23 November
7 min read

Behavioral Design: The Shortcut to Creating Digital Products That Stick

Even products with impeccable UX often fail to get traction with their target audience. Let's talk about how behavioral design may change how we create things. For good.
by AndrewEditorial Team at Lucky Duck
girl making notes in front of a laptop

With the abundance of information about creating a flawless user experience available, why do so many products still fail?

And we’re not talking about Shark Tank flops or startup incubators churn-out drills.

Turns out having the brightest minds and almost unlimited funding is not a guarantee of successful adoption either — such was the story of Google Glasses, Segway, and Microsoft Kin (I bet half of you had to google that last one.)

Why? Because changing human behavior is not an easy task.

And even if your product sports the latest UX/UI patterns, performed greatly during user testing sessions, and united a group of experienced developers behind the curtains, there’s no guarantee that people will want to make it part of their lives.

That’s why behavioral design, a field that studies human behavior patterns and the way of altering them, is rapidly gaining momentum among the progressive UX leaders around the world.

In this article, we’ll cover what behavioral design is, its applications, and the future of behavioral design in the design industry.

What Is Behavioral Design?

Behavioral design is a process of designing new behavior or changing existing behavior by applying principles and insights from the field of behavioral economics.

In a way, a person is a combination of their behaviors, and not all of these behaviors are beneficial for us. Unfortunately, changing any behavior is not an easy feat.

By now we all know that eating junk food is bad for our health and exercising is good. But that knowledge alone is not enough to make us get out of bed in the morning and run a couple of miles in the fresh air.

What is Behavioral Design?

Given that behavioral economics studies the effects of emotional, cultural, cognitive, and social factors on human behavior, behavioral designers can analyze any behavior-related challenge from multiple angles and alter human behavior on a deeper level and wider scale.

Why Digital Behavioral Design Is Important?

Here are the three main reasons why behavioral design is so essential in our fast-paced digital world:

  • Behavioral design helps transform negative behaviors. Whether we’re talking about people safely driving their cars, sorting out trash, or spending less time in a stressful environment, behavioral design can be used to improve people’s lives on a scale.

  • Behavioral design helps create products that are easier to adapt. Among other things, behavioral designers identify obstacles for better product adoption, healing creating products that are easier to adopt and use.

  • Behavioral design raises responsibility for creating behavior-altering products. Altering human behavior is one bad intention away from manipulation. Unfortunately, this issue is still poorly regulated, especially in a digital environment. With the development of behavioral design, we’ll learn more about the prolonged effects of digital products on our lives and how to balance these.

How Behavioral Design Can Be Used In Creating Digital Products?

When it comes to the development of a new product or updating the existing one, the main areas of focus are typically conversion rate, revenue per customer, and user experience.

In other words, as long as people are using the product and willing to pay for it, it’s fine.

Sadly, this approach accounts for neither prolonged effects on people’s lives when using a product, nor the effects it has in combination with other digital products a person uses. Simply put, the context of usage and its repercussions are often an afterthought.

Behavioral design discipline urges designers to look for both context and effects of products of people.

Here are some of the key benefits behavioral design can bring to your digital products:

  • Identify obstacles to product adoption

  • Analyse short-term and long-term effects your product has on your customers

  • Develop more actionable behavioral personas rather than more generic user or customer personas

Difference Between Behavioral Design and UX Design

Here’s how the difference between behavioral design and UX design can be described:

  • UX is a vaguely described term. UX term loses its scientific origin in favor of empirical data and trends. Depending on its definition, user experience design can either include behavioral design as its sub-topic or be included as one itself. Behavioral design has strong roots in economic science and thus a more rigid definition.

  • UX design focuses on a user-product feedback loop. Behavioral design focuses on implications and behaviors that may go out of the scope of a single product.

  • Behavior design is easier to scale. If we’re tackling a world-scale problem, such as
    global climate change, behavioral design can encompass a wide range of behaviors associated with it, whereas UX design will be more focused on individual solutions.

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The Process Of Behavioral Design

There are several ways to organize the behavioral design process, and in this article, we’ll use the one Stephen Wendel uses in his book “Designing for Behavior Change”.

The process consists of these four stages:

  1. Understand. First, behavioral designers should understand the underlying behavioral mechanisms that support or hinder behavior change such as habit loops, mechanisms of motivation, neurochemistry, and economical theory.

  2. Discover. At this stage, designers should aim to discover what exactly the company (or other institutions) want to accomplish with the product. The goals might start as highly vague, such as “make people happier” and then gradually be specified. At this stage designers also create a context for behavior and identify potential obstacles.

  3. Design. This stage includes both ideation and design of the product and correlates with many existing user experience design practices.

  4. Refine. Just like the design thinking process, behavioral design is cyclic, and all four stages are iterated until the desired outcome is achieved.

Considerations Of Behavior Design

  • Ethical considerations. Changing human behavior, however small, can have long-lasting effects on both individual lives and society as a whole. Behavioral design ethics and regulations should be developed at the same pace as the field itself.

  • The potential vagueness of the term. Behavioral design is deeply rooted in scientific findings, but the term might follow the same fate as UX design and with a certain degree of popularity become all-encompassing and ultimately lose its original meaning.

  • Dynamic cultural context. Behavioral design dives deep into current societal and cultural context as both have a major impact on our behaviors. With that said, both contexts are quickly changing with both technological advancements (e.g. self-driving cars are changing our driving patterns and responsibility patterns) and global events (e.g. the recent pandemic, transition to an electronic election, etc.) and may both complicate behavioral designers job, ut also make it much more impactful and crucial.

The Future Of Behavioral Design

As soon as designers and managers realized the impact of usability and aesthetics on business KPIs, the field of user experience boomed.

And with that the number of digital tools and services for every facet of our lives.

It’s time, however, to realize the impact that such a wide number of digital tools have on us and our society.

Fortunately, behavioral design also provides financial benefits for businesses, improving user adoption rates, retention rates, and maybe even virality of new products.

Hopefully, this will help organizations to adopt the new field faster, and, in turn, improve the many effects of the digital environment on our lives.

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