applying behavior design

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More and more products and services are designed around motivating users and incentivizing change. Products and services in finance, health and the environment, among other areas, are increasingly designed around influencing behavior. There are useful academic models and patterns for applying persuasion techniques. Now it’s time to understand how this is applied practically to our products and services. While understanding how powerful behavior design can influence people to be better, we will also discuss and illustrate how we design these products and services so that they serve the interest of customers, as well as meet business needs. As designers, the choices we make invariably influence users, and now we are harnessing what we know about designing around behavior to produce products and services that have a positive social impact on people’s lives. It’s time to move beyond just the concepts and theories and understand how to apply persuasive design responsibly.


Matching academic thinking on behavior and motivation with practical web projects. Where in my product/service do I effect behavior change? Where am I persuading users to change their behavior or motivating the user to use my product in a particular way? How do I balance customer/user value with business value (both implicitly and explicitly) and how transparent am I being about my techniques and constraints?

“We should look at what kind of impact people’s behavior should have on our designs.”

Behavior Design & Persuasive Technology

With the rise of social media (2009), the idea around influential technology also gained steamed. “Behavior is [the interaction designer’s] medium.” The design affects the perception of the system, therefore influences behavior.

Behavior design is designing for behavior change—designing with the intent to to change someone’s behavior or attitude.

Persuasive technology motivates a user to use the technology in a certain way.

BJ Fogg, Persuasive Technology. The Fogg Behavior Model.

Example story: You see news stories about a natural disaster. You see a call-to-action about Red Cross (Go to to donate money). You are moderately motivated by the tragedy, but it’s far away (not a local tragedy). Unfortunately, you have to get to a computer to donate (follow down an e-commerce financial filter), and remember to do so (in case you’re not next to one). High number of steps.

Versus 90999 text messaging allows you to have an ability (low) that matches your motivation (moderate) by sending a message to the number and having $10 debited to your phone bill. 30 seconds and you’re done.

Equivalents: The “add a dollar” at the checkout. The “round up to the nearest dollar” at point-of-purchase. “Opportune Moments”.

Not a new thing (especially in Marketing). Increasing motivation, reducing friction.

Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The Cialdini Six Weapons of Influence.

Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational; The Upside of Irrationality.


Data has an ability to tell a story. Interaction design gives us a feedback loop about the data (gather information). We can create a story out of the data to generate knowledge (data > information > knowledge). Especially when we engage with data visualization.

Example story: Think about your personal finances. First, you had to dig into your discrete check register. Then there were spreadsheets to do a lot of the heavy lifting (calculations). Then we got Quicken, and that created a feedback loop to visually tell a story about your behaviors (even though it was still a bit manually to get the data into the tool. Now we have Mint, where—once you give up access to your financial data accounts—the full story of our financial state is told automatically for us. Alternative example: that automatic feedback thermostat (Nest).

Gamification has gotten unfairly reduces to “badges” and “points”, but that’s still collecting data with a feedback loop about progress.

Product Ecosystem

Persuasion has ethical implications (much like Rhetoric), especially when attempting to persuade people to do something they do not (or would not normally) want to do. A usability expert’s perspective changes this into a positive balance between Utility and Persuasion.

Trialability: a persuasive technique where you are more likely to engage if you are able to first demo it. Trialability can at the same time aid understanding (customer value). Where a company’s best interests and a customer’s best interests can converge. How can we help people to go through a process (that ends up where we want them to be) with greater utility?

Where are we providing cognitive shortcuts that influence behavior? Are we starting the user out with “good defaults”? Did we choose opt-in or opt-out appropriately?

Usability v. Persuasion v. Awareness

The awareness by the user of your (the company) intent toward the user. Implicit transparency, progressive indicators that provide cognitive awareness of what is happening and why. The less awareness generated then more likely you are manipulating or deceiving the user.


Adding constraints to utility can influence the way users use a product.


Conversion (micro) v. Value Proposition (macro).

Research Metrics

Motivation. Knowledge (the user’s awareness/understanding of a product/service). Doubts and barriers (e.g., users have to be comfortable with the security of handing Mint their financial user account info). Map the spectrum of these qualitative metrics (e.g., don’t care, kindof care, really care). Get to the “thinking, feeling, and doing” part of the user’s journey throughout their use of your product (and the life that surrounds that use).

Behavior Heuristics

Determining the rules based on how user’s use a system. Looking at symptoms (and their causes) to find root causes. E.g., symptom: People will follow what other people do. Why do people trust what other people do? Previous track-record on recommendations, subject-matter experts are trusted (authority).

Design Principles

Principles cannot be too specific. They add context to what you’re doing, but you need to brainstorm specifics. Learn while doing. Suggestions, not choices (related to defaults, affected by credibility; how much can you guide your users?).


Monitoring a user’s journey through using a product/service. This adds context for interaction. Look for touchpoints, and connect them to research metrics. Look for opportunities for the kind of feedback loops that can be examined.


Here is Chris Risdon’s 2011 sxsw presentation Framing Behavior Design.

One reply on “applying behavior design”

  1. I suspect that the only way to effectively and efficiently effect behaviour change is to ascertain what motivates the individual and personalise the incentive.

    Mass-customisation in other words. Check out what’s happening in Wigan for more info.

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