What is Behavioral Design (also known as Behavior Design)?
Behavioral Design is the practice of influencing people to do a desired behavior using behavioral science research and methods.
Just as a product designer uses different tools, techniques, and principles to create a product, a behavioral designer uses science-backed tools, techniques, and principles to get people to change their behavior.
Behavioral Designers typically have an academic background in one of the following fields:
1. Persuasive Technology (also known as Captology)
Persuasive Technology is a subfield of study that emphasizes utilizing technological tools and systems to create digital environments that guide and encourage users to adopt specific attitudes or behaviors. It was developed by BJ Fogg of Stanford University.
2. Psychology or Behavioral Psychology
3. Behavioral Science
Behavioral Science is an interdisciplinary field that examines human and animal behavior through the integration of insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines, focusing on the interactions and relationships between individuals and their environment to predict, understand, and influence behaviors.
4. Human Computer Interaction (HCI)
Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is a multidisciplinary field that explores the design and use of computer technology, focusing on the interfaces between people and computers, and how to create intuitive, efficient, and user-friendly interactions that enhance user experience and satisfaction.
What does a Behavioral Designer do?
Behavioral Designers analyze products, marketing campaigns, and other things that are supposed to change behavior, and determine what the behavioral blockers are. Based on this analysis, Behavioral Designers make science-backed recommendations for how the product can be changed in order to drive the desired behavior.
Here are some things that Behavioral Designers do:
- Behavioral Analysis: Analyze an existing product, marketing campaign, or deliverable with a focus on how it will influence human behavior.
- Wireframes: Create wireframes of designs that are likely to solve behavioral issues and influence behavior.
- UI Design: Create high fidelity designs that appropriately incorporate behavioral science principles.
To accomplish these tasks, Behavioral Designers use field-specific methods (like Behavioral Auditing), but also draw heavily from other disciplines, like Design Thinking, UX research, UX design, and Human Computer Interaction (HCI).
Is Behavioral Design the same as UX Design?
The two fields overlap significantly, but they are different. Behavioral Design can be thought of as UX design enriched with behavioral science principles.
Behavioral Designers are more influenced by academic and scientific research compared to UX designers, who often have backgrounds in visual and product design. In this sense, you can view Behavioral Design as a scientifically informed form of UX Design.
However, Behavioral Designers also consult on non-product projects, such as marketing and HR initiatives.
How can you use behavioral design to build better products?
Behavioral Design is effective for improving existing products. However, it’s not the most effective discipline for building better products from the ground up. This role is best served by Behavioral Strategy, which should ideally precede Behavioral Design. Behavioral Strategy focuses on ensuring that products are built around the right behaviors, often referred to as “Behavior Market Fit.” If a product is built around behaviors that are sub-optimal or inappropriate for the target audience, it will likely fail, regardless of the quality of its UX or Behavioral Design.
If a project was initiated without a Behavioral Strategy, it’s often necessary to start from scratch, undergoing a comprehensive Behavioral Strategy process.
Why should project and product managers care about behavioral science?
A product is only as successful as its ability to change or harness behavior. If people don’t use a product, it might as well not exist.
If a product is built based on an accurate understanding of human behavior, it is far more likely to succeed than one that isn’t. Thus, behavioral science research should inform all product decisions—especially strategic ones.
This is why Behavioral Design is gaining traction among professionals in project and product management. The insights this field offers into human behavior are increasingly becoming prerequisites for achieving conversion, engagement, and retention.
Behavioral Design is about understanding human behavior
Understanding human behavior is essential for effective behavior change. Over the years, the field of Behavioral Design has developed its own models to help practitioners quickly understand the behavioral issues in any given product or situation.
What are the 4 behavior models?
This is the original Behavior Design model, created by the founder of the field and founder of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab. It breaks behavior down into three components.
This model has eight components and is tailored for more advanced practitioners. It includes cognitive and personality elements not present in the Fogg Behavior Model.
The Hooked Model
This model was created by one of BJ Fogg’s bootcamp students, Nir Eyal. It attempts to create a model that explains why some products become habit forming while others don’t. However, this model has a variety of problems and is not supported by scientific research.
This framework focuses on three key elements—Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation. Though it offers insights into how behaviors form and can be influenced, it’s generally too high-level and simplistic for practical application.
By utilizing these models, Behavioral Designers can identify the factors that may be inhibiting the desired user behavior for a specific product or project. Once these issues are understood, it becomes possible to develop solutions for each. These solutions can range from simple design tweaks to innovative approaches that require deeper thought and execution.
Behavioral Designers conduct research and change user behavior
Before creating behavior design interventions, it’s necessary to undergo a research process to understand the behavioral and psychological dynamics at play.
During the research phase, the goal is to better understand:
- What users think
- Other behaviors users are engaging in
- What’s easy and challenging for users
- Users’ concerns and goals
There are various types of research studies that Behavioral Designers can employ, many borrowed from UX research, including:
- User interviewing
- Journey Mapping
- Task analysis
- Cognitive mapping
- Experience mapping
- Tree testing
- Card Sorting
- Diary Study
What are examples of Behavioral Design patterns?
In the UX design world, design patterns are routinely employed. These are established ways of constructing elements of the user interface that users will find familiar. Using design patterns ensures that the product is user-friendly. There’s no need to further complicate matters by inventing new, non-standard UI elements that will likely confuse users.
In contrast, design patterns are less applicable in Behavioral Design. A quick way to assess the competency of a Behavioral Designer is to ask about their favorite Behavioral Design tactics or patterns. Skepticism is warranted if they provide an answer, as behavior change is context, user group, and situation-specific; there are virtually no “one-size-fits-all” approaches. The closest approximations to universal tactics are Simplicity and Social Proof/Pressure.
The term ‘Simplicity’ signifies good usability or UX, but it is sometimes erroneously presented as unique to Behavioral Design. All materials related to the behavior in question should be simple and easy to understand. For example, a 20-field signup form should be as short as necessary. This is just good UX practice, not unique to Behavioral Design.
Social proof / pressure
Social proof or pressure can influence behavior, as we are inherently social beings. However, invoking social norms or pressures often relies on the false premise that “most people are doing it,” which is generally not the case if a Behavioral Designer has been hired. Moreover, this tactic mainly influences those uncertain about their choices, constituting only a fraction of the target population.
What are examples of Behavioral Design?
There are plenty of great examples of real-world Behavioral Design. Here are a couple of well known, public examples:
The Walmart Behavioral Science Unit
The Walmart Behavioral Science Team applied Behavioral Strategy and Behavioral Design to address large problems across the company, such as checkout design, online engagement, customer retention, and new store innovation. Their work on improving the Sam’s Club new member experience and the initiative known as “Sam’s Now” is well-documented and widely recognized.
Health behavior change at Humana
BJ Fogg and Jason Hreha collaborated with Humana to create the behavior change framework presented at the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos. This foundational work taught the company how to think about behavior change and how to apply Behavioral Design to their various business initiatives.
What are the ethics of Behavioral Design?
In general, people only do what they want to do. Unless extreme fear and social pressure are used, which is exceedingly uncommon, people will engage in actions they desire. What do people desire? They desire things that will make them feel good and improve their lives. This is why most of the world’s most valuable technology companies are building utilities: tools that solve recurring problems. For example:
Google provides answers to people’s questions and helps them find resources.
Airbnb offers reasonably priced and unique places to stay.
Apple designs computers and phones that solve daily problems like navigation and communication.
Intuit develops software for financial planning and tax submission.
Meta (Facebook) enables people to keep in touch with friends and family.
Microsoft offers software that people can use to run their computers and companies.
Unethical Behavioral Design “hacks” are ineffective
As I’ve written before, things like “nudges” are woefully ineffective. It is not easy to change human behavior, and there are no effective hacks that will get people to do things that are against their interests (outside of extreme coercion, extreme fear mongering, etc.). Things like loss aversion framing, while useful in some circumstances, tend to not make a big difference in behavior or decision making in the real world.
It seems as if people who have the least experience in this field make the biggest issue out of potential ethical concerns. Fortunately, the “behavioral hacks” that concern many of these people are ineffective in the real world. In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to get people to sustainably do things they don’t want to do. Thus, I believe that Behavioral Design is all about helping people do the things they want to do but struggle with. This is an ethical and valid practice.
How do you start a career in Behavioral Design?
The best way to start a career in behavioral design is by learning one of the following:
- User Interface (UI) design
- User Experience (UX) design
- Data science
- Development (computer programming)
Behavioral Design insights and tools are most useful when applied by core members of the product design and development team.
An academic background in the behavioral sciences is not necessary to be a good behavioral designer. In fact, an academic background in the behavioral sciences might be a liability. The behavioral sciences in general (and social psychology and behavioral economics in particular), have been in the middle of a large replication crisis. This means that a significant portion of the studies in these fields cannot be reproduced. A safe estimate is that 50% of the research in these fields is reliable.
What about Behavioral Design and product management?
Both product management and project management can benefit from an understanding of human behavior. While project management focuses on the logistics and timelines, product management zeroes in on the user’s needs and desires, aiming to guide users toward specific behaviors.
In the realm of Behavioral Design, taking a systematic approach is crucial for crafting effective interventions. Project management serves as a helpful tool in this process, enabling teams to organize tasks and timelines efficiently as they create solutions designed to influence user behavior. This same structured approach can be beneficial for product managers as they develop design interventions tailored to influence user actions and encourage behavior change.
Looking to work with a Behavioral Designer (or Behavioral Strategist)?
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If you know that you’d like to get Behavioral Design or Behavioral Strategy help, you can learn more about working with me here.