Behavioral science is in a bad place.
Over the last few years, we’ve learned that only between 36% and 62% of the research in the field can be replicated. And the studies that can be replicated often have effect sizes only half as large as originally reported. The most in-depth study to date on real-world behavioral science “nudging” showed that nudges only have a 1.4% effect size, 1/6th of what would be expected from the academic research.
For the past 13+ years, I’ve been an applied behavioral scientist. During that time, I founded the first technology-focused behavioral science firm in Silicon Valley, and co-founded and led the first applied behavioral science team at a Fortune 50 company.
I’ve worked with dozens of companies, helping them make their products more engaging, retentive, and habit-forming. I’ve also run hundreds of experiments in the wild, testing academic research concepts in high-stakes situations.
These experiences give me a unique view on the field, and what I’ve seen hasn’t been pretty. At this point, I don’t think I would be comfortable working with any behavioral science consultants or behavioral science consultancies—the research they base their interventions on is just too weak.
If you’re interested in hiring a behavioral science consultant or behavioral science consultancy, I would encourage you to save your money and invest that budget into user experience (UX) and product development. Most behavioral science consultancies just end up doing usability and UX work, but charging a much higher rate. This is even true of the most widely publicized and vaunted behavioral science teams, such as the White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. Their work was almost entirely focused on simplification, which is just another term for usability work. Their focus was on making the desired behaviors easier for people to perform. This sort of work has been done by UX teams at virtually every technology company for the last 20+ years, and there are thousands of terrific UX specialists and firms available to tackle this work for your company.
If you’re looking to optimize an already existing product, a great UX researcher or designer will be able to do better simplification/usability work than any behavioral science consultant.
If, however, you haven’t built a product yet, and are still in the planning stages of your efforts, it would be good idea to work with a Behavioral Strategist.
Every new project has a business goal. Whether it’s increasing market share with millennials, increasing financial literacy of high school students, reducing the return rate, or decreasing customer acquisition cost (CAC), every new project can be tied to a specific goal or KPI.
The art of strategic planning is figuring out the highest probability and most efficient way of achieving a given company goal or KPI. Behavioral Strategy takes this one step further by helping businesses figure out which behavior they should be building their strategy around.
Once a business has identified the best action for their customers to take, the project becomes about figuring out the best way to encourage customers to do it—usually by creating a new product or service. So if the desired behavior is “eat more vegetables”, the product/service can take the form of a vegetable subscription box, an grocery app with a large selection of organic produce, a local farm finder, a farmer’s market finder (with email alerts), a recipe app with veggie-heavy recommendations, an app that recommends a local vegetarian dish at a local restaurant/takeout spot, etc.
The point is that for every behavior there are a variety of different products/services that can facilitate its performance. The specific product or service you end up creating is going to depend on your organization and its goals. For the “eat more vegetables” example, a company like Walmart might choose something like “weekly vegetable subscription box” or “grocery app with large selection of organic produce”, but a nonprofit or public health agency might choose the recipe app or the farmer’s market finder. Walmart probably has revenue or wallet share as a goal, while the nonprofit and public health agency probably have goals around health, medical bills, etc.
Behavioral Strategy Process
The Behavioral Strategy process consists of 4 steps, which one conditional step:
Step 1: Define the Goal
Step 2: Define the User
Step 3: Behavioral Research
Step 4: Behavior Matching
Conditional step: Behavioral Innovation
For organizations that are serious about setting themselves up for habit formation and behavior-change success, all four core steps should be done at the beginning of each new project.
However, it is also possible to just work with a Behavioral Strategist who can join all the early strategic planning meetings and ensure that behavior has a seat at the table. Too often, the strategy process forgets to focus on customer behavior and psychology. However, these are where most projects fail. A new product or service is only going to be as successful as its ability to harness or change behavior. If no one uses a new product or service, it’s a failure. If a lot of people use it, it’s a success. This is why Behavioral Strategy is turning into a necessary part of the strategy and planning process. Having a behavioral expert who can ensure that behavioral insights are incorporated and given proper weight in the planning process is table stakes in the new engagement economy.
Behavioral Science Consulting is generally a waste of money
There are very few behavioral scientists who are worth the money. The best behavioral scientists are those who have common sense, a critical eye, and other practical skills. Never work with a behavioral scientist who is not also a competent UX/UI designer, developer, or data scientist. At the end of the day, you want someone who thinks about the behavioral implications of design and product decisions. People with a background in the behavioral sciences who do not have practical skills or experience building and launching products generally come up with ideas and interventions that are either impractical or ineffective.
For this reason, if you’ve already built a product or service that isn’t as engaging as you’d hoped, you should not hire a behavioral scientist. Hire a UX designer/researcher or get a Behavioral Strategist to do a product and strategy analysis.
Behavioral Economics interventions are not effective in the real world
As stated earlier, behavioral economics interventions have a 1.4% impact on average in the real world—1/6th of what is expected from the literature.
After years using and testing behavioral economics research in the wild (and writing a set of guides on how to apply behavioral economics research to marketing and product design), it is my belief that the field is not useful for real-world problems. It is also my belief that behavioral economics will fall from grace in the coming years and slowly dwindle as an applied discipline. It’s just not very useful or effective. Stay away at all costs.
Behavioral Design is usually too little, too late
Behavioral Design (also known as Behavior Design) is an approach to changing behavior by systematically tweaking a product or service so that it is easier to use or more psychologically engaging. For example, Behavioral Designers will work to add more triggers or motivating elements to a product. The belief is that by making a few simple tweaks, it’s possible to dramatically increase a user’s motivation, commitment, etc. However, this is simply untrue. Human behavior is not that easily malleable, and humans are not ping pong balls that are moved with little effort. The fact of the matter is that behavior change is difficult, and people generally only do things that are meaningful to them. If your product or service does not solve an important problem in their lives, it is probably not going to be meaningful to them. No amount of simplification, nudging, or behavioral trickery is going to change this.
This is why Behavioral Strategy is so important. It’s necessary to spend time researching and collecting data on the people we’re attempting to influence, so that we are sure that we’re fulfilling a true need in their lives. We also want to make sure that we’re solving this true need in a way that is effective, easy, compelling, and enjoyable for them. Only by doing this analysis up front can we build a customer experience that is going to engage them and change their behavior. If a product or service doesn’t solve a problem, and doesn’t do it in a way that fits their unique worldview, life situation, and abilities, it will fail—no matter how many behavioral design tricks and tactics you use.
Too few actionable insights, not enough reliable knowledge
In a nutshell: The applied behavioral disciplines are not effective or reliable. The research is too weak to be taken seriously (reproducibility crisis) and the real world interventions are rarely effective.
Why should you trust me?
I’ve been doing applied behavioral science work in the technology world longer than anyone I know of (other than one of my mentors, BJ Fogg).
Founded the first behavioral science firm in Silicon Valley, which focused on helping startups build better, more engaging products.
Studied neuroscience at Stanford University, and was lead researcher in BJ Fogg’s Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. While in the lab, was involved in the creation of the field now commonly known as Behavior Design. My work in the lab was featured at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Collaborated extensively with behavioral economist Dan Ariely. We cowrote a series of workbooks on how to apply behavioral economics research to marketing and product problems. I also helped Dan design the first version of Kavaanu (later renamed Timeful), which was eventually acquired by Google.
Co-founded Walmart’s behavioral science team, and was Global Head of Behavioral Science for the company—applying research to dozens of marketing, product, and store initiatives at the company. Our group was responsible for the new member experience at Sam’s Club, and was integral to the creation of new store concepts (Sam’s Now), in-store order pickup, the in-store return experience, and checkout design. Worked with senior executives across the company on many of the company’s most important initiatives.
Have had one startup exit (Kite.io).
Currently running a recruiting and staffing firm (Persona) that uses behavioral science research to recruit more effectively. Clients include: On Deck, OpenStore, Forethought.ai, IDEXX, Matter, Apollo, Distru, and hundreds more.