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Designing for Behavioral Change

behavioral change / qualitative research / user experience / featured

A few years ago, I was shopping for a birthday card for a good friend - a fellow psychology nerd, I should add - and after sifting through hundreds (no exaggeration!) of contenders, I finally stumbled across "the one". The front read, "How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?" and inside was the classic "…Just the one, but the bulb has to really want to change. Happy Birthday!" I remember chuckling to myself and ending my search there, knowing (or at least hoping) my friend would appreciate my find. Looking back though, a thought occurs to me - good thing she wasn't studying to become a behavioral scientist!

While intrinsic motivation is certainly influential and at the core of many behavior change frameworks we're used to hearing about, behavioral science reminds us that all the desire to change in the world is still sometimes not enough to actually incite meaningful and long-lasting behavioral change. After all, we are only human and could all use a little push in the right direction from time to time, especially when it comes to committing to changes that will be positive for us in the long-run. Such is the premise behind the second annual Design for Action Conference, where I had the good fortune of being in the company of several hundred researchers, designers, product managers, and entrepreneurs that shares my excitement about behavioral science and, moreover, its potential applications in the design and development of more innovative products, services, and policies that can help people change their lives for the better.

Design for Action DC

We all came together last week in Washington DC to discover and share insights on strategies to improve the usability and user experience of products and services aiming to help people take action in their lives. Though we represented a variety of industries - including finance, healthcare, government/contracting, and energy, to name a few - the commitment to always thinking about users first was evident across the board. Rather than thinking negatively of the users we are trying to help and accusing them of being poor decision-makers, the overarching takeaway was to instead try and understand - without judgment - their needs, why those needs exist, and ultimately how we can use what we learn about them to help them. Here are a few [astonishingly simple!] steps we can take as researchers and practitioners to help us think creatively about designing experiences that put users first:

  • Design with intent. TWe have to remember that for better or for worse, every single design decision influences behavior. This is true even if a design is not intentional or is just a passive result of some other decision; the lack of a decision regarding the design of a product or experience is, in and of itself, a design decision too and therefore influences users. With that said, it is critical not to neglect facets of the design environment, and to try and help people solve problems that they are already facing in their everyday lives.
  • Heal broken legs. Much like someone who may have the time, resources, and willpower to walk 10,000 steps a day but doesn't due to a broken leg that renders all of the factors in their favor relatively useless, sometimes individuals do not act as intended due to hindrances that may not seem readily apparent to others. Being able to identify and "heal" these potential hindrances, or "broken legs", is hugely important when trying to help people adapt how they behave. In order to design products and experiences in a way that they will be best utilized, it becomes necessary to focus not just on users' minds, but on their lives and surrounding circumstances in general. Proactively reducing the barriers - however small - that may be preventing individuals from adopting certain desired behaviors is perhaps one of the simplest, yet most practical steps that can be taken to help facilitate behavior change.
  • Embrace the squishy.. While rigorous, randomized, controlled trials can no doubt be an excellent way to try and gauge the usability of a product, you can also learn a lot - especially about the aforementioned "broken legs" of your target audience - just through "soft" tests, or having conversations with your users asking for their feedback. Gathering qualitative insights and using them as a directional source of information to come up with some inferences about users' motivations, needs, circumstances, and pain points can often be a valuable starting point before a more scientifically rigid approach is implemented to further test details of a design.

Ultimately, designing for action is a two-way street; we can use design decisions to influence people, but people in turn influence design as well. That being said, it is critical to keep it an open conversation and to design not just for, but with the people who would be the subjects of the intended design. Designing with people entails conducting usability research that aims to uncover what it is that people want and need to do, and then coming up with fresh, innovative ways to help them achieve their goals - whatever they may be - with more ease and effectiveness. This enables us to design not just for how we want people to behave, but also for how they actually do behave - which, as science tells us, isn't always as simply as a motivated lightbulb that wants to be changed!


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