Dr. Amy Bucher is currently the VP of behavior change at Mad*Pow, where she applies behavior change to the entirety of the design projects she works on. Her book, Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change, was published in March 2020. She has spoken about the relevance of behaviour change principles during the global pandemic, and in this Q&A below, I asked her to share everything designers need to know about behavior change during this challenging time.
How did you get into behavior change design?
When I finished my PhD in psychology, I knew I didn’t want an academic job. At the time, there wasn’t really anybody doing design psychology. I was very interested in healthcare so I joined a healthcare startup and was applying psychology to my work, getting a lot of experience in health and design. Behaviour change design is so powerful, and I’ve worked on projects designing for things like medication adherence, eating well, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for sleep habits.
In terms of becoming a behavior change designer there’s really no blueprint. One of the reasons I wrote a book was to take the academic knowledge out there and put it into designers’ hands so that they could use it in their work. What I didn’t intend when I wrote ‘Engaged: Designing for Behaviour Change’ was its immediate relevance to current events and the situation we all find ourselves in with physical distancing. Behaviour change principles can help us to understand what’s going on during the pandemic, and why some people have been slow to adopt physical distancing.
What are the key principles designers need to understand?
There are two important concepts at a high level that designers need to understand about behavior change –how motivation works, and the three basic psychological needs.
The first concept is the psychology of how motivation works. Motivation is what drives us to do certain things. A lot of us pick up the idea that motivation is either intrinsic (coming from inside ourselves), or extrinsic (coming from an outside source), and then the idea that it’s either high or low motivation.
Self-determination theory tells us that motivation really exists on a type of continuum, with intrinsic and extrinsic at the ends of the spectrum. Intrinsic motivation is the strongest type of motivation to do something, and external motivation being the weakest type. Identified and integrated motivation also exist along this spectrum. Identified motivation is about connecting a behavior to a goal you really value, and integrated motivation is where you think of yourself in a certain way, and the behavior is related to that identity.
The second concept is the idea of basic psychological needs. What the research tells us is that there are three basic psychological needs that humans have: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is about being able to make meaningful choices about our own needs. Competence is about interacting with your environment and seeing that you’re making a difference. Relatedness is to do with connection. We all have a need to feel related to and connected to others. Even for people who identify as introverts, this is a fundamental need.
How does behavior change relate to the COVID-19 pandemic?
To see the principles of behavior change in action, you don’t need to look any further than the current situation across the globe, as people have been asked to change their behavior. In North America, it felt like the situation escalated pretty suddenly – people were asked to change their daily behavior in a way that, for many, felt like they needed to give up everything they enjoy. We’re asking people to radically change their behavior through physical distancing, staying home, not going to work, closing businesses, not socializing, and so on. The request to self-isolate challenges people’s basic psychological needs.
Part of what’s very challenging from a psychological perspective is that these behavior modifications are imposed, which threatens our sense of autonomy. It also threatens our sense of competence, because as humans we want to do something and then see a result. However, during the pandemic, we are being asked to essentially do nothing, and if we’re lucky, nothing much changes, and we don’t get sick and those around us don’t get sick. Finally, of course, physical distancing and staying home greatly threatens our sense of connection and relatedness to others.
How can designers apply a behaviour change perspective during the pandemic?
What’s interesting about these basic psychological needs is that they have done this research globally in lots of different places, and it holds up in many different contexts. I love the idea that with this understanding of these basic needs, you can design for a really diverse audience. This means these principles will be relevant to people globally during this pandemic.
For designers, understanding the principles of behavior change design can help us during this crisis, both in our professional and personal lives. When we apply these principles, we understand that people (ourselves and others) need the following at this time:
We need to feel like we matter (autonomy):
- Can I make my own choices?
- Is anyone thinking about me and what I need?
- How can I express myself to the world within these constraints?
We need to feel effective (competence):
- If I make this sacrifice, will it make a difference?
- Do I have any resources, skills, or abilities that are particularly helpful right now?
- How do I avoid feeling like life is on hold?
We need to feel connected (relatedness):
- What is everyone else doing?
- How can I maintain my interactions over distance?
- How can I give and receive affection?
Keeping these in mind, we should be designing experiences that enhance people’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This is how we can create the conditions of success for these behaviours to stick. How do we give people room underneath the rules that need to be in place for the greater good? For example, encouraging people to order takeout from a local restaurant in order to support small businesses – if they feel empowered to make a difference, that can help them to feel hopeful and stay engaged in doing the right thing.
What does this mean for designers at a personal level during COVID-19?
For designers, we need to think about our own needs and what this crisis means for our own sense of motivation and basic psychological needs. Something I’m noticing is that for a lot of us, productivity is a way we think of ourselves and value ourselves. All of a sudden, we have to take on a lot of change, and we can’t have those same ideas of what it means to be successful. We have to reconsider what it means to be successful at this time – who are you at your core, what do you value?
There are some helpful exercises that you can do to really connect to your values and understand what’s important to you. For example, there’s a really well validated tool from the University of Pennsylvania called the values in action charter strength survey. It can really help you to clarify who you are as a person and what’s important to you. There are also exercises, like writing your own obituary, or writing a birthday card to yourself on your 100th birthday, or asking yourself what super powers you would have if you were a superhero that can help you to reflect on how you want to be remembered. This can help you to reflect on how you want to behave during this crisis.
What are the ethical and moral considerations with designing for behaviour change?
When we think about designing for behavior change, there are ethical considerations to keep in mind. For me a really big one is having informed consent, that for the most part if there’s a behavior that we’re trying to get people to do, they have knowingly agreed to that. When it comes to a lot of the more complex projects – your user really needs to understand that the goal is for them to do something different, and that goal needs to be one that they care about and want to do.
A lot of the research and understanding of your user has to focus on what matters to your user. If you do these things that violate what the user expects and wants, you will lose them eventually. So it’s really important to be mindful of where there might be potential breaches of that trust, for example using their data in a way they didn’t consent to. We want to make sure that we’re not doing things that are quick wins at the sacrifice of that trust because we will lose users in that way.
We also need to keep in mind that behavior change is a long game, something that’s rooted in motivation takes a long time. We are often trying to look holistically at multiple behaviors, and aiming to make changes that stick.
To learn more about behavior change design, check out Amy’s book, Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change. To learn more about Amy and her work, you can follow her on Twitter, check out her blog, or listen to some recent podcast episodes from the Rosenfeld Review, and This is HCD.