Going beyond the screen: How do you design digital experiences that change behaviour?

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Dr Harriet Rowthorn

6 minute read

BestAtDigital provides digital tools that help people to change their behaviour for the better. Changing behaviour means understanding what influences it. And that means knowing your stuff when it comes to behavioural science. Luckily, we do. In fact, we were bursting at the seams, so we created a bespoke Behavioural Insights Mantra (BIM) for digital design.

BIM extracts the most relevant insights from several psychological models and frameworks to create an evidence-based practice for impactful digital experiences.

Here’s BIM in a nutshell…

Behavioural Insights Mantra

BIM links specific techniques drawn from behavioural science research to each of these statements. We use those techniques throughout the design process so that users feel good when interacting with our platforms and have the tools to do what’s asked of them. That’s how we design digital experiences that create change in the real world.

Effective digital communication changes the way we behave. But designing digital experiences that successfully change behaviour is easier said than done. Changing behaviour means understanding what influences it – that’s where behavioural science meets digital design. BestAtDigital takes behavioural science seriously. We have an in-house Behavioural Insights Team and our own scientific practice for designing influential digital experiences. We call this practice our ‘Behavioural Insights Mantra’ (BIM) and we’d like to introduce you…

Changing behaviour: Why knowledge is not always power

The goal of any digital learning module or app is to get its users to change the way they’re doing things. A data protection module is no good if it makes no difference to how people handle data, and a health app is ineffective if it doesn’t help people to live more healthily. This seems obvious. But too often, digital experiences don’t change how people do things in the real world. Why is that?

So many digital experiences fail to create change because they only give users one tool to do so… knowledge. Just telling people what they should be doing and why is rarely enough to change their behaviour.1 That’s true even for the most important behaviours.

Let’s take social distancing as an example. We all know that it’s super important to stay two metres apart from those outside our households. But have you noticed that it all goes to pot when there’s no external aids to help us? When there’s no prompts, like posters and floor markers? When we notice that others aren’t doing it? We still know we should be staying two metres apart… we just don’t.

This is no surprise to behavioural scientists. According to one of the most influential models of behaviour – the Theoretical Domains Framework2 – giving people knowledge is just one of 14 influences on behaviour. It’s no wonder that people don’t change if they’re given information alone.

The power of behavioural science is that it gives the tools to address all 14 influences on behaviour. That’s why it leads to change and why it plays a big part in our digital design.

“Giving people knowledge is just one of 14 influences on behaviour… The power of behavioural science is that it gives the tools to address all fourteen of those influences. And that’s why it leads to change.”

Tapping into two systems of thought

Our misconception that knowledge is enough to change behaviour is harmful because it means we often overlook the other 13 influences on behaviour.

When we try to change behaviour by informing people of the right way to act, we’re considering only their ‘rational’ system of thought. But the other 13 influences on behaviour are mostly a result of another ‘irrational’ system of thought. Renowned psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, labels these ways of thinking as System 1 and System 2.3

System 1 is fast, intuitive, emotional and largely unconscious. If a red-faced person storms towards you, your System 1 kicks in quickly – you immediately know that they’re angry and that escaping might be a good idea!

System 2 is much slower and more considered. This kicks in when I ask you, for example, to calculate 54 x 16. It’s also the system of thought we’re targeting when we expect people to change their behaviour because we’ve given them logical reasons to do so.

The problem is that we underestimate how often our choices and behaviour are shaped by System 1 thinking. In fact, we fall victim to System 1 all the time – it’s why we say we’ll go to the gym after work… but end up slumped on the sofa stuffed with pizza. It’s why we make New Year’s resolutions, only to have gone back to our old ways by the middle of January. And it’s why we sometimes fail to comply with health and safety procedures, data protection regulations or any other workplace policies, even though we know better.

It’s only by understanding System 1 that we can bridge the gap between what people say they’ll do and what they actually do.

Now we introduce BIM – which is all about tapping into System 1 so that we can design digital experiences based on how people actually behave, rather than how they should behave.

BestAtDigital’s Behavioural Insights Mantra (BIM)

Our Behavioural Insights Team has scraped the scientific literature to develop a bespoke ‘mantra’ for digital design.

A lot of digital communication aims to get people to do something in the real world. That could be anything from getting people to report phishing emails, to reducing gendered language, or increasing participation in wellbeing initiatives. Whatever it is that you’re asking people to do, they’re more likely to do it if they can agree with BIM’s three statements.

Digital communications that lead people to agree with BIM’s statements are likely to cover many of the 14 influences of behaviour and, therefore, are more likely to create impact.

Our Behavioural Insights Mantra

When using BIM, we put ourselves in the shoes of the user and ask ourselves “Can I say these three things about what’s being asked of me?” If the answer is no, this tells us what kind of obstacle stops the user from changing their behaviour: Is it that they don’t want to do it? Is it too hard or inconvenient? Or do they feel different from others when they do it?

Once we identify an obstacle, how do we design to overcome it? Each statement is linked to a library of insights that we’ve selected from the behavioural science literature. These insights are specific design techniques that make it more likely that people can say “I want to do it, it’s easy and I connect with others”.

BIM can be used at all stages of the design process:

  • In brainstorms – sifting through BIM’s insights gets the creative juices flowing

  • Throughout design – all of the insights included in BIM are drawn from peer-reviewed scientific journals and widely used behavioural frameworks. They’re techniques based on the best available evidence

  • To review design - BIM is a lens through which we can evaluate design. If a design violates one of the statements, it might need a little modification

Our designers use BIM to supplement their existing best practices. But, as big fans of evidence-based decision-making, we use BIM internally too. We even used BIM in the creation of BIM (yep, we struggled to get our heads around that one too). Look out for our next article on how we’ve used BIM in digital design.

The science-y bit

We created BIM because we felt that the existing behavioural science frameworks didn’t quite hit the spot. We wanted something tailored to digital design and felt that other disciplines and areas of psychology had a lot to offer here.

If we think of BIM as a person, his skeleton is made up of positive psychology4 and human-centred design.5 We wanted something that puts the user’s needs at the forefront of design and that prioritises making people feel good, since we know that feeling good leads to long-lasting behaviour change.6

We like to call it a mantra because it’s a practice we use to guide design decisions to create positive change, just as you might recite a spiritual mantra to guide your own decision-making.

The behavioural science is the flesh and blood that brings BIM to life. Here, we’ve drawn on the vast body of behavioural science literature, as well as existing behavioural frameworks, such as EAST7 and MINDSPACE8, to select scientific insights most relevant to digital design. BIM also maps loosely onto COM-B,9 a widely used academic model for understanding obstacles to behaviour change.

As you can see, we’ve put a lot of work into BIM to create a scientifically robust and comprehensive framework that elevates digital design. We’re proud of it, but really BIM speaks for itself – our clients notice the impact of using behavioural science to great effect and love to see that we take an evidence-based approach to design. That’s just one reason why we’re best at what we do.

  1. Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin.

  2. Atkins, L., Francis, J., Islam, R., O’Connor, D., & Patey, A. (2017). A guide to using the Theoretical Domains Framework of behaviour change to investigate implementation problems. Implementation Science: IS.

  3. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin Books Ltd.

  4. Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (2001). Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

  5. Zoltowski, C. B., Oakes, W. C., & Cardella, M. E. (2012). Students’ ways of experiencing human-centered design. Journal of Engineering Education, 101(1), 28–59.

  6. Fogg, B. J. (2019). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  7. Team, B. I. (2014). EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights [White paper].

  8. Dolan, P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., King, D., & Vlaev, I. (2010). MINDSPACE: influencing behaviour for public policy [White paper]. eprints.lse.ac.uk.

  9. Michie, S., van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science, 6, 42.