An Introduction to Designing for Positive Habits and Behaviors

At sunset, the lingering light painted a neon red line above rolling hills. As I drove north on Highway 101 at 70 miles per hour, the landscape scrolled in parallax, the road receding into night. Up ahead, I could see a white car moving much slower than the speed limit, drifting from the righthand lane into mine. In moments, I would either be passing this car, or it would be crashing into me.

So what did I do? I honked right before I was about to pass. And as I motored past, I quickly glanced over my shoulder to see why this driver was behaving so erratically. The driver’s face was illuminated by the blue-bright glow of her phone in her left hand.

What would possess someone to take this safety risk? Think about how you first learned to drive a car. Maybe you sat in a classroom, listened to lectures, took tests and read manuals. Then you sat inside a car with an instructor, and you stop-start-stopped your way through the obstacle course/parking lot. If you took driver’s ed in school like I did, you may have had a practice car with dual controls, and the teacher would brake for you if you were about to take out yet another orange cone. With the right nudges and active guidance over time, you were able make your way through the obstacle course, drive a few miles in white-knuckled terror on the freeway and maybe even parallel park.

Now flash forward a few years. You’re late to work, so you grab your mug from the coffee maker and run to the garage. Tossing back a Big Gulp, you back out while pulling on your safety belt, managing the steering wheel with your left leg without thinking while you’re trying to Bluetooth sync your phone to the car stereo so you can listen to a podcast. What was once a hard fought-skill had become an autonomous behavior, which was now layered on top of many other behaviors, often in direct conflict with each other.behavior design

Human Beings Are Pattern-Making Machines

From our first moments in this world until we die, we manifest particular actions in reaction to some form of stimulus or trigger. Sometimes this happens with conscious intent, but much of the time it isn’t.

As interactive designers creating software that can be used at any time in any place, we’re seeing that our products are more tightly wedded to people’s daily behavior than we might have anticipated. Through what we design, we aren’t just creating new capabilities and capacities for people to achieve what they want to accomplish. We are also encouraging new, unintentional habits and patterns of behavior that can have long-term, sustained effects. And few of us have had the formal training to do this in a responsible way.

It’s only the past few years that dialogue about this topic has become common across the product and service design community. Just off the top of my head, I’m thinking of B.J. Fogg at Stanford for his critical research into behavior design and for his instruction of multiple generations of product designers on how to approach this topic and Stephen Anderson for his cataloguing and evangelism of the use of persuasive design techniques. Then we’ve got Chris Nodder’s work showing us the “evil” persuasive techniques that companies use and the work of Nir Eyal, who boiled down all of the above plus many other resources into a digestible book and practice-focused model.

There are many more books, articles, videos, and research in the wild about habit formation, persuasive design and so forth. Some are good, and many of them are great. These people have been thinking about this topic for a very long time, and there’s a lot to gain from their effort.

In my work as a product and service designer, I’ve had a chance to try out the different methods and techniques that they propose. What I’ve found is that while they have helped my teams think through the mechanics of individual interactions as part of a product, there aren’t a lot of good tools that help with big-picture thinking about what constitutes positive behavior change, and how to collaborate with your users in responsible ways to design appropriate solutions.

behavior designDavid Sherwin on Behavior Design

In my talk at the HOW Interactive Design Conference, I shared a process that I’ve developed to help with these issues. The process uses these key steps:

1. Defining Positive Benefit for People from Your Product or Service

When working with a client, it can be easy to use different techniques to encourage habit or behavior formation, without being able to qualify exactly why that habit or behavior is desired by a person and beneficial for them in the long term. People use products and services because they want to accomplish a certain goal for particular motivations that may not be clear you as a designer. Many of the goals people want to accomplish—losing weight, saving money, stopping addiction, and so forth—require multiple habits be put in place and sustained not for a day, or a month, but a lifetime to achieve a desired systemic effect. At the start of the design process, you want to clarify what type of net benefit a person is looking to achieve from your solution, and how that solution relates to larger societal issues. This clarification forms your starting hypothesis, and it will evolve as you collaborate with your users.

2. Generating a Baseline Product Vocabulary

When I’m moving through the first iteration of a product or a feature that’s focused on behavior change, I ask my team to determine the vocabulary at play. We identify what people are doing (specific verbs), the objects within the interactive system being acted on or changed (specific nouns), and how those actions add up over time to create or reinforce a particular behavior. (If you haven’t designed products or services in this way, just start by looking at some of your favorite interactive apps or websites and identify all the verbs you can see as part of the system.) From here, there’s a solid starting point for designing a product or service.

3. Designing a Minimum Viable Intervention

Once you’ve established a vocabulary, it can be tempting to just create and ship something big to get feedback for an entire routine or a systematic set of behaviors. “We want to help people lose weight, so let’s make an app where you get a push notification whenever you’re about to eat a meal to make sure you eat less, then you take a photo of what you’re going to eat, then you write after the meal how much you ate, so that way you end up eating less, and then…” You have to curb this impulse and think in the smallest unit of behavior possible, the tiniest habit that could potentially changed, and then see how that change may impact a person’s overall behavior (with their permission, of course).

We can call this the “minimum viable intervention” (MVI) rather than an minimum viable product (MVP), so that we consider the smallest possible thing that supports a person’s need, and plan to test in a focused, responsible manner. (Note: Franco Papeschi at the World Wide Web Foundation coined the MVI term, in relation to how designers operate when working with non-governmental organizations a.k.a. NGOs.)

4. Validating Fit and Vocabulary with People

I like to meet with people and find out the best way they think I can support them with my design idea. As an example: When designing a solution to help people better save and spend their money, my team spent time interviewing people with different spending and savings behaviors. The first part of each interview was for us to understand their existing savings and spending patterns, and the motivations regarding why they were able or unable to meet their personal goals around saving money. Then, based on the stories they shared with us about when they had struggled to save money, we provided potential solutions to gauge if the vocabulary of the solution fit their needs. If it didn’t, we collaborated with the person to revise the solution based on what they thought would be best for them.

5. Iterating Your Hypotheses and Building on What Sticks (or Starting Over!)

“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business. Once you have enough feedback to gauge initial fit for a solution, you can put that increment of the product to a test. I like to start with solutions at the lowest fidelity possible. Instead of creating a software prototype, we might write out instructions for a person to follow on a sheet of paper, then have them snap a photo and send it to us. Or we might manually send a text message or an email to prompt a certain action instead of doing it through an automated service. Once you see how long a habit takes to form, you can think about how to sustain them and whether they can become long-term behaviors. You may also discover that how people use your solution inspires a different, more effective way to form a habit.

Building New Habits and Behaviors into How We Work

We are heading towards a new destination as designers, collaborating with many disciplines to create the future of almost any digital or physical device we can imagine. And unlike when I was learning to drive my car, there’s little habit-related support for me for me with all of these new and constantly changing products. My teacher can’t remotely stop me from texting during an important meeting and there’s no guidebook to remind me to shut off Facebook in the middle of dinner. Much of the effort is on us, both as the creators and users of interactive products, to integrate new habits and behaviors into how we work, asking the right questions that respect others and what they want to achieve. It’s my hope that a process like this will help make that possible.

2 thoughts on “An Introduction to Designing for Positive Habits and Behaviors

  1. Benbrownjunior

    Hello Mr. Sherwin and all. I hope this finds you well.

    I am actually launching a series based exactly upon this premise this week. This is not my first foray into this type of design. Far from it. Overall a good article, but what i am not seeing here is how we take it to the next level.

    The example you provide here is for something that requires only a personal commitment. What I would like to hear are your thoughts regarding something just s serious but with components never really touched upon by major orgs and design interests: how can one effectively design a change of a positive habit when one is blocked by other orgs, such as health organizations?

    Example: i was on a committee to help reduce syphilis rates among men who have sex with men (MSM). While I was on this committee, Portland Metro was the only area that showed a decrease in rates, while all other skyrocketed. Upon being asked by the head of infectious disease to create a similar project that went state-wide, the agency balked at its honesty and frankness. (Mind you, this was also all pro-bono, so the state had no out of pocket at all.)

    The gist of what I am saying is this: I went head to head with agencies filled with people who want a change, but are afraid to deal with the reality of the situation. I was very clear that this series would not be based upon guilt, stigma or shame. What made matter worse: none of the state’s employees were a part of the target audience.

    As a result of inactivity, syphilis rates have skyrocketed to the point where the CDC was here in February 2014 wanting to know what was the direct cause of this. How can a designer work to change a behavior when there are forces that block the very goal of what is to be accomplished due to ignorance, fear and xenophobia?

    Thank you for your time and attention. Based upon your credentials here, i am certain that you might have some insight that just might make things better, or at least allow those of us who are passionate about such topics an opportunity to learn.


    Ben Brown Jr.
    Beaverton, OR

    1. David Sherwin Post author

      Hello Ben,

      Thank you for your powerful and heartfelt comment. As I’d noted in the article, my focus in on products and services that foster individual behavior change, and how designers can approach that activity. I deliberately focused here because talking through how this happens for groups of people, or a society, requires additional layers of collaboration, facilitation, and joint effort from multiple stakeholders. This shifts the stance that a designer needs to take in that situation, from not only helping to co-create a solution that benefits people, but also involving your stakeholders more deeply in the effort in a much broader sense.

      I have had similar experiences as you working in the social sector, and I feel that the “design” process required to facilitate such a change is quite different in nature. I put the word design in quotes because much of what a designer needs to do in this context involves both working with communities who are struggling with an issue such as infectious disease. Not just those touched by the issue directly, but all the other actors in the system that you know might need to shift if long term change is going to be sustainable.

      So if you’re going to be a stakeholder trying to foster positive behavioral change, you’re going to have to put a stake in the ground: about what you understand about the people you’re serving, seeing the world from their perspective, and bringing in the right people from government, NGOs, community groups, and sometimes even corporate interests. For this reason, I worked with a team at frog to create an open source toolkit that designers and leaders can use to help communities collaborate with other stakeholders from the “ground up” to identify issues in their community, create alignment, and help prototype and realize them. Without this additional layer of facilitation and compassion on the part of ALL people that are touched as part of a systematic issue such as improving people’s health or giving everyone access to clean water and food, designers are not going to be successful in being a part of sustaining these potential positive changes at a level above us acknowledging our individual habits and behaviors.

      Thanks, David