Using Technology To Coach: How to Foster User Self-Efficacy

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Many people, when they create a goal such as losing weight, becoming a runner, or learning a language, turn to technology to guide them through the process. In the best case scenario, technology tools can support the acquisition of new skills and help a person advance beyond novice status. However, many times, people use a tool for a short period of time and then abandon it having never achieved their performance goal. What separates a successful technology coach from a failed one?

Similar to a live coach, the best technology coaches give users the self-confidence to take risks, try new activities, and tackle a challenge with creativity and an open mind. This is another way of saying that the best technology coaches help build self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s own ability to do something. A self-efficacious person feels like she has the agency and ability to make something happen. Self-efficacy was identified as a key ingredient to behavior change by Albert Bandura (1977), and subsequent research has supported the idea that people with high self-efficacy are more likely to approach challenges and succeed. This is also in line with one of the central tenets of self-determination theory, which is that people whose autonomy and competence is supported will be more motivated.

From a product perspective, the self-efficacious user is more likely to try something new, persist if it’s difficult, and find a way to use new tools. For me, with the ultimate goal of changing offline health behaviors, the self-efficacious user is the one who’s going to experience the earliest successes with my products. These are the people who will create social proof for the laggers, motivating them to give this product a try, too. You can think of the self-efficacious as early adopters, only for behaviors rather than technology per se. Still, considering many products want people to do something, this is clearly a good thing for technology teams. As designers of technology, what can we do to help our users feel self-efficacious?

The first step in fostering self-efficacy is, as with many things, careful planning. I firmly believe that the first thing any technology design team needs to do is answer the question “What do we want our users to do?” The answer to this question should be:

  • Specific -- as I mentioned when talking about the human need of competence (link to blog post), people need clear actionable feedback to understand what is being asked of them
  • Behavior-based -- even if an outcome, like losing weight, is the ultimate goal, your user has to do physical activity in order to get there, so focus on that
  • As brief as possible -- wanting your user to do one thing is better than wanting him to do twelve

Dr. BJ Fogg and his team at the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford Universityhave developed a typology of behaviors that helps technology designers maximize self-efficacy. According to Fogg, behaviors can be categorized along two dimensions: Frequency and duration. The frequency dimension refers to whether a person is being asked to stop, start, increase, decrease, or continue a behavior, and also weaves in the novelty of that behavior. The duration dimension refers to whether the target behavior can be accomplished immediately, over a defined period of time, or over an indefinite future period. The two dimensions yield a total of fifteen behavior categories (which you can see here).

One of the duration dimensions of behavior according to this framework is the “dot.” A dot behavior is a one-time behavior, and, in my opinion, the best type of behavior for building self-efficacy in people who are trying something for the first time. A user may be intimidated by a request to lose five pounds, but most people can tackle a quick task like reading an article, jotting down a meal plan for the day, or even a single time-limited workout. Once the first task has been tackled, the user has tangible evidence of past success.

The frequency dimension of the behavior offers clues to what kind of support your users might need to achieve your objectives. For example, someone attempting a “green” behavior, which is new and unfamiliar, may need some education or specific instruction. On the other hand, someone attempting a “black” behavior, which is to stop doing something, may need help understanding what triggers that behavior in the first place. Because so many habitual behaviors are performed unconsciously, quitting them means raising awareness of when and why they happen.

Being specific at the outset about what you want to coach your users to do will help you design technology that provides the right set of supports and resources. By starting with the end point and using tools like Fogg’s behavior grid to understand the implications of the outcomes you want, you can create a structure that builds users’ self-efficacy over the course of their engagement with your technology.

Amy Bucher is a psychologist who focuses on designing programs that help people live healthier and happier lives by changing their behaviors. She is Associate Director of Behavioral Science for Wellness & Prevention, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson Company.

References: Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.