them a reward for catching you not keeping your promise. Let's say I want to run every Tuesday; I can tell my friend that if I don't show up to run with him, I must pay him ten bucks. Next time I want to skip a day, I will have more motivation to show up and a penalty of money and pride if I fail to do so, and most importantly, somebody to force you to be true to your commitments.

Commitment devices

A commitment device is how we call these strategies as a whole when you restrict yourself, modify your environment, or allow others to take punitive actions to help you achieve your goals. I tried to show you some ideas on how a designer could use these things to get people to change. Do you have any commitments your users want to do, but they fail to stick to them? Let us know!

Original lousier version at (2016)

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