Behavioural design: a lean guide to using psychology and motivation for product teams

Design influences behaviour. Using psychological principles and theories of behaviour, we can design with intent, for how users behave, building an environment that supports whatever route they take, instead of forcing them to conform to how our products and services work.

There are so many terms mentioned when researching this topic, such as behavioural science, cognitive science, cognitive bias, heuristics, psychological principles, motivation theory, and so on. It can be overwhelming, but at the core, it is a systematic understanding of how people make decisions. For our purposes, this understanding, which draws on a wide range of research from behavioural economics to human computer interaction, can help us make more informed design decisions. We might want to influence how our users travel through our product, by carefully managing the route they take and seeing what obstacles might stop them from completing their goals. We might also want to influence how our children behave when using social media by influencing their behaviour, not by grand emotional gestures, but by a smarter, more focused approach.

I am not a behavioral scientist, just a designer with an interest in this area, and one who is looking for other tools to improve the usefulness of purely visual design. Many of the references I have read go into huge depth on this subject, so I synthesised the essential elements to make an easy to digest guide for the design and product team to learn from, reference, and act upon.

We can divide this behavioral design framework into seven steps:

Step 1: Understand your users
Step 2: Use a model of behaviour
Step 3: Use strategies
Step 4: Reward users
Step 5: Choose the right actions
Step 6: Put everything into practice
Step 7: Test and evaluate

Before we get to the main course, I want to talk briefly about manipulation.

Guiding users towards better behaviour sounds delightfully utopian, and something we need to strive for, but considering recent big tech scandals, changing people’s behaviour has taken on a more sinister tone, bringing to mind images of fiendish data scientists spying on people from behind the black mirror.

As product makers, we like to think we are above concerns of privacy and manipulation, since we work in this digital complex. The simple fact is, we are all bound by our biases, aware of them are not.

To guide us through this existential dilemma, between business and user interests, we can use Nir Eyal’s Manipulation Matrix, a simple guide to test where your behaviour change design strategy sits on the good and fiendish axis.

Manipulation matrix chart by Nir Eyal

Manipulation matrix chart by Nir Eyal

Two essential questions he asks are; does the product materially improve the user’s life, and does the product maker use it himself or herself? If you can answer these questions with confidence and aim to be a ‘facilitator’, then you are off to a good start.

Woman at a protest

Woman at a protest

By Folco

Discover user needs

We begin by gaining an understanding of how our users decide.

Questions to ask about your users

  • Why aren’t users interacting with the product in the way you planned?
  • What is hindering users from completing their actions?
  • Where is there an opportunity to change people’s behaviours?

Build on these questions

  • Interview users about their work life. Find out what makes them tick and what jobs they want to get done.
  • Build Job Stories from what you learn, e.g. “Tom is a busy manager, and he wants to report on company sales, so he can present to the board.”
Close focus on person’s runner as they jump

Close focus on person’s runner as they jump

By Goh Rhy Yan

The Fogg Behaviour Model

The Behaviour Scientist, B.J. Fogg, shows that there must be three elements for behaviour to happen:

  1. Motivation: When there is an amplification in the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators
  2. Ability: When the behaviour is easy to perform
  3. Trigger: When there is an increase in the number of triggers

Now let’s extend and refine Fogg’s model to be more useful, basing it on a model proposed by Stephen Wendel.

Expanded Wendel model

A. Trigger

The trigger can be internal or external. External triggers happen when there is something in our environment that makes us think about an action. Triggers such as alarms, smells, and TV surround us. Internal triggers happen inside the mind, such as feelings or thoughts that bring about an action. Hunger is a powerful internal trigger, which reminds us to eat.

B. Reaction

Once the user’s mind is triggered to think about a potential action, there is an automatic reaction in response. This reaction can be intuitive and automatic.

C. Evaluation

When we respond to a situation intuitively, we might then evaluate the action more consciously, especially if the situation is new. But if a habit has formed, we might skip the conscious evaluation step.

D. Ability

Assuming they have made a choice to act, the question arises whether it is easy to undertake the action. The person must be able to act at once and without obstacles.

E. Timing

When should you take the action? We can take action based on a sense of urgency, and by other, less forceful factors.

three guys playing basketball

three guys playing basketball

By Brandon Davis

Automate things

The easiest and best strategy is to eliminate the work required by the user. If we can automatically do things with their consent, then we should do it. We can use smart defaults, machine learning, and tailoring.

Two solutions we can use:

  • Automate the action behind the scenes
  • Use smart defaults to reduce cognitive load

Make or change your user’s habits

The next most effective strategy is to use habits. We can avoid making the user work for an action and remove conscious effort. Identify a trigger and reward. These rewards need to be immediate. Habits are a powerful way to form repeated behaviours.

Support the user’s conscious action

The last way to change behaviour is using conscious action. If either of the first two strategies is not available, then you must help the user consciously undertake the target action. This is the hardest.

A person celebrating

A person celebrating

By Brandon Davis

Jeffrey Nevid says, ‘motives are the ‘whys’ of behaviour — the needs or wants that drive behaviour and explain what we do. We don’t observe a motive; rather, we infer one exists based on the behaviour we observe.’

Let’s look at two types of motivation.

Extrinsic motivation

“If I sign up to this product, I will receive some rewards in their loyalty program and get something free next time.”

These motives can come from family, professional environment, competitions, or contests. The motives of this sort encourage the person to deal with the outer world of other people, as there is no other way to achieve the particular goals.

Intrinsic motivation

“If I buy this product, I can help disadvantaged people as some of my money goes to charity.”

Intrinsic motivation creates its own rewards, formed through the wishes and needs of the person. It has meaning. It is not a cure-all, but intrinsic is the most powerful motivation to use.

Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, maybe the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also-counterintuitive though it may seem-their financial success. ~ Amy Wrzesniewski

If we want users to act, then we need to use their motivations. Using intrinsic motivations, such as learning a new skill and the love of mastery, is powerful and a reward in itself. These motivations, if highlighted, can turn into a worthwhile habit for the user.

A passenger switching a light on in a plane

A passenger switching a light on in a plane

By Steven Thompson

Develop job stories

Write out what goals and motivations the user has in achieving a task.

Generate a list of potential actions

List the specific behaviours we want the user to do. Who is doing it? What is the person trying to achieve?

Choose the best action

After a group discussion, select the best action based on job stories.

Structure the action

Neil Armstrong had hundreds of steps to go through to just to activate the system on Apollo 11, but most of us aren’t sending our product to the moon.

Page from the Apollo 11 pilot manual

Page from the Apollo 11 pilot manual

Apollo 11 Launch Operations Checklist, Smithsonian Institute

Let’s not get bogged down with every potential action the user might do. This should be a simple flowchart or user journey. If the user has to take too many steps to see some benefit, then we’ve blown it. Think about the sequence of real world steps a user needs to take to complete an action.

  • Are these steps easy and intuitive to perform?
  • Where are the pain points in each step?
  • Are they meaningful enough to reward after completion?
  • How does the user finish each action, and how do they know? Is there any feedback do they get?

Design the environment

To support the action, create an appropriate environment.

  • Ensure the environment motivates your users.
  • If possible, use their existing intrinsic motivation
  • Ensure users are ready to act now
  • Ensure users know they are succeeding or failing by giving them feedback
  • Avoid or co-opt other behaviours that are competing for their attention
  • Ideally, piggyback onto something they are already doing
Child playing with lego

Child playing with lego

By Kelly Sikkema

Job stories can come straight from the behavioural plan. Each step in the sequence of actions can come from these stories.


Use this template for a job story:

When ___ , I want to ___ , so I can ___ .

The ‘when’ focuses on the situation, the ‘I want’ focuses on the motivation, and the ‘so I can’ focuses on the outcome.

“When I’m managing a large team, I want to prepare the team sales report, so I can be ready for the board presentation.”

In this example, we know the manager is under pressure and he is busy. He wants to be prepared for those big board meetings. What we can do is to automate report making. We can remind him, generate those reports automatically, and send them in a suitable format that he can use straight away.

A few psychological strategies to use at each stage

There are literally hundreds of principles and biases to choose from, but again, don’t get overwhelmed. This handful below is a good start and might be all you need to create a well-developed strategy.


  • Be clear and tell the user what the action is in an accessible manner.
  • Entry points maximise the effectiveness of entry to a product by reducing barriers, establishing obvious points of entry, and using progressive lures.


  • Aesthetic-usability effect refers to users’ tendency to perceive attractive products as more usable and so inspire trust.
  • Authority bias inspires trust by using a strong authority on a subject.
  • Priming uses prior stimuli and content and guides the user by subtly directing them with words or visuals that will act towards a certain action.
  • Social proof can create engagement by letting users know others recommend a certain course of action that may be more efficient than the established way of doing things.


  • Priming uses prior stimuli and content to influence users’ decision.
  • Avoid cognitive overhead by reducing the number of items that a user needs to think about. Break an action into steps if it is too large. Focus on one task at a time.
  • Avoid choice overload and reduce the number of items that a user needs to think about. Break an action into steps if it is too large. Focus on one task at a time.


  • Smart defaults promote cognitive ease, and help remove friction, by using smart guesses what the user might select.
  • Positive peer comparison makes it easy for users to compare what they have with their peers, which makes for easier decision making and less cognitive burden.
  • Progressive disclosure eases the cognitive burden by only showing the most frequently required controls by default and making additional controls available on request.
  • Feedback keeps users informed about what is going on within a reasonable amount of time, so they don’t become confused or lost.


  • Framing displays only relevant content to the user at that moment.
Man looking at canvas

Man looking at canvas

By Jakari Ward

After putting in all this hard work, now is time to test that it is working. There are three measures we can use.

Create an impact assessment

It’s important to outline our objectives and what success or failure looks like. We want to measure how the product behaves based on clear objectives we’ve set. Does it meet these objectives and assumptions we’ve created?

Pinpoint and analyse obstacles

What is stopping the user from reaching their goal? We can find this out through user testing, to watch our product in the real world gain a better insight into how people use the product, and what crisis moments occur and what impact it has.

Learning from our mistakes and refining

When we have gathered our testing data, we need to review and create an action plan for improvements. We can put this through our development backlog as UX priorities based on business considerations and behavioural impact.

I hope this guide is useful and practical, and is something that will open up new possibilities for design. Let’s not forget that we are trying to make our user’s daily grind a little easier, and we are responsible for how we treat our users. Balancing the concerns of financial gain and the user is the most challenging part of building products. Using cognitive biases and behavioural tricks of the trade can lead us down some dark paths if we let it. Keep the user’s genuine needs and wants in mind when designing for behaviour change and let’s always design responsibly.

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