Design away those bad habits

By Leslie Ziegler

“Trigger the right sequence of baby steps”
– BJ Fogg on the holy grail of behavior change

The right incentive can be the difference between losing 15 lbs and indulging in the whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s hiding in the back of the freezer. Running into your ex at your high school reunion? Great motivation to stay away. Upcoming vacation to Cabo sure to be followed by tagged Facebook photos galore? Same. Just trying to live a healthier life, without a tangible impetus to do so? Much harder.

Designing features that align and tap into long term user behaviors is one of the toughest pieces of building a product. And nowhere is this more critical than in the health space. New apps like Nexercise, which allows users to track fitness activities then earn points for accomplishments, offer real world products like gift cards and coupons for good and consistent behavior. While prizing is great, it isn’t a habit changer. So what is?

I sat down with Steph Habif, a PhD working in Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab alongside BJ Fogg, to chat about her speciality, which just so happens to be behavior design, in the context of technology and building products that can potentially penetrate people’s lives and make them better.

How do you personally define behavior design?

It’s a blend of psychology and technology, providing a methodology for creating effective systems to change human behavior. It’s a systematic way to influence a desired behavior, one step at a time. In my case, it means using behavior design to optimize health behavior change.

What resources exist for technologists and those just dipping into behavior design who can’t afford access to an expert?

The Persuasive Tech Lab website has a ton of resources for effective persuasive technology & behavior design, but otherwise there isn’t much out there.

Any advice to technologists building products in health?

Design for behaviors, not technology. Design for easy simplicity. Not only simple UI/UX, but simplify the number of features. Test quickly, iterate quicker, and keep what works.

Sounds a bit like the lean startup methodology, no? Iterate, iterate, then iterate some more, fail faster…. you get the point. And make the steps simple; behavior change begins with a single daily decision to improve or change to meet your goal. So while most startups can’t afford to contract a behavioral specialist, at least not before raising a round, you can still learn to think like one. The below outlines both the thought process and the specific ways to break down a specific behavior.

Thought process of behavior designers

  1. 1. Focus exclusively on behaviors as target outcomes
  2. 2. See the three forces that lead to a behavior: motivation, ability, triggers
  3. 3. Take a systematic view of behavior types (not all behaviors are the same)
  4. 4. Focus on behavior relationships — sequences, shaping, contingencies, domino actions
  5. 5. Recognize patterns of behavior creation

Methods of behavior designers

  1. A. Break big behaviors into smaller target behaviors
  2. B. Prioritize target behaviors (impact analysis)
  3. C. Match successful patterns to new target behaviors
  4. D. Map multiple solution options for target behaviors
  5. E. Test and measure solution options quickly (mini-science)
  6. F. Adapt intervention based on test results

Want more behavior-related reading? Here are a few of our favorite links:
Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab Resources
Habit Labs blog
Hear it on Steph Habif’s blog