A checklist for behavioral design

May 31 2021

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I originally published this article on Medium. Its a summary of things I've learned over the past year about behavioral design.

💼 Align the business and the users' goals.

  • Behavioral design is more ethical, and more effective, if you help people achieve goals and fulfill jobs they already have. If your projects aim only to steal users' time, money or attention, stop here.
  • Make sure your goal is measurable so you can learn with confidence and trust the results. "Educate customers about X" is not measurable, "Customers that see Education piece do X more frequently” is.

🔎 Understand people's journey and context.

  • There's rarely a "big" decision in behavior change.
    Deciding to sign up for a product, subscribe to a paid membership, or create a new habit are all human stories that begin way before the checkout screen. Be curious, look closely at the small steps.

  • Don't get distracted by copying other “gamified” apps.
    Most teams mindlessly replicate popular patterns without understanding their customers first. This results in adding meaningless tutorials, badges, points, and leaderboards. You don’t know what motivates your competitor’s customers, and you also don’t know if their experiments are succeeding or failing.

  • Educating customers can also be a distraction.
    Most users downloaded and signed up to your product because they know what it does, and they want the promise it makes to their lives. Your job is to fulfill that promise quickly, not educate people about it.

🏙 Explore Scope and Scale

At which scale could your service promote behavior to change?

  • Individual: Help people change take action for their own benefit.
  • Community: Help families, friends, groups create better habits and norms together.
  • Organization: Help teams improve how they work and deliver.
  • Societal: Help people improve how they coexist.

🤖 Explore role of technology

What role will your service play in the persons’ life?

  • Tool: It augments ability or makes accomplishing a task easier.
  • Media: It is consumed in order to change their understanding and mental models.
  • Social actor: It creates an evolving relationship with the customer, talks to them, becomes an active assistant.

🔥 Explore Motivation

  • Meaning and Calling: Are the users motivated by something larger than themselves? What is the why story behind the product or behavior? What impact they hope to have in the world?
  • Social influence and acceptance: Are users motivated by the desire to fit in, be loved and respected? Do they care about external judgement?
  • Commitment contracts: Have people made a public promise about this goal?
  • Competition Are people willing to compete with each other, create teams or hierarchy around the behavior?
  • Scarcity and Impatience: Are people trying to get something which is rare or that isn’t available very often?
  • Loss aversion: If people neglect to take action, will they lose something that is important to them?
  • Empowerment and creativity: Can you develop ways for people to express and celebrate their identities while achieving this goal? Is the experience customizable and shareable?
  • Growth and development: Do people feel like they are learning or improving in a domain that's important to them? Is the learning curve too hard, or too boring?
  • Ownership and Possession Are people driven by accumulating, collecting, or owning any aspect of your service?
  • Unpredictability & Curiosity Is the system too predictable, or does it surprise and delight the customer? See also “variable rewards”.
  • Motivation timing: When is the user most motivated to take this action? Any important daily, weekly, yearly milestones?

💪 Explore Ability and effort

  • Accessibility: Have you considered that customers might have disabilities that make it hard or impossible to take the action? What about people with restricted access to technology?
  • Money: How can you reduce the upfront monetary cost of taking the action? Can they pay later?
  • Time: Have you considered that people might be on the train, on a rush, when you try to remind them about something? Can they snooze the action, save a draft, come back to it later? Can you make it faster by skipping unnecessary steps?
  • Physical effort: Do people have to get out of their way to achieve something? Can you bring the equipment closer or make it more convenient?
  • Cognitive effort: Have you done usability testing to ensure people can get easily through the task? Are things written in their language, or your internal jargon?
  • Self efficacy: Can you make the user more confident that they can complete the task? Can you break down a big goal into smaller, easier to do steps?
  • Automation: Is it possible to automate steps and do them for the user?
  • Ability timing: When is it easier for the user to take this action? Any important daily, weekly, yearly milestones?

⏰ Explore Triggers and cues

  • Don't forget to tell the user what the action is. Sometimes we get fooled by thinking our product is so important, that customers are constantly thinking about it. It is not. If your customer is likely to forget to take an action they desire, remind them — don't spam.
  • Triggers compete for attention. Analyze the person’s environment and timing to reduce the likelihood of other distractions.
  • Triggers can be external or internal: People start by relying on external triggers, and slowly adopt internal, biological ones that prompt habitual actions.
  • Facilitators: These are triggers that not only remind you, but make something easier to do. Bring a button closer, use affordances, bridge between two distant steps.
  • Motivators: These are triggers that not only remind you, but make you feel energized and motivated about the action.

⚡️ Explore Unconscious Reactions

Most daily actions are governed by System 1 in our brains. Investigate how this might be affecting your customer’s decision making:

  • Is the product familiar enough? Can users trust your product by the way it demonstrates authority, humor and authenticity? Is it too friendly, or too robotic?
  • Visual design: Does the design match the user’s expectations for this experience? Note: Products that are too refined or polished also might put off certain users.
  • Social status: Do users worry about what other people might think about them engaging with your product?
  • Can you deploy Social Proof to immediately earn people’s trust based on other people’s experiences?
  • Can you compare people to their peers in a way that increases their motivation to act?
  • Craft a memorable first experience so people are more willing to act next time.
  • Narrate the past, reminding people of previous successes and accomplishments with this same action.
  • Use Endowed Progress Effect to help people feel like they’re already making progress in the task.
  • Make direct comparisons showing that your solution is better than what they are already doing. But do so in their language.

🧮 Explore Conscious Evaluation

If System 1 gives time for System 2 to consciously consider options:

  • Help customers compare: Are you helping the user make a choice, if they need to weigh the pros and cons of your solution versus the competition?
  • Help customers understand long-term consequences: People are terrible at making short-term long-term tradeoffs. Can you make the future concrete in the present so they make a better choice? Some life milestones make this reflection easier (graduation, first job, wedding, etc.)
  • Use their language Ask customers how they would explain your service to a friend, and use their language to facilitate comprehension and comparison.

🥇 Explore Rewards

  • Build on intrinsic rewards: Good products understand people’s intrinsic motivations, and build on them with extrinsic ones. For example: People have intrinsic motivations to exercise. FitBit’s system creates extrinsic points and goals that support the existing ones.
  • Avoid direct payments: Moving too early to direct rewards like money can blind your customers to free, intrinsic motivators.
  • Bring the reward into the present If the reward is too far into the future (eg. Better health, retirement), create smaller rewards that are faster to get and feel good about.
  • Variable rewards are more engaging: People get “hooked” when they don’t know exactly what they’ll win by doing an action. Make it fun and variable.
  • Badges: Should be symbols that represent real accomplishments the user cares about. Don’t give badges if there was no intention, effort, and real development involved.
  • Points: If you add points to a system, you are creating a currency. Maintaining and keeping a new currency balanced is hard work, so make sure you’re up to support it going forward.
  • Leaderboards: New people coming into a system with 0 points might get demotivated by how many points the top players have. Make sure comparisons like these are between peers that feel they can beat each other, not between people in the extremes.

🔬 Be scientific

  • Ensure your experiment is measurable: If you're a designer, get familiar enough about statistics and humble enough to learn from your designs whatever the outcome is. Make data friends.
  • Pre-register: Know what the decision will be if the experiment proves or disproves the hypothesis.
  • Document and share results: Help advance the knowledge within your company and if possible publish publicly to the world.

🤝 Be ethical

  • Start from user understanding: Talk to your customers and make sure you’re supporting something that is important in their lives. Don’t assume, don’t patronize.
  • Create a culture where failure is celebrated: Be mindful of incentives that only rewards success. Learning that you were wrong is awesome.
  • Align incentives: Does your experiment benefit the user, the company, or yourself?
  • Front-page headline test: If a big media outlet published a story about this project tomorrow, would you be proud of ashamed of being part of it?
  • Family test: Would you apply this experiment in an app your children use every day? Or your mom?
  • Check your own biases: We are subject to the same biases our customers are, and can unconsciously manipulate our own design process.
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Lucas Neumann
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