Experience Design, Design Research, Design Strategy, Technology, UI, UX

Design as a Tool for Behavioral Change

We’re generally stubborn creatures. Once we learn “the way things are done” we become entrenched in that behavioral pattern. Design thinking is a tool to zoom in on a specific interaction or moment in someone’s life and create a shift in the way people use a product or exist within an experience.

We’ll unpack some of the patterns within the human experience and look at design’s place in each of these three types of behaviors:

  • Localized behavior: actions taken at a specific moment in time
  • Habitualized behavior: actions taken over a period of time
  • Cultural behavior: actions of a collective group

Imagine you’re designing an object and you want to get someone to physically use that object in a specific way. For example:

Using a 4-inch square block of red, shapeable foam, persuade someone to interact with it—get them to pet it, squeeze it, throw it, shake it, or rip it.

There are infinite ways of designing an object that someone can crush, rotate, pinch, or otherwise interact with in a physical way.

How would you get someone to pet the square?
  • You could add a covering material that is soft, like fur or feathers.
  • Or you could create a sphere, embedded in a larger object like a trackball, so “petting” moves the ball back and forth.

This type of project uses persuasive interaction—identifying how to encourage a user to behave in a certain way at a very localized level. Product designers work with localized behavior—including interactions for both physical and digital products—by understanding how people are already behaving and working with those patterns in a way that feels natural and familiar. Take the “buttons” on a website or in the apps on a phone – the interface elements have shadows, line weight, sizes, colors, and proximity that are the digital equivalent of physical buttons that are already familiar.

Wayfinding signage, physical design of walls and spaces, handles on doors and light switches are all examples of localized behavior design: designing for interactions.

This form of behavioral design has immediate impact that is material and measurable. It’s relatively easy to conduct usability testing to ensure that designs help users rather than confuse or complicate processes.

Habitualized Behavior: Actions Taken Over a Period of Time

Habitualized behavior happens with regularity. So designing for this form of behavior needs to fit a product or service into the overall fabric of someone’s life.

If a company makes a new type of photo printer and gets millennials to buy it, they need to compete not just on price, features, availability, and so-on, but rather on understanding the existing habits of the user group. They need to design the product in a way that convinces users of the value of the new process over their current habits. Why print photos at all? How can a printer be more portable? Can a printer seamlessly integrate with social media? Can printers be sustainable by eliminating ink cartridges?

Actions based on entrenched patterns are often tied to our sense of self. And the emotional cost of changing a behavior and/or switching to a new product is high, so designing for habitualized behavior requires understanding not only what people currently do, but more importantly, why they do it.

Consider These Examples

Users want to:

  • Look or feel differently about their bodies—so they go to the gym.
  • Be around people with a similar aesthetic or lifestyle—so they go to a certain type of bar or event.
  • Show their belief in sustainability—so they buy a specific brand.
  • Feel connected to a community—so they follow a sports-team or go to church.

Designing to change habitualized behavior is a challenge, because of how much doing so is wrapped up the way people view themselves and the attachments those views create. Designing for changes to habitualized behavior requires considering the emotional drivers for people’s actions, how ingrained behaviors are, and how reluctant people are to try new things—particularly with technology.

In addition to understanding what people do and why they do it, designing to support or encourage habitualized behavior means understanding someone’s actual appetite for that change.

Often, commitment to behavioral change is determined by culturally accepted norms. A person may want to quit smoking, but if their smoke breaks are times to connect with coworkers, their commitment to change is probably small and the actions they’re willing to take to change their behavior are limited.

Over the past decade or so, some well-known tools were intended to change consumer behavior in meaningful ways, but they didn’t fit into intended users’ sense of self. Take the original Google Glass—it overly challenged our understanding of computing and privacy as well as aesthetics: it looked weird and made people feel uncomfortable and therefore initially failed. Segway might have been a positive force for behavior change by reducing driving, but the target audience associated them with groups of tourists rather than seeing an innovative solution to a real problem.

If users try to adopt a new product, but it doesn’t fit within their acceptance for localized or habitualized change in behavior, they will stay with products they know and trust and the new product will fail. Geoffrey Moore describes this as the inability to cross the “chasm” between early adopters and the early majority.

“Early Adopters (visionaries) are looking for breakthrough technology, and they are willing to pay well to be first with the new technology. The marketing strategies that win this group, however, won’t work so well for the up-and-coming Early Majority. These are pragmatists and risk averse.” – Medium review of Crossing the Chasm

Early adopters may buy a new product or service and use it once or twice and feel as though they received value for their purchase because they got to be part of experiencing something new. An early majority purchaser needs to see the product “succeed” fairly quickly, meaning that in order to commit to a product long enough to change their entrenched behavior, a new product needs to be simple to use and help users see the positive change in their lives in order to achieve ongoing success.

Product Adoption Gurve

Cultural Behavior: Actions of a Collective Group 

A cultural behavior is something collectively accepted as “the way things are.” This can be something as simple (and legally mandated) as driving on a certain side of the road, or emergent and constantly negotiated, such as how to interact with a phone in a public setting. Other cultural behaviors are driven by technological leaps, such as how GPS in a car or on a phone has changed the way we think about where we physically are.

How does design change cultural behaviors? Incrementally.

Compare the initial failure of Segway with the more recent success of public scooters, like Lime or Bird. Though there is still some ridicule, there is now wide market acceptance for an alternative form of transportation that isn’t too far off from Segway’s original intent. In order to make the leap, a few important cultural shifts had to happen.

These newer scooters have a very simple, and familiar, activation process. There is a clearly delineated cost/benefit relationship. To get started, all you need is the mobile device already in your hand. Simple. Moreover, shortly after Lime scooters appeared 2-5 other brands popped up overnight, meaning the likelihood of finding a nearby scooter anytime day or night is very high.

Additional cultural behaviors were changing between Segway’s unfortunate flop and the new scooter culture.

Thanks to Uber and Lyft, users became comfortable with getting cars on demand, through an app, and waiting several minutes for the ride instead of walking to the garage and driving away. This is especially true when traveling, and once the shift away from taxis while traveling occurred, the shift to using ride sharing at home became more common and acceptable.

At the same time, car sharing programs like Car2Go helped people in cities become comfortable with not owning a car, but sharing it. The nearest car might be a few blocks away, but compared with the need to pay for parking or car insurance, this was an acceptable inconvenience.

Once a culture became comfortable with riding in or driving a stranger’s car and giving up the convenience of immediate accessibility, considering a scooter such as Lime or a moped like Revel when traveling or avoiding long rush hour commutes was no longer a stretch.

Now, Segway is back with new models for the more accepting audience: an egg-shaped pod, electric kickscooter, electric moped, and larger electric Vespa-style scooter.

It is the aggregate of localized behavior change and habitualized behavior change that lead to this form of larger cultural evolution.

Google Glass is also seeing a second chance by shifting to using the technology in factories and warehouses—a smaller market segment, but a much more receptive one.

“With Glass, Google originally developed something with promising technology—and in its first effort at presenting it, failed to understand who could use it best and what it should be doing. Now the company has found a focus. Factories and warehouses will be Glass’s path to redemption.” – Steven Levy for Wired.

Microsoft is doing something similar with the HoloLens for “mixed reality,” which is also geared toward business rather than personal use.

The Intersection of Behavior and Design

Behavioral change includes shifting the things a person does at a specific moment, changing what a person does over time, and then shifting what the larger culture accepts and does.

The focus of most product and service design is on localized behavior. Habitualized behavior is addressed when digging deeper for a broader experience story, which includes strategic as well as tactical design.

Explicitly designing for cultural behavioral change is, by nature, an iterative process that is outside of one single person or company’s control because it exists at the intersection of design, innovation, and technology movements. It takes an astute observer of all of the parts of the human condition to see that behavior from within, rather than in retrospect.

This model of behavior is useful for framing what design strategists like Modernist do in product and service design, how we achieve it, and our expectations for impact. The model gives us a way to zoom in and out of work, and to see how immediate and detailed design work ultimately supports larger, more fundamental changes to the world we live in.