Weight loss, giving up smoking, exercising more, drinking less – us humans start out with the best intentions. But it’s often very hard to get desirable new habits to stick. Why is this? And what can we do as experience designers to nudge people into good habits that have a positive and lasting effect?

One of the main problems with humans is that we’re fundamentally lazy for a genuine, physiological reason. Our brains are only 2% of body mass but use up 20% of our oxygen supply. So, the subconscious ‘affective’ brain responsible for much of our decision-making in daily life uses cognitive short cuts or heuristics. Basically, it runs on autopilot, favouring the easy choice, the default option, the same thing it picked last time. 

The other part of the brain is the ‘analytical’ part which deals with complex decision-making like navigating or learning a new skill. It’s slow, effortful and energy-draining so it tends not to get involved too much when it doesn’t have to. Instead it leaves most of the decisions to the ‘affective’ brain and its ability to make snap judgements based on past behaviours.

Unfortunately for us humans, the affective brain is also the impulsive, naughty brain – the bit that chooses an ice cream over an apple, spending over saving, smoking over giving up. It’s just easier and there’s instant gratification, even though the long-term results aren’t so good. 

What behavioural nudges in experience design can do is find ways around these problems, encouraging people to make positive choices that become long-term changes. Here are some of the things we can do to empower users who are taking steps to improve something in their lives.

Make it easy
Learning new habits is hard because we have to use the slow, analytical part of our brain and it makes the task seem harder than it is. So we need to use all the tricks we have to frame tasks as easy. Starting out with one clear goal and benefit at the beginning is less of a mental load and often gives better results – there will be plenty of opportunities further down the line to add additional goals and educate the user on extra benefits. Simple choices, clear instructions, not too many steps, not too much information – all of these are crucial. And language is absolutely key: users need to be able to grasp what they need to do instantly – any hint of ambiguity will cause drop-off.

Identify key moments in the journey
Key moments are the point where a customer makes a decision that will affect the rest of their journey. It’s important to understand how people are feeling in those moments in order to find effective ways to shift behaviour with specific nudges or design choices that will help keep them on track. They could be as simple as reminder notifications with the default option set as ‘yes’, making it less effort to choose the option more likely to result in a successful outcome.

Get them to make a commitment
People like to think that they behave in a consistent, positive way. Asking users to commit works because it boosts people’s self-image. Making commitments public, for instance sharing them on social media, or wearing a badge in real-world situations, adds another dimension: that of wanting to live up to expectations. But the timing of the commitment nudge is crucial. Sometimes it’s easier to get people to commit to a future date, but this can also have the unintended consequence of ‘leaking’ the idea to the user that perhaps it’s not that important and can be ignored when the time comes…

Give affirmations and rewards
People need small ‘wins’ along the way to their main goal. Encouraging messages, points and virtual badges provide positive feedback loops that help reinforce new habits. Sometimes this will purely be about personal achievement; in other scenarios having a competitive element works, for instance leader boards and tangible prizes for the highest scoring users. Whether the goal is weight loss, stopping smoking or improving financial decisions, rewards give people a sense of progress on their journey towards better outcomes.

Suggest behaviour swaps
A tasty fruit salad instead of chocolate, a sparkling drink instead of wine, behaviour swaps are crucial for those moments that are usually the cue for the ‘old’ habit. The worst thing you can do is leave a gap in someone’s everyday life – the old habit will sneak back in to fill it. This means advising users to do a bit of planning, so that they don’t find the only ‘easy’ option is the one they’re supposed to be moving away from.

Provide extra motivation further down the line
It’s easy for people to falter before the new habit is ingrained enough to stick. This is the time to introduce new ‘reasons why’ they should continue. If, for example, someone who has taken up exercising in order to lose weight is close to achieving their goal, it’s good to remind them that they may also have found they have more energy, sleep better, have improved their mood and lost inches around their waist. Hearing these reasons will help cement their new habits and make them less likely to slip back into their old ways.

Don’t assume, test
Using tried and tested behavioural interventions means we can accelerate work on new projects. But as experience designers we need to remember our own ‘lazy brains’ and make sure these interventions work for this particular scenario and set of users. Testing nudges and their nuances in terms of design, wording and timing is crucial in order to tweak experiences to the optimum level for behaviour change. 

Behavioural nudges within experience design not only helps people get on the road to good habits, they can also help to make those new habits stick. It’s about making the right interventions at the right moment, using what we know about decision-making and affective and analytical parts of the brain to make a big impact where it counts.

At BIO we design exceptional experiences based on real human behaviour to drive real business impact. To find out how we can help nudge your audience into positive desired behaviours contact us here.

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