Designing for behaviour change uses behavioural science, psychology and motivation in the things we build to change people’s behaviour and make life a little easier for people.
Using key psychological principles and theories of motivation, we can design for how users behave, building an environment that supports whatever route they take, instead of forcing them to conform to how our products and services work.
This all sounds delightfully utopian, and something we need to strive for, but considering recent big tech scandals, changing people’s behaviour has taken on a more sinister tone, bringing to mind images of fiendish data scientists spying on people from behind the black mirror.
So, before we start, let’s bring up some ethical considerations about designing for behaviour change. As product makers, we like to think we are above concerns of privacy and manipulation, since we work in this digital complex. The simple fact is, we are all bound by our biases, aware of them are not.
To guide us through this existential dilemma, between business and user’s interests, we can use Nir Eyal’s Manipulation Matrix, a simple guide to test where your behaviour change design strategy sits on the good and fiendish axis. Two essential questions he asks are; does the product materially improve the user’s life and does the product maker use it himself or herself? If you can answer these questions with confidence and aim to be a ‘facilitator’, then you are off to a good start.
How our mind works
Dual Process theory
One of the current theories on how our mind processes information and makes decisions is the Dual Process theory. It describes how thoughts come into being in two very different ways.
System 1: Implicit thinking
This is our unconscious reasoning which performs intuitive, low effort thinking. It uses heuristics (shortcuts based on prior experience) to do things.
System 2: Explicit thinking
This is our conscious rational reasoning that performs slower and logical thinking. It needs more focused attention to get things done.
System 1 versus System 2
During our daily routines, we are not consciously thinking of what to do next. We often act on habits and we base these habits on prior experience. Using System 2 to get things done is hard work as it takes attention and cognitive power to use.
When we are designing for the user, we want to target System 1, which is the automatic part. This puts fewer obstacles in the user’s way.
Let’s begin by building our behaviour model.
Step 1: Understand your users
Get to know user’s needs
We begin by gaining an understanding of how our users decide.
Questions to ask about your users
- Why aren’t users doing something in the product? What is hindering them?
- Where is there an opportunity to change people’s behaviours?
Build on these questions
- Interview users about their work life. Find out what makes them tick and what job they want to get done.
- Build job stories from what you learn e.g. “Tom is a busy manager, and he wants to report on company sales, so he can present to the board.”
Step 2: Use a model of behaviour
Fogg Behaviour Model
The Behaviour Scientist, B.J. Fogg shows that there must be three elements for behaviour to happen:
- Motivation: When there is an amplification in the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators
- Ability: When the behaviour is easy to perform
- Trigger: When there is an increase in the number of triggers
Now let’s extend and refine Fogg’s model to be more useful, basing it on a model proposed by Stephen Wendel.
If a user passes through these five stages, then there is a high probability that they will execute the action. If the action is a habit, then evaluation and timing are redundant.
The trigger can be internal or external. External triggers happen when there is something in our environment that make us think about an action. Triggers such as alarms, smells and TV surround us. Internal triggers happen inside the mind such as feelings or thoughts that bring about an action. Hunger is a powerful internal trigger, which reminds us to eat.
Once the user’s mind has been triggered to think about a potential action, there is an automatic reaction in response. This reaction can be intuitive and automatic.
When we respond to a situation intuitively, we might then evaluate the action more consciously, especially if the situation is new. But if a habit has formed, we might skip the conscious evaluation step.
Assuming they have made a choice to act, the question arises whether it is easy to undertake the action. The person must be able to act at once and without obstacles.
When should you take the action? We can take action based on a sense of urgency, and by other, less forceful factors.
Step 3: Use strategies
1. Automate things
The easiest and best strategy is to eliminate the work required by the user. If we can automatically do things with their consent, then we should do it. We can use smart defaults, machine learning and tailoring.
Two solutions we can use:
- Automate the action behind the scenes
- Use smart defaults to reduce cognitive load
2. Make or change user’s habits
The next most effective strategy is to use habits. We can avoid making the user work for an action and remove conscious effort. Identify a trigger and reward. These rewards need to be immediate. Habits are a powerful way to form repeated behaviours.
3. Support user’s conscious action
The last way to change behaviour is using conscious action. If either of the first two strategies are not available, then you must help the user consciously undertake the target action. This is the hardest.
Step 4: Reward users
Jeffrey Nevid says, ‘motives are the ‘whys’ of behaviour — the needs or wants that drive behaviour and explain what we do. We don’t observe a motive; rather, we infer that one exists based on the behaviour we observe.’
Let’s look at two types of motivation.
“If I sign up to this product, I will receive some rewards in their loyalty program and get something free next time.”
These motives can come from family, professional environment, competitions, or contests. The motives of this sort encourage the person to deal with the outer world of other people as there is no other way to achieve the particular goals.
“If I buy this product, I can help disadvantaged people as some of my money goes to charity.”
Intrinsic motivation creates its own rewards, formed through the wishes and needs of the person. It has meaning. It is not a magic bullet, but intrinsic is the most powerful motivation to use.
Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, maybe the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also–counterintuitive though it may seem–their financial success. ~ Amy Wrzesniewski
If we want users to act, then we need to use their motivations. Using intrinsic motivations such as learning a new skill and the love of mastery is powerful. This is a reward in itself. These motivations if highlighted can turn into a worthwhile habit for the user.
Step 5: Choose the right actions
Develop job stories
Write out what goals and motivations the user has in achieving a task.
Generate a list of possible actions
List the specific behaviours we want the user to do. Who is doing it? What is the person trying to achieve?
Choose the best action
After a group discussion, select the best action based on job stories.
Structure the action
Neil Armstrong had hundreds of steps to go through to just to activate the system on Apollo 11, but most of us aren’t sending our product to the moon. Let’s not get bogged down with every possible action the user might do. This should be a simple flowchart or user journey. If the user has to take too many steps to get some real benefit, then we’ve blown it. Think about the sequence of real world steps a user needs to take to complete an action.
- Are these steps easy and intuitive to perform?
- Where are the pain points in each step?
- Are they meaningful enough to reward after completion?
- How does the user finish each action and how do they know? Is there any feedback do they get?
Design the environment
To support the action, create an appropriate environment.
- Ensure the environment motivates your users. That motivation is at the front of their minds. Use their existing intrinsic motivation if possible
- Ensure users are ready to act now
- Ensure users know they are succeeding or failing by giving them feedback
- Avoid or co-opt other behaviours that are competing for their attention
- Ideally, piggyback onto something they are already doing
Step 6: Put everything into practice
Job stories can come straight from the behavioural plan. Each step in the sequence of actions can come from these stories.
Use this template for a job story:
When ___ , I want to ___ , so I can ___ .
The ‘when’ focuses on the situation, the ‘I want’ focuses on the motivation, and the ‘so I can’ focuses on the outcome.
“When I’m managing a large team, I want to prepare the team sales report, so I can be ready for the board presentation.”
In this example, we know that the manager is under pressure and he is busy. He wants to be prepared for those big board meetings. What we can do is to automate report making. We can remind him, generate those reports automatically, and send them in a suitable format that he can use straight away.
Psychological strategies to use for each stage
- Tell the user what the action is
- Make it clear
- Remove distractions
- Inspire trust by making your design aesthetically pleasing
- Inspire trust by using a strong authority on subject
- Create engagement by using social proof
- Be personal
- Prime user relevant associations
- Use peer comparisons
- Use competition
- Avoid cognitive overhead
- Avoid choice overload
- Give timely feedback
- Smart default as much as possible
- Use AI
- Use positive peer comparison for easy action
- Use progressive disclosure
- Frame text to be relevant in that moment
Step 7: Test and evaluate
After putting in all this hard work, now is time to test that it is working. There are three measures we can use.
1. Create an impact Assessment
It’s important to outline our objectives and what success or failure looks like. We want to measure how the product behaves based on clear objectives we’ve set. Does it meet these objectives and assumptions we’ve created?
2. Pinpoint and analyse obstacles
What is stopping the user reaching their goal? We can find this out through user testing, to watch our product in the real world gain a better insight into how people use the product, and what crisis moments occur and what impact it has.
3. Learning from our mistakes and refining
When we have gathered our testing data, we need to review and create an action plans of improvements. We can put this through our development backlog as UX priorities based on business considerations and behavioural impact.
We can forget in the fog of development that we are trying to make our user’s daily grind a little easier, but we are also responsible for how we treat our users. Balancing the concerns of financial gain and the user is the most challenging part of building products. Using cognitive biases and behavioural tricks of the trade can lead us down some dark paths if we let it. Keep the user’s true needs and wants in mind when designing for behaviour change and let’s always design responsibly.
- B.J. Fogg, Fogg Behavior Model
- Stephen Wendel, Designing for Behaviour Change
- Nikki Pfarr and Judith Gregory, Cognitive Biases and Design Research: Using insights from behavioral economics and cognitive psychology to re-evaluate design research methods
- Dan Lockton, Design, behaviour change and the Design with Intent toolkit: Theories and Practices of Designing for Change
- Jeffrey Nevid, Psychology: Concepts and applications
- Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz, The Secret of Effective Motivation
- Nir Eyal, The Manipulation Matrix
- David Hall, Our hero: Storymapping the user experience
Cover photo by Filip Mroz.