Behavioral Design: The Next Frontier of UX Development

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When it comes to digital interfaces, designers are finding new ways to affect user behaviors.

As designers begin to combine insights from behavioral psychology with the vast computational power offered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), a new approach to UX design has surfaced: Behavioral Design.

Behavioral Design, in simple terms, is a process of persuading people to engage in certain behaviors through intentional design techniques.

In practice, this can range from very basic features – such as the lines demarcating lanes to drive within on a road – to much more complex processes, especially when discussed in terms of digital technology and interfaces.

Behavioral Design and Ethics

One of the most important points Behavioral Design theorists emphasize is the need for an ethical approach to the concept. This is because altering human behavior can be highly controversial – and potentially harmful, if it is not carried out with a clear ethical orientation.

That was one of the main motivating factors for Combs and Brown, two Behavioral Design specialists, who in 2018 published an open source guide on the concept: Digital Behavioral Design.  

In the guide, the authors laid out the clear foundations for an ethical approach to Behavioral Design – as well as some very interesting techniques for realizing it within digital environments.

In short, Behavioral Design can only be ethical if it is:

  • Persuasive – not coercive
  • Transparent
  • Serves user’s desires
  • Contributes to the common good

Ethical developers of the approach will argue that boosting a company’s profits or pushing through an agenda is not an adequate justification for using Behavioral Design: the techniques and outcomes it involves are powerful, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Data: the key to digital behavioral design

From a digital design perspective, Behavioral Design involves a number of different steps and approaches.

UX Designers need to truly understand their users: who they are, what behavior they have demonstrated in the past, and what they want at the precise moment they are using the digital interface – to name just a few.

Gaining access to this type of data has never been as possible – and easy – as it is today.

First of all, the ubiquity of digital devices such as smartphones means that every individual who owns one is a potential source of insight into behavior.

In parallel, AI and Machine Learning-powered technology can instantaneously decipher this enormous volume of information – known as Big Data – into actionable pieces of information.

Designing to persuade

What people do once they find themselves on your website or mobile app depends on many different factors: their own intentions, mood and unique circumstances are one side of the equation – your product offering, content and interface’s layout and design are another: the list goes on.

There are a number of techniques that UX designers and developers can use in order to influence behavior on a digital interface – both for encouraging or discouraging certain actions. Here is a basic summary of some of them:

Reward Learning ­By providing a reward for performing certain actions, designers can influence how long a user can remain on an app or website, or performing a certain task. Rewards can come in many different forms, from new content to points for playing games and a lot more.

Cues – These are triggers that compel a user to carry out an action; for example, a red notification signal that causes users to click on their notifications button.

Optimal Challenge – This is the idea that there exists a quantifiable amount of stimulus that exists for every person, which when reached, can result in them either performing an action (such as signing up to a newsletter), or not performing the action (such as leaving your website).

Stopping Rules – Stopping Rules involve the manipulation of cues that tell users that they have completed an action. For example, presenting a “completed” cue after a user has completed a survey will tell them that they can now exit the process. Conversely, by removing stopping cues, designers can influence continuous use of a website or app, such as what happens with social media news feeds.

Choice Architecture ­– This is one of the most interesting and widely used behavioral design approaches, which is common not only in digital design, but also city planning and many other contexts where pathways are important. The idea is that as humans, we are always looking for the shortest and least difficult way to get from A to B, simply because our brains tend to automatically conclude that this is the most rational way to do it.

Choice Architecture involves carefully planning and designing an environment so that the people navigating through it do not have to make navigational decisions themselves, but are rather guided through it willingly, making that the easier choice for them.

Ambient Communication – A key approach that many designers will already be aware of, ambient communication involves conveying messages and meaning – and by extension guiding behavior – through the use of non-text based visual cues. These can be anything from font choices and colors to sound cues and many other audiovisual elements that can influence behavior.

Even the tone of a bell can clearly indicate whether a button that has been pressed is accessible or inaccessible: the key is in finding a coherent and considered way of using these ambient cues to guide users through your interface as naturally and effectively as possible.

Designing the Future

Anyone with a slight knowledge of behavioral psychology will be able to identify some of its basic principles within these techniques. That’s because they are largely framed around the concept of Positive Reinforcement, which involves providing rewards or encouragement to behavior that is deemed desirable.

However, where Digital Behavioral Design is different is the immediate environment that it takes place in: digital interfaces and applications. Because of the amount of data on user behavior now available to UX designers, developers and digital product designers through these interfaces, the possibilities for affecting very specific behaviors is truly unprecedented.

This dimension of design is obviously complex, constantly expanding, and also potentially controversial. However, when used ethically and intelligently, Behavioral Design has the potential to improve user experiences, allowing companies to provide greater value to their customers while also improving how humans function in the world more generally.

Interested in applying a behavioral design-based approach to your next web or app project? Get in touch and we’ll be happy to discuss how Bocasay’s developer teams can help make it happen.

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