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A Kind of Magic: Behavior Change Design

Are you fascinated with psychology and how it can impact product design to change your user’s lives for the better? I had the opportunity to sit down with Amy Bucher, Ph.D., the author of “Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change”, who isn’t just fascinated with the pairing of the two, but calls the relationship “A Kind of Magic”.

“This is an exciting time for this type of applied psychology,” says Amy. Amy is a pioneer in her craft. Amy graduated in 2006 and ignored job titles during her initial career search. Instead, she aligned her skillset with what companies were looking for, but came in with her behavior change tool kit, ready to pave her own way.

Amy understood the value of applying behavior change science to product design, early on. “Now more than ever, companies are bringing both of these worlds together,” Amy sees this on job sites and recognizes more organizations are realizing the positive impact behavior change science has on product design success. Now she is witnessing the job titles that were absent when she broke into the field.

Amy recognized a lack of resources in the industry and wrote the book “Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change” to help share the magic with other social scientists, product managers, researchers, designers — or anyone looking to infuse behavior change science into their work.

Engaged Book Cover

What can you gain from this book?

How do you use psychology as a design tool? “Engaged” is a fantastic guide to help you understand how to hugely increase the odds your behavior change product works. The book introduces readers to the concept of behavior change design, the self-determination theory of motivation and so much more.

You’ll learn why “psychology and design belong together” and how to measure and monitor your products to ensure you’re achieving desired outcomes. Amy incorporates how important it is to plant the seeds for a successful measurement strategy at the very beginning of a behavior change design product. During our conversation she added, “it saves your organization money”. The next time you have a stakeholder anxious to go to market without measuring tools in place, remind them of the impact it can have on the bottom line.

Supporting autonomy through digital design is especially important for users. Amy outlines how research can help you decide on these feature types in your designs. Take for example, Down Dog, a yoga app that allows you to customize your at-home yoga class until the cows come home. At the start of our conversation, Amy asked what my favorite at-home exercise app was and I immediately bragged about Down Dog’s customization feature. “Your product has to fit your user” Amy stated, “Down Dog does this by allowing the user to make the product fit their needs with a robust customization feature”. She immediately recognized why I liked the product so much and tied it back to her research. Users must have the ability to make meaningful choices during their journey. Amy dives deep into the human decision-making process, why people are not great at making decisions and how some designers deliberately take advantage of this, even though it can negatively impact the future success of a product.

Have you ever sat down to watch a movie or a show on Netflix? Before you know it, an hour has gone by and you have done nothing but try to decide what to watch. Why is it so hard to decide? “Give someone too many choices, and eventually they won’t have the focus to make good ones. People’s minds can suffer from decision fatigue.” Learn the psychology behind decision fatigue and how to enable your users to build their willpower muscles. I was shocked to discover, “if done strategically, a person’s store of willpower can become greater over time, just like a muscle gets stronger.” You can help your users gain willpower with your digital products!

Many digital products exist to help people make behavior changes such as getting more sleep, exercising regularly, losing weight, or quitting smoking. Why do some fail and why do some become a raging sensation like Weight Watchers or Noom? It’s possible the failing products did not include a mechanism to learn enough about user’s ability blockers or boosters to set users up for success. “Engaged” explains how to solve these issues by linking findings to features that help your users overcome obstacles. Designing for behavior change must go beyond the product and truly empathize with your user and their surroundings outside of what you are creating.

Have you ever been so absorbed in what you’re doing that time passes by unnoticed? Amy teaches readers about “flow” and why your brain is able to work more creatively when you experience flow. She then takes it a step further and gives readers action items to help design products that allow users to flow and grow. You’ll learn how to structure milestones and give meaningful feedback to increase success rates for your users and your products.

Social support is such an important factor in behavior change design Amy dedicates an entire chapter to “Design for Connection”. While some people may consider themselves introverted and others extroverted, at the end of the day the human brain is wired for connection. Learn how to design your products to socially support users and what that looks like digitally. What should your chatbot’s personality be? Do people even trust chatbots? I think the answers may surprise you.

Possibly you have watched or recall the movie “Her”, the fascinating story of a man falling in love with a digital female voice. Amy shares how digital products can facilitate relationships between people in a very practical way and how various products successfully gain the user’s trust. You’ll walk away with tips and tricks on how to design trustworthy products users can believe in.

“Engaged” ends with tips on how to carry behavior change design forward into your organization and your work, “with the quickest and most effective way being to do behavior change design — with an asterisk.” Amy supplies beginners with a list of goals and dives into the ethics of behavior change design and how to be the “good witch” among all of this magic.

Amy’s Behavior Change Tool Kit

“Engaged” is chock-full of tools you can use immediately. One stand out concept is the Behavior Change Wheel which hinges on a system called COM-B and Amy provides tools and research strategies based on this model.

“The COM-B model simply says that in order for a Behavior (B) to occur, people must have enough capability, opportunity, and motivation to perform it.” Amy walks readers through and provides visual examples on how to use these systems in your research, handling overlapping data using a grid, and formulating the research into solutions that can be prioritized.

COM-B model diagram

The experts Amy interviews also recommend various tools to support you in your journey to design for behavior change outcomes. If you fear a product might have an unintended harmful effect on users, Artefact developed Tarot Cards of Tech, “a tool for designers and technologists to use to consider potential unintended consequences of their work”. Sheryl Cababa, Amy’s selected expert on perspective, touches on how to make ethical decisions, ensure diversity lives in your designs, and use tools to abstractly grasp the weight of potential unintended side effects.

Industry Specifics

Amy admits the examples in her book are heavily geared towards health and finance because that is where her career has been. However, her hope is that this book is useful for people working on products outside of these industries.

“It can be a grey area if a designer’s intentions are to create dark patterns.” Amy states. Take the example of e-commerce and selling more products. Despite Amy’s decision to stay away from this type of work in her professional career she feels, “part of the magic of behavior change design is it gets people interested in and engaged with the products you design.” She adds, “realistically speaking, people are going to buy things, we are all consumers and there is a genuine argument to be made to make your product better than your competitors.” I myself do not specialize in designing behavior change products, but learned a great deal from this book and am excited to implement takeaways to create better products for users.

Should You Read this Book?

The book is a delightful blend of thorough research, real-world examples, and actionable takeaways. Each chapter ends with Amy interviewing world-class experts delivering readers a “group think” approach on paper. The book is sprinkled with product screenshots and annotations that drive home Amy’s eloquent and interesting way of interpreting data.

Even if you are not a behavior change product designer or scientist, there are many takeaways that can be applied to creating digital products. “Anyone who wants to apply behavior change science to the design and development of digital products,” should read this book. “The real appeal of behavior change design is its potential to put people—users—permanently on a more positive life path. That may seem like hyperbole, but when people are ready for a change, the right intervention can transform their lives.”

This book can teach you how to be a part of someone’s life transformation.

What’s Your Motivation?

“Not everyone has good insight into their own motivation at the outset of a behavior change process.” Perhaps one of my favorite exercises from Amy’s book is a simple question designed to help uncover users’ motivations. “What’s the wallpaper on your smartphone?” Maybe this can provide you with a little bit of insight into your own motivations.