Design Tools 2: Basics of Behavior Change
Whether you a designing a product or service, your end goal is some sort of behavior change, also known as getting someone to do something: “Use my product instead of something else”, or “do this instead of that” are the essential goals you’re trying to achieve. The same thing applies to public policy: “how do you get someone to do one thing instead of another?” To be successful, you must address behavioral issues that tie into your creation. So then, what are the core elements of designing for behavior change? That is, for getting someone to do something?
The most familiar example to everyone is of Pavlov and his dogs: “Ring a bell and I’ll salivate”, sing the Barenaked Ladies (a Canadian alt-rock band), showing the assimilation of Pavlovian conditioning in society. More formally known as Operant Conditioning or Classical Conditioning (1), it is a design tool that ties one behavior to another: Pavlov’s famous experiment ran along the lines of that he would ring a bell and bring out a treat for a dog; eventually, the dog began to associate the bell’s ring with the treat and would salivate at the sound of a bell instead of at the treat itself. This sort of behavioral change tool is effective in that it ties a trigger with a behavior and creates a system where you can trigger behaviors and expectations. Laws and rules, in various degrees of efficiency, condition you to expect something as a result of something else.
2. Motivation vs. Ability
More applicable to the realm of design is B. J. Fogg and his new model of behavior change (2). Simply put, the model measures Motivation against Ability, and add a trigger to surpass a certain behavior activation threshold. Here’s the basic graph, from his website (permission pending):
In somewhat simpler terms, what this model means is that you have three essential parts to behavior change: motivation, ability, and some sort of trigger. Motivation is how much you want to do something: everything from sensations (pleasure vs. pain), to anticipations (hope/fear), to social belonging (acceptance/rejection) dictate motivations. Ability is how easy it is for you to do something: do you have the time, money, or effort? Is the action socially deviant/divergent or routine/non-routine?. A trigger is something that raises either your motivation or your ability at some moment. If you have a lot of motivation and no ability (ie: buying a Ferrari: you want one, but can’t afford it), then it won’t happen. If you have low motivation but a lot of ability (ie: you are physically strong but you don’t want to move crates around for a living), then you probably won’t do it either.
Triggers, present in both classical conditioning and in B. J. Fogg’s model, are just about everything from some sort of stimulus, to advertising, to just about the service or the product itself– or, in one way or another, they are all of that and more. Triggers are the points that push you over the edge from not doing something to doing something, or vice versa. Triggers can either raise your ability or raise your motivation, or force some sort of response out of you.
The Pavlovian trigger is that which you associate with something else and so you respond to it: case being that after conditioning, a ringing bell will trigger the same sort of response in a dog as a steak, by a process of association. The Fogg trigger works to make you the curve of your behaviors cross the activation threshold, aka raise your ability or your motivation far enough (or make it low enough) to influence you to do something (like, a sale being a trigger for you to buy something by methods of flashy advertisements raising your motivation and lowering the price to target your ability). A product can also be the trigger itself: something like Facebook’s instant updates gives you instant email updates which both inform you of what’s happening relative to you online, and distracting/encouraging you to log back in to Facebook to respond to that activity.
Triggers can also be hot and cold triggers: a hot trigger is something that affects you immediately: someone yelling at you, or asking you if you want a paper/plastic for your groceries, or a roadblock. A cold trigger is something that affects you indirectly: a billboard you drive by on the highway or a coupon sent in the mail. A hot trigger forces an immediate response (and hence is more effective in getting something done), while a collection of cold trigger builds up over time (such as an advertising campaign) to achieve a result. Therefore, hot triggers achieve mainly short-term change while cold triggers affect long-term change.
4. Substitution & Sequencing/Incremental Change
Rephrasing the question, also known as substitution, is another way of approaching behavior change. For example, instead of asking someone to stop being late, why not ask them to be on time? Substitution is effective in that it tries to get at the same result by targeting different sorts of behaviors (more on that in a moment). By rephrasing the question, you are implicitly offering an alternative to a behavior: instead of stopping something (like being late), why not try something (being on time)? Substitution, though mainly a linguistic trick, forces your brain to evaluate a proposal different, and thus apply different values to the end goal you are trying to achieve.
Sequencing is putting things in an order to incrementally change behavior. The most illustrative example of this is the relationship between perception and action. Take a frog, for example: a frog will only notice temperature change if it is a drastic change; by adjusting the temperature by increments of a degree over a long period of time, it will not notice the temperature and slowly boil alive, pass out and die (3). Similarly, for a person to notice some sort of change, a change threshold must be reached, whether it is in certain decibel increments of sounds or change in lighting (4). Since people are naturally pattern and continuity driven, most people will shy away from any drastic changes and thus any successful behavior change should strive to create some sort of continuity. Generally, this is reflected in some sort of natural evolution of products that ushers in a gradual change: for example, we didn’t go from writing letters by pen to using the internet instantly: there was a long transition of pens to typewriters to keyboards to emails to text messaging and so forth. However, as technology grows begins to grow faster than people can adapt to it, it sometimes has to be artificially dumbed down in a product to make it accessible for the masses (5).
5. Dynamic Information/Tracking & Competition
Information alone cannot change behavior. Raw information requires too much ability on the part of the recipient to be understood and implemented meaningfully. Moreover, static or passive information is generally a cold trigger, in that it is very long term. The anti-tobacco campaigns are a perfect example: information that you will die or get cancer or smell bad or have bad teeth did not actually change anything of its own accord (a case study of that will follow later). Dynamic Information aka Tracking, however, is very good at changing behaviors in that it responds in real time to your actions. It lets you understand exactly what effect your actions have. Things like pedometers or speedometer or perfect ways of behavior change. In the case of a speedometer, you constantly can monitor your actions in order not to go over the speed limit. In the case of a pedometer, you can compete against yourself and track your progress in getting certain goals; likewise, a diabetic can measure his or her own blood sugar levels up to the minute and adjust their eating habits mid-meal instead of waiting for adverse reactions later. On the heels of that is competition; because people are naturally social, we are always in the midst of some sort of comparing or competition. By making a behavior social and/or comparative, you influence the motivations associated with it. Dynamic information allows you to compete in privacy against yourself and your own goals, but competition in general affects your behaviors as whether you want to stand out or be socially deviant or whether you want to conform, drawing on both social and personal cues.
6. Types of Behaviors
Aside from all sorts of behavioral cues and triggers and environments, what sorts of behaviors are there to change? There are two poles of behavior change: Stopping vs. Doing, and One-Time vs. Consistent. These poles are important to recognize, but are pretty self-explanatory: you will always be either trying to start a behavior (open a bank account) or stop a behavior (quit smoking). Likewise, behaviors are either solo events (one-time; buy a puppy) or happen continuously, repeating (brush your teeth every morning). It is important to keep in mind that it is slightly easier to get someone to start something than stop something (hence rephrasing the question earlier from ‘stop being late’ to ‘start arriving on time’), and that it is easier/more efficient to do something once than to do it over and over (buy a magazine subscription rather than buying magazine in stores weekly). However, easier does not mean always: though it is more logical and easier to sign up for a magazine subscription as opposed to buying it weekly (cheaper, gets delivered to your door early, worry about it once, etc), there are other issues involved (commitment, giving out personal information over mail/online, a higher one-time entry price).
These are the basic facts of behaviors and behavior change that can be designed for. There are of course many other aspects to consider, many different external elements that come together, but these six elements are the core principles of getting someone to do something, in any sort of combination. In a follow-up post, I will bring up some case studies of behavior change in action: concerning Smoking & Public Policy, understanding Aid & Donations in behavioral contexts, and talk about Obesity, Behavior Change, and Culture. Meanwhile, you may want to look at Raph Koster’s “40 Social Mechanics for Social Games” and his book “A Theory of Fun” about behavior change and game design, and Seth Priebatsch’s “A Game Layer on Top of the World” to see how behavior change mechanisms are built into the everyday things we use, from credit cards to Facebook.
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