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Last updated on 4/29/20

Investigate Behavioral Design

When was the last time you reflected on all of the decisions you made during the day? Behaviors are mostly subconscious and impacted by your mental models, as well as external factors. People tend to do more than think. But what if you could work to change behaviors?

Designing for behavior change

BJ Fogg is a behavioral scientist who looks at behavior design in the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University. His work studies habits and predictive behavior. According to Fogg, there's a formula to predict behavior. It can be expressed as Behavior = motivation + ability + trigger.

Motivation can be expressed in different ways. It's important is to find the right motivation for the right audience. Some actions will require a higher level of motivation than others. Fogg frames human motivation as a way of:

  • Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

  • Seeking hope and avoiding fear.

  • Seeking acceptance and avoiding rejection.

Ability is the capacity to do a certain action. In other words, how easy or hard it is for a user to do something. Ability can be expressed as:

  • Time

  • Money

  • Physical effort

  • Brain cycles

  • Social deviance

  • Non-routine

When it comes to ability, the goal is to make it as easy for the user to do something as possible. Usability testing helps you get to this point. Fogg considers this clearing the "cognitive clutter." Cognition refers to thinking, and the goal is to lighten the load on the user. Ask yourself, are all the steps in the user flow necessary? What can I do to streamline or simplify the process?

The trigger is what prompts action. This happens when the user has sufficient motivation and ability for the behavior to occur.

Behavior change according to BJ Fogg. [2:12 min]

It can be difficult to influence motivation. When you're designing for behavior change, consider what you can do to change the ability. In other words, what can you do to make it easier? To start, look at how many options are on a page or screen. If there are multiple options, perhaps the next steps are distracting or unclear to the user. Ask yourself if all of the options are necessary at this stage. If you don't know, test on users!

Sometimes the answer can be as simple as lowering the barrier of entry to your product. While it may be tempting to require new users to create an account immediately, you may be better off introducing them to a part of the product to keep them coming back. This reduces the effort required by the user and shows them what your product has to offer.


Habits are repeated behaviors. They're automatic actions that have become second nature. There are good habits and not so good ones. (Did you know you can turn off the feature on Netflix that automatically advances to the next episode? Given the default setting, I'd say that Netflix wants to make us addicts! 😉)

In his behavior change research, BJ Fogg discovered a formula called "Tiny Habits."  He offers a free five day program based around personal behaviors that you do at least once a day that take little to no time or effort.

Fogg sees baby steps as the most effective way to change behavior for the long-term. This is achieved by anchoring new behaviors to something you already do and setting the bar low (flossing one tooth, doing 2 push-ups or pouring a cup of water). By keeping them  small and connected to something that you already do in daily life, you have a greater chance of success. The idea is that once you start something, you may as well finish the task. If you already brush your teeth and you want to start flossing regularly, flossing one tooth after putting down your toothbrush may motivate you to keep going and doing all your teeth. Often it's the getting started part which is the biggest hurdle for users.

You may have big dreams for the app you're creating, but in order to get users to the point where they get maximum value and motivation, they may need some help along the way. Consider what you can design that users can't live without because it makes their life easier and better. Ask yourself what behavior you want users or customers to do? Focus on one before trying to take on too much.

Let's recap!

  • BJ Fogg is a behavioral scientist examining behavior change.

  • Behavior = motivation + ability + trigger. A user has to be motivated to do something, have the ability to do it, and have a reason to do it.

  • Habits are reoccurring behaviors. This may seem obvious in the context of everyday life, but consider which habits you want the users of your product to have.

  • In order to attempt to change habits, it's best to use an existing habit as an anchor in order to make the new behavior more likely to occur.

We'll continue exploring behavior in the next chapter with Nir Eyal's "hooked" model.

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