Design for Behavior Change: valuable help or mental manipulation?

Design for behavior change or behavioral design is a sub-category in the field of design, concerning how design can shape or can be used to influence human behavior. In all of its approaches, design for behavior change recognizes how artifacts can have a strong influence and impact on human behavior as well as human behavioral decisions. This sub-category of design is strongly connected to theories of behavioral change, among which it is possible to find the division into personal, behavioral, and environmental characteristics as drivers for behavior change.

These characteristics make design for behavior chance an incredibly interesting subject. Not only does it give designers the opportunity to test themselves in the design field, but it also allows them to deal with the complexity of human beings. However, given this complexity, it is also a truly hard challenge. How can one, as a designer, expect to actually change people’s behavior without understanding first what their needs, motivations and expectations are? This is why the phases of research and discovery are extremely important in a design for behavior change project. Designers need to understand their users, grasp their needs, motivations, expectations, constraints, to be able to get to them in the right way and induce behavior change. Nevertheless, this is still not enough.

User Experience and Interaction designers must also accompany users towards that new behavior. Even if they discover what is driving their users and what their constraints are, they still need to help them achieve that change through design. This is why, despite the great importance of the research phase, the following ones are crucial as well. A designer might find helpful insights and come up with incredible hints, but if they are not able to translate them in a valuable solution, they won’t succeed in creating a change in behavior. Therefore, the research findings must be put into practice in a methodical and effective way.

At the same time, though, the attention must not be focused on the users only. To help them achieve that change, designers must go to the root of the problem. There is a need to understand how they are currently behaving, what is causing that behavior and possibly preventing a new one. Once one gets that, it will be possible to address those issues in an effective way, without leading the users towards failure and consequently towards frustration.

Furthermore, despite the undeniable fascination that this field of design might hold, one can’t ignore the possible problematic aspects that might be there. While it is true that design for behavior change is not a weapon, and it doesn’t provide a 100% rate of success in whatever context it is applied to, it is still worth addressing them. Is it really ethical to try and change people’s behavior? One of the biggest fields in which design for behavior change plays a part is design for social innovation, and in most of the cases it is related to the topic of sustainability, which projects that aim at improving people’s behavior in relation to energy, food and goods consumption, as well as transportation. All of these are without any doubt valuable and respectable causes, which resort to design as a way to involve people in the chance, making them aware of their damaging behaviors and pushing them to do better.

However, it is also possible to mention examples in which users were not made aware of the efforts made towards changing their behavior. Instead, they were, in some way, “tricked” in doing so, thanks to the use of some (undoubtedly clever) design solutions. It is possible to cite an experiment made in Amsterdam at the Schiphol Airport. With the goal of reducing total cleaning costs, the airport introduced urinal flies: by etching an image of a fly inside every urinal, they hoped to nudge men to aim at the fly thus improving overall aim. Implementing this physical design solution reduced spillage by 80%, and the budget for cleaning public toilets by 8%. Examples like this one are, of course, harmless. Schiphol Airport was able to create a behavior change in a fast, clever, and inexpensive way. If one were to stop and think about it, it is also quite funny how easy it is to exploit human habits to produce a change.

Nevertheless, this could also be observed from a less optimistic perspective, thus leading to the following question: could design for behavior change be used for less honorable or harmless causes? It may sound like a dystopian and unrealistic concern, and it is not something people and designers should be overly worried about. Yet, it could still be considered an interesting topic of discussion.

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