Origination vs. Optimization... and where behavioral science fits

Today I was on Jeni Herberger's podcast, The Design Story.

I’ll send it out when it’s published.

But I want to tell you about something we talked about:

The two types of design.

You see, I think you can break design down into two phases/types:

  1. Zero to One design
  2. One to 1.1 design

In different words:

  1. Origination
  2. Optimization

And the role of behavioral science is quite different for each of these phases.

In the origination phase, I’ve found that it can actually hurt to be overly analytical and research focused.

However, the optimization phase is much more amenable to the strict application of behavioral science study A or finding B.

Let me give you an example.

Pretend for a moment that you’re in the process of building out an on-demand food app. You don’t know what to do… but you’re a behavioral science person, so you decide to wrack your brain for some research that might help you.

You remember that people have a hard time choosing amongst a bunch of options (the paradox of choice) and are actually less happy with their decisions after choosing from a wide selection. Awesome!

And you know that people are more likely to say yes or make a purchase after they’re given a gift (reciprocity, yo!) or if they’re presented with something scarce (only 10 left!).

Any ideas pop into your mind? What kind of experiences and product visions are coming into your head?

If you’re like most people, not a whole lot of stuff is flooding through your mind at the moment. The first behavioral science finding is probably giving you the idea of having a limited menu, and the others are probably making you think about giving new customers a free meal, coupon, or something… or the idea of only having a limited quantity of food items available each day (get it while it lasts!).

OK… so what does the experience look like? What do people see? How do they sign up? What’s the core mechanic in the app? Is it like Uber, with one food option and a “get food now!” button? Or is it like a traditional ecommerce experience with a bunch of options and a cart?

As you can see, each of the above behavioral scientific findings presents a nice constraint for your designs (or hints at a specific feature)… but none of them provide you with a holistic vision of what the experience should look and feel like.

To come up with a holistic, unique vision of what a great experience would be, you have to let your creative mind run wild. You have to look up into your brain and just daydream for a bit.

You have to conjure up ghostly images of screens, icons, and people tapping way at your ethereal mental machinations.

“Oh… no. That experience feels & seems weird… Next. OH! This one is kind of cool, let me write that one down.”

Our minds are incredibly powerful and complex. They’re master remixers, mashing together thoughts and past experiences together into unique new combinations.

You can go from having an empty head to one filled with video after video of novel product concepts in an instant.

It’s in this holistic state of mind that I’ve found the best zero to one design occurs.

If you’ve been studying this stuff for awhile, your ideas will be naturally influenced by concepts you already know well (like the paradox of choice, reciprocity, scarcity, etc.). They’ll be ingredients in the creative soup… but they won’t necessarily be the core focus of the soup.

Some scarcity garnish here… a hint of reciprocity here… and so on.

In my experience, that’s the best way to go from zero to 1. It’s all about massive amounts of brainstorming (and subsequent idea-culling, which behavioral science findings and models can really help you with—“That idea violates principle A, B, and C” etc). It's less about grabbing a bunch of scientific findings and gluing them together to form something that resembles a product.

For optimization, though, the explicit use of behavioral science findings can really help. After you already have a v1.0 and some data, you can easily bust out specific tricks and findings to fix obvious shortcomings in your product.

People aren’t using their referral credits? Apply some scarcity—cause them to disappear after 14 days.

People are coming to the purchase screen and then dropping off? Perhaps it’s because you have too many options. Run a test to see if the conversion rate on that screen improves if you cut the options down to a set of 5.

No one is signing up for your newsletter? Create a gift that you’ll give them in exchange for their email. Reciprocity.

Tweak away. Optimize. Go from v1.0 to v1.1.

Anyways, Jeni and I had a long and fun conversation about this that I can’t wait to share with y’all.

Until tomorrow,


Jason Hreha