It’s a known fact that products have a large influence on users’ behaviour and their behavioural decisions. From safety to sustainability, designers play a role in what products enter the world and how people interact with them. This has been long recognized in the profession and so efforts have been made to ensure the products designers create promote positive outcomes. One strategy developed is Designing For behaviour Change, whilst it is still an evolving field of design the goal is to drive development of products that encourage positive change through understanding user behaviour. However, this design practice does have ethical implications as it involves shaping people’s choices and behaviour and there is potential for these strategies to be used to shape people behaviour in ways that do not align with their best interests. In this post we are going to explore the field of Design for Behaviour Change, what it involves, the main strategies used and how to use them in an ethical manner.
What is Design for Behaviour Change?
Design for Behaviour Change is a sub field of design that aims to understand users through behavioural theory and using behaviour changing strategies to steer people towards a positive change in their life. By leveraging design principles, phycology, and technology you can modify human behaviour and habits to push a desired outcome from promoting healthier lifestyles to promoting sustainable behaviour. The typical Design for Behaviour Change process is as follows:
Forming an understanding of the users’ actions in context.
Making an informed selection of a behavioural issue.
Selecting one or multiple behaviour changing strategies.
Developing an appropriate behavioural changing design solution.
Evaluating the effectiveness of the behaviour changing solution against the specified behaviour issue.
Whilst not an explicit step on its own, consideration to the potential ethical issue that could arise should be given throughout the process.
There are a few Design for Behaviour Change strategies that can be used and whilst names can vary they all sit on an axis of influence where at one end the user has all the power in decision making and at the other the designer has all the power in decision making.
Feedback is one of the most common behaviour change strategies. The power of decision making remains entirely with the user, you do not force or push any change it simply involves feedback that “recommends” a certain way of doing things to the user. It involves providing information about user’s actions, progress, and the consequences of their choices. For example, Phones giving notifications showing your screen time and how much its changing from previous weeks to try encouraging people to reduce the time they spend on their phones. Effective feedback systems should:
Be Timely: Deliver information when it is most relevant to the user's actions.
Be Constructive: Instead of just highlighting mistakes, provide guidance on how to improve.
Motivate: Use positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors.
Behaviour steering involves scripting the affordances and constraints of a design to control how the user interacts with it but without forcing action (Liley, 2017). Essentially by changing the context in which people make decisions you can use environmental cues to steer people towards a desired outcome, but nothing is forced, so the users still have some power in decision making. Some techniques you can use are:
Choice Architecture: This involves gently pushing users towards making preferred choices through organizing the options available in a way that makes it easier and more convenient to make this preferred choice. For example, a single use coffee cup bin where the sections have openings that are shaped like their corresponding part. It would be more effort to shove the cup through the opening for the lid than it would to just put them through the correct openings.
Defaults: Setting the default options of a product to line up with the desired behaviours. For example, making the default setting on a car eco mode to promote sustainability.
Persuasive technology uses computer products, persuasive products & coercive strategies to force a certain action. It is often, but not always, unknown to the user and is used to remove the user’s decision process to ensure change (Lilley, 2017). This strategy essentially takes away the decision making from the user and ensures the desired outcome. Some examples of persuasive technology being used for good are speed bumps that force you to slow down, windows that automatically open on a hot day to regulate the rooms temperature or taps that only stay on for a specific amount of time to reduce water waste.
Preventative Measures: Remove the ability to use the product you’re designing in a way that is not intended. For example, child proof lids on medicine bottle prevent children from opening them. This is a good example of how persuasive technology can be used in an ethical way as the potential danger of a child ingesting too much medicine, justifies the removal of their ability to decide on opening that medicine bottle.
Technology: you can use technology to limit the available options. For example, many cars come with speed limiters that prevent you from driving at dangerous speeds.
Gamification involves adding game mechanics to non-gaming applications to improve the user experience and user engagement (Deterding et al., 2011). By making a normally tedious process more enjoyable through adding gaming elements and rewards you can increase users’ motivation for performing certain tasks. For example, coffee shops could allow users to earn points from properly recycling single use coffee cups that they can save up to earn a free drink. When using gamification, you should provide:
Clear Goals: Ensure users understand the objectives and rewards associated with the gamified experience.
Progress Tracking: Show users their progress, helping them stay motivated.
Fair Competition: Ensure a level playing field without unfair advantages, fostering a sense of achievement.
Whenever you are pushing users towards a certain outcome you must consider the ethics of what you are doing. Design for Behaviour Change should only be used to promote positive outcomes that benefit the user. It is also important to consider the strategy that you use. By evaluating the severity of the behaviour you are trying to change, you can choose a strategy with the appropriate amount of influence. For example, if there is potential for injury if a user uses a product wrong, then simply using feedback to recommend they don’t do it is not enough, you should incorporate a preventative measure to stop people using it wrong. Whereas using persuasive technology to prevent people driving a car between certain times would be too extreme and instead would justify using feedback to inform people on the environmental benefits of using their car less often. Behaviour steering offers a middle ground for when you need a little more influence over users’ behaviour than feedback can provide, but removing the user’s choice completely is not justified. To give a couple examples of behaviour changing strategies being used in ways that could be considered unethical are online gambling being made into games to make it more addictive or companies increasing prices and then putting them on sale to give people the elusion of them saving money.
Design for Behaviour change is a powerful tool for shaping the way humans interact with products and pushing for positive outcomes. By employing strategies like feedback, behavior steering, persuasive technology, and gamification, designers can create products and systems that are more engaging, safe, and sustainable. However, ethics should always be a key consideration in these efforts, ensuring that the well-being of the users remain a top priority and that any outcomes you are pushing for are positive and in the best interest of the users. In the end users should come away from using a product designed using behaviour change strategies feeling motivated and encouraged that they are exhibiting positive change.