We Need a New Applied Behavioral Discipline: Why Behavioral Science Isn’t Powerful Enough On Its Own

We Need a New Applied Behavioral Discipline: Why Behavioral Science Isn't Powerful Enough On Its Own

There’s something missing in the world of applied behavioral science.

We have a lot of powerful fields that can help us understand human behavior: User Experience Research and Design, Marketing, Economics, Product Design and Development, and Behavioral Science.

But these fields are often siloed off from each other, and they’re not always used in the planning phase of new products or initiatives. That’s why we need a new applied behavioral discipline: one that synthesizes the insights from every possible field, and uses those insights in the planning phase of new products or programs to ensure that the desired behaviors are achieved.

Three Big Problems

Why do we need a new discipline? Shouldn’t we just get behavioral scientists more involved?

There are three major problems with behavioral science that prevent it from being an effective corporate discipline:

  1. It’s not reliable enough.

  2. It’s relegated to the wrong departments.

  3. It’s brought into projects at improper times.

1. The behavioral sciences are not reliable enough

Over the last 10 years, there have been a variety of different attempts to determine how reliable behavioral science research is. The results have not been promising.

The first major attempt at replicating behavioral science research was The Reproducibility Project, led by Brian Nosek at the University of Virginia. They found that only 36% of behavioral science findings could be reproduced.

Subsequent studies have been more favorable. For example, Camerer et al found that 62% of studies could be replicated, but that the effect sizes were 50% lower than originally reported.

An even more recent study looking at pre-registered research found that only 50% of studies could be reproduced.

Taking all this together, it seems safe to say that between 36% and 62% of behavioral science research findings are valid, but that the effect sizes are usually exaggerated.

This statement is supported by the public data we have from an applied behavioral economics (“nudge”) unit. According to their published figures, behavioral economic interventions have an impact that’s 1/6th of what would be expected from the academic literature.

If we put all this together, we’re left with a somewhat disappointing picture.

Yes, the behavioral sciences have some important, valid findings. But the behavioral sciences also seem like they’re wrong nearly often as they’re right, and their interventions are much less effective than advertised.

2. Behavioral scientists are relegated to the wrong departments

Today, Behavioral Science plays two main roles inside companies:

  1. A research role.

  2. An optimization role.

Research Role

The primary area you’ll find people with academic behavioral science backgrounds is in the user research or customer insights departments. Their role is to perform quantitative and qualitative research on current and potential customers, to better understand their problems, motivations, understandings, contexts, and so on.

This research is normally used by product or marketing teams, so that they can use these insights to inform their work.

Optimization Role

The other area of the business where you’ll find those with behavioral science backgrounds is in a behavioral science or nudge unit. These are relatively new but are quickly becoming more popular.

These teams primarily focus on reviewing the work of other teams and providing advice in a consultative role. Because they are, more or less, internal consultancies, they do not own any products or control any roadmaps. They merely provide feedback on the work of other departments.

Usually, these teams are brought in after a product or initiative has already been launched, and are asked to help solve an engagement or behavior issue. For example, let’s say a new product has been released but is not being used as much as the creators expected–a behavioral science unit may then be brought in to help.

In some circumstances, these teams are engaged by product or business teams at the inception of a product and are asked to give input and strategic guidance.

3. Behavioral scientists are brought into projects at improper times.

In each of these positions (researcher and nudger), those with a behavioral background have almost no leverage. User research is thrown aside just as often as it’s taken seriously in the product development process. And at the end of the day, user researchers have no ability to determine which features go on the product development roadmap and which issues are prioritized.

Meanwhile, those in a nudge unit are usually brought in too late to have any real impact. By the time they’re consulted, the product or initiative has already been launched and it’s often too late to change anything meaningful. This is one of the many reasons why “nudges” have such an anemic 1.4% impact. Behavioral problems are usually caused by large product issues that could have only been solved at the strategic phase.

Why We Need a New Discipline

So what’s the solution?

I believe we need a new applied behavioral discipline that is interdisciplinary, drawing in insights and people from User Experience Research and Design, Marketing, Economics (and Behavioral Economics), Product Design and Development, and Behavioral Science. In other words: we need a new applied behavioral discipline that synthesizes the insights from every possible field, and uses those insights in the planning phase of new products or initiatives to ensure that the desired behaviors of the target customer or influence group are achieved.

Let’s unpack this a little:

“We need a new applied behavioral discipline that is interdisciplinary…”

Given the low replication rate of behavioral science findings (between 36-62%) and the low impacts of behavioral science nudges (1.4% impact, 1/6th of what’s predicted from research), it’s clear that the behavioral sciences don’t have all the insights or solutions to behavioral problems.

There are a variety of fields that have been around for decades that have just as much to offer when it comes to understanding, predicting, and influencing human behavior. These include fields like User Experience Research and Design, Marketing, Sales, and Product Design and Development.

For example, User Experience researchers and designers know just as much (if not more) than behavioral scientists about how to measure, analyze, and influence behavioral difficulty. This is particularly true in the digital world. Most behavioral science researchers are not very sophisticated when it comes to technology product design and development, so this is an area in which User Experience experts can, and should, be at the table.

The same thing is true with marketers. Marketers implicitly understand a lot of behavioral science concepts and research, even if they don’t know the proper terms and haven’t read the studies. Marketers use psychological drivers like social status, social norming, and scarcity as part of their campaigns all the time. They just don’t always think of it in those terms.

A world in which behavioral insights and solutions are the sole responsibility of behavioral scientists is a world in which we’ll never reach our full potential for impact. We need to start thinking about behavioral problems as interdisciplinary challenges that require insights and solutions from a variety of different fields.

“…and uses those insights in the planning phase of new products or initiatives to ensure that the desired behaviors of the target customer or influence group are achieved.”

In order for this new discipline to be effective, it needs to be involved in projects from their inception. It needs to be involved in the planning and strategy phases, not just the implementation and troubleshooting phases.

Behavioral insights from all the aforementioned fields need to inform strategy and design, not just be used to try to “fix” bad behavior after the product has already been launched.

For example, let’s say that a retail company is planning on creating a new type of store focused on health-related products and services. The behavioral success of the store will be dependent on a variety of different factors:

  • The location of the store (is it close to the right customers?)

  • The layout of the store (is it easy and pleasant to navigate? are compelling things placed up front?)

  • The signage and interior design of the store (is it easy to see and find things? is the design good?)

  • The products in the store (are the right products being offered to the right customers?)

  • The services in the store (are the right services being offered to the targeted customer base?)

  • The experience of the store (is the holistic experience good? do people feel good after visiting?)

  • The marketing of the store (which products, services, and features are highlighted? how are the relevant customers reached?)

  • The staff in the store (are the staff competent and helpful? are the right people with the right expertise and interests present in the store?)

  • The technology and digital experiences associated with the store (is there a digital tie-in? is the store experience integrated with the retailer’s main app or website? is the experience elegant and useful?)

If any of these elements are done inappropriately, the store can fail. Behavioral insights can and should be brought to bear on each of these decisions.

Relatively small changes to fundamental components of a project can have huge impacts down the road. For example, market and customer researchers (from the marketing department) might discover that in the store’s proposed location, there’s been an explosion of Yoga and Pilates studios in the last 3 years, and the local interest in Veganism has increased. This information, which is relevant to the product and service selection, has large behavioral implications. Taking this information and using it as a determinant of the product and service strategy could make all the difference in whether the store is visited and becomes a community staple. In this case, the store could house an unparalleled selection of Vegan foods and health supplements, and a dual-use Yoga and Pilates studio featuring a rotating cast of local and national experts could be attached to the store as a customer draw.

Making these sorts of changes is easy in the strategy and planning phases of a project, but becomes nearly impossible later on.

If a behavioral science team were to propose these things to the project leaders after the plan had been constructed, or after the store had been created, they would either be ridiculed or ignored. But changes like these are often what would be required to turn a product or service that no one uses into a success.

This is why it is imperative that behavioral insights are baked into projects at the earliest phases. Any other sort of engagement is not likely to lead to the desired outcomes.

If we look at the above list of elements involved in creating a new retail store, another thing becomes obvious: it’s not realistic that any one individual will have enough domain knowledge and expertise to give proper guidance on every item in the list.

A Behavioral Scientist will be able to give some thoughts on 2-3 of the project’s elements, but they will not have the relevant expertise to give guidance, or lead research, on all 9. This is why it’s imperative that we create a new interdisciplinary behavioral field and behavioral strategy position. It would take knowledge from a minimum of 5 different disciplines to order answer the questions listed above.

Building A New Field & Behavioral Role

This is why I propose we create and develop a new field called Behavioral Strategy.

Behavioral Strategy will be an interdisciplinary discipline that takes insights and methods from a variety of different fields and uses them to help organizations achieve their desired behavioral outcomes.

Behavioral Strategists will be the people who are charged with thinking about the behavior of an organization’s customers and ensuring that a rich understanding of their behavior is incorporated into new projects and plans.

Whether a company is trying to figure out which product to build next, or how to reduce churn, a Behavioral Strategist should be sitting side-by-side with the leadership team, ensuring that the ideas being discussed are likely to work from a psychological and behavioral scientific perspective.

A good Behavioral Strategist can save a company months (or years) of building, and tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

For example, Quibi wouldn’t have made it out of a planning and ideation meeting with a Behavioral Strategist present—saving everyone at the company 2 years of their lives and investors 1.75 billion dollars. A Behavioral Strategist would have organized a series of user research studies looking at whether the new form factor of Quibi’s content and the serialized, short-bites format could win out over YouTube, Spotify, Podcasts, Twitter, Instagram, etc. A 2-4 week test with one properly selected Quibi test-show could have changed the strategy, or stopped the founding and investment teams from moving forward.

Facebook Home is another example of an initiative that would have greatly benefited from the inclusion of a Behavioral Strategist. If one had been brought in early enough, they could have run some user research on consumer perception of Facebook and what types of information people felt comfortable sharing with the social giant. They could have reached out to Facebook power users and looked at how they used, and wished to use, the service. Instead of going for a full-on Android launcher to begin with, they could have perhaps started with a series of Android widgets to prove the concept and see if people would increase their engagement that way. After working with a Behavioral Strategist on extensive behavioral research, and perhaps some widget tests, they would have known whether the approach would be valid and whether the new product would be adopted and used.

There are thousands of examples of products and services that could have either been scrapped or saved if a Behavioral Strategist had been present during the planning phases. In almost all these cases, it would be impossible for a behavioral scientist, behavioral economist, or marketer to come in and save a product that had already been created. The real magic happens when behavioral knowledge is incorporated into the very fabric of new projects. Only then can it change the trajectory of companies and economies.

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