Managing Anxiety Through Mobile Application Training Suites; The Ethics of Persuasion: Persuasive Technology and the Power Behind Design

Newman, Danielle, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Ibrahim, Ahmed, EN-Comp Science Dept, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

All fourth-year engineering students complete a thesis project, which consists of a technical portion and STS research paper. Depending on your preference, your STS research may have some connection to your technical capstone project or deal with issues in sociotechnical systems that are not at all connected with your technical capstone project. From personal experience, I think that establishing a relationship between both projects is important because it layers your knowledge and can facilitate the research process. Either way, both the technical project and STS research are important for ensuring your graduation from the engineering school.

For the technical portion of my thesis project, I worked with the MindTrails UVA research team to create a mobile application that performs online intervention through Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM). According to MindTrails, cognitive bias is the tendency to pay attention to, remember, and interpret things differently when processing information tied to emotional responses. Cognitive bias modification uses positive reinforcement to guide the user into healthier thinking habits. Using React Native, my capstone team was able to design the mobile application that integrated many of the features that currently exist on the MindTrails website into a cross-platform mobile application.

My team’s final product falls into the category of persuasive technology, that is, technology that is designed to shape human behavior. In such systems, human behavior is a byproduct of technology; therefore, it is important to take the human factor into account when designing persuasive technology. This also means that persuasive technology needs to meet ethical requirements associated with respecting the autonomy and privacy of users. These issues came into play in my technical project because cognitive bias modification is a form of persuasive technology. Basically, it is being used to convince users the way that they should be thinking, which means that how it is implemented can impact the welfare of its users.

Overall, the thesis project was a good learning experience and taught me a complex thought process that cannot be fully understood without having your own experience. Formulating your two projects and establishing the relationship between them entails an endless cycle, or journey, of processing that will ultimately bring you to the answer you are searching for. This is very prevalent in research as well.

Once you have or define a topic, then you should imagine a question (or problem) and determine new ways of articulating or thinking about the original topic. This should be done continuously until you can come to a fully articulated answer. I believe that following this process is the key to performing research. Any form of this implementation of data exploration is essential in successful research discovery. For example, in my own research project, I tried too hard to rush the process. I came up with an idea and immediately put it into action, without thoroughly dissecting all the information or without complete comprehension. As a result, I hit multiple obstacles while conducting research and completing the different parts of my thesis project. It caused me to have to continuously question my content and have to restart my research in order for it to make sense. Ultimately, I was able to finish but through a backwards process that ended up taking much longer than I expected.

With that being said, for the future fourth-year engineering students, as you move into STS and begin to undertake your own thesis projects, I suggest learning from my mistakes. Take everything seriously, start early, and most importantly, follow the cycle. Also, be engaged in the STS way of thinking because, although some things might not directly apply to your project, they will help you in understanding what it means to take an STS approach. This will cause everything to go a lot smoother and set you up with the tools to be successful in STS and produce an amazing end product.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
persuasive technology, mobile application, ethics, human behavior, mental health

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Science
Technical Advisor: Ahmed Ibrahim
STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley
Technical Team Members: Everett Adams, Jeffrey Gerken, William Ngu, Jacobo Pacheco, Brady Page, Daniel Zarco

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