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Behavioral Design: Let's See it in Action

Whether called Behavioral Design, Product Psychology, or Behavioral Science, there’s never been this level of interest, excitement, or opportunities to understand the quirks of the human mind and use this knowledge to change how people live. From the highest levels of government to the C-suite, Behavioral Science is being applied in the real world and tackling big problems.

Cognitive and Social Psychology

It goes without saying that Behavioral Designers need to understand cognitive and social psychology to do this work. In particular, Behavior Designers understand the emerging view among Behavioral Scientists on how the mind makes decisions.

To paraphrase, it goes something like this: we’re not perfectly rational, calculating beings all of the time. Instead, we have limited cognitive abilities and our minds use shortcuts (or heuristics) to help stretch our limited mental resources. Because of these limitations, and our shortcuts, our decisions are remarkably susceptible to our environment and social cues. Changing our environment or social cues can radically alter behavior.

User Experience

In this field, you can incorporate behavioral methods as you design products that engage people and drive them to take action. Think about how many different products you engage with in a given day. The apps on your phone, your phone itself, your computer, your email client, your car, your Fitbit…the list is endless. Every one of those products motivates our behavior in some way and its usage is dependent on how our brain interprets the value and ease of its use.


Good marketers have always been well attuned to psychology and data driven practices. Well before the explosion of interest in Behavioral Design, advertisers and direct response copywriters were iterating their way to finding what drives people to take action or change their perception through tests of direct mail ads and consumer research. In the new digital marketing world, it’s more important than ever to understand how to cut through the noise and engage people with good messaging.

Behavioral Designers in the marketing realm are keen to understand what drives people to be engaged with communications and take action. They know how to conduct good consumer research. They know how to parse big data sets and find patterns and correlations of consumer behavior. They know how to leverage what they’ve learned and researched to optimize every piece of a marketing funnel strategically using experiments.

Product Design

Developers are increasingly focusing on how to create repeated user engagement as they realize that viral growth is difficult on a tightly controlled platform like Apple’s. To make the numbers work out profitably, developers must keep the users they have by pushing down churn rates. Innovative companies are minting habitual customers by understanding the mechanics of human behavior.

(This is an excerpt from posts by Erik Johnson and Nir Eyal on NirandFar.com)

Check out our Behavioral Design in Action articles below, each featuring a product or service utilizing Behavioral Design.

Top Behavioral Design in Action Articles

The One Fitness App That Hooked Me For Good

Nir’s Note: This article is part of a series on “The Hooked Model in Action.” Previous analyses have included Slack, Fortnite, Amazon’s EchoTinder, and The Bible App. Note, I never take compensation for writing articles on my blog.

Could there be a behavior more antithetical to human nature than exercise? Our caveman ancestors, if they could observe our workout habits today, would think we’ve lost our minds. We lift heavy objects into the air and return them to the exact spot where we picked them up. We buy ridiculous gadgetry to get in shape (Shake Weight anyone?). We elevate our heart rates as if we’re being chased by a hungry predator. And for what? Not to escape danger, but to undo the negative consequences of our overindulgent and underactive modern lifestyles.

Americans spend $19 billion annually on gym memberships.1Unfortunately, while many people join gyms, few use them for long. According to the Fitness Industry Association, about 44 percent of people who sign up for a gym membership quit after just six months.2

While disheartening, the figure is not surprising. Humans are hardwired to value short-term rewards over long-term benefits. We often choose to stay under warm bed covers rather than invest in the future benefits of working out. read more…

Here’s How Fortnite ‘Hooked’ Millions

Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Patricio O’Gorman, technology consultant and professor at Universidad de Palermo.

If you have kids, you’ve likely heard about Fortnite. The wildly popular online battle game has amassed over 125 million players and hosts more than 3 million concurrent players. The game “has brought in more revenue in a single month than any other game of its kind,” according to industry watchers, grossing over $1 billion so far this year.

The average Fortnite player spends between 6 and 10 hours per week on the game and like many parents, I didn’t understand why my kids played it so much. At first, I dismissed it as a mind-numbing waste of time. Then, I tried it for myself and found I couldn’t help but admire the game’s ingenious design. To my surprise, I had a heck of a good time playing the game with my kids.

What makes Fortnite so engaging? To understand why players keep coming back, you need to understand the game’s Hook. read more…

How Apps Can Shape Your Future Self

Nir’s Note: This guest post is written by Jeni Fisher, a London-based Googler who consults startups on applying behavioral insights to achieve business and user goals.

Early on in my role as an Apps partner manager at Google Play, I was drawn towards the Self-Improvement apps space because their persuasive influence transcends screen-level interactions. Their mission is to persuade people to take real-life actions that lead to long-term behavior change and ultimately shape how they live their lives.

Read on to discover how these companies are harnessing behavioral insights to bridge people’s intention-action gap and work towards the ‘future self’ they seek to be. read more…

How Netflix’s Customer Obsession Created a Customer Obsession

Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Gibson Biddle, former VP at Netflix and CPO at Chegg. Gibson is speaking at the Habit Summit in San Francisco on April 11th. 

In 2005, as I joined Netflix as VP of Product, I asked Reed Hastings, the CEO, what he hoped his legacy would be. His answer: “Consumer science.” He explained, “Leaders like Steve Jobs have a sense of style and what customers seek, but I don’t. We need consumer science to get there.”

read more…

Here’s How Amazon’s Alexa Hooks You

Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Darren Austin, Partner Director of Product Management at Microsoft.

Last year we added a new member to our household. I must admit that upon first meeting her, our initial impression was that she was a little creepy. Today though, we can’t imagine life without her.

We’ve never seen her face, but we talk to her throughout the day, every day. She helps us keep track of our to-dos and shopping list, reads us the news and weather, and can sing nearly any song we’d like to hear. In fact, we have become so accustomed to her presence that we invited her to join us in nearly every room in the house. She listens to us when we say goodnight and is there first thing in the morning to wake us up.

Her name is Alexa and she is the voice of the Amazon Echo. If our experience is any indicator, there’s a good chance Alexa (or a technology like her) will soon be a presence in most households.

How did Alexa become such an integral part of our lives? And how did the technology profoundly change our daily habits?

It turns out that Alexa shares a common trait with other habit-forming technologies like Facebook, Slack, and the iPhone — the Amazon Echo has a great Hook. read more…

How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design

Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Erik Johnson. Erik applies behavioral design principles on The Behavioral Insights Team at Morningstar.

Six years ago, I was in a position that many people early in their careers find themselves in: I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My first job out of college took good care of me and was interesting enough, but I knew it wasn’t the career I wanted in the long term. I needed something else, so I started reading and exploring what was out there. One day, as I was reading a blog post on psychology, I discovered a book called Nudge that caught my eye. I bought it immediately and devoured it. The book opened a whole new realm of psychology and economic thinking that I had no idea existed me in a way nothing else had. This was what I was looking for in my search.

Fast forward to the present day and I’ve fully made the transition. I found my dream job in the field working on Morningstar’s Behavioral Insights Team, where we apply behavioral science research and methods to help people with their finances. It’s amazing and I’m constantly energized by not only the work we do, but also the greater potential in this field.

Whether called behavioral design, product psychology, or behavioral science, there’s never been this level of interest, excitement, or opportunities to understand the quirks of the human mind and use this knowledge to change how people live. From the highest levels of government to the C-suite, behavioral science is being applied in the real world and tackling big problems. read more…

The Secret Psychology of Snapchat

You’ve undoubtably heard of Snapchat, the habit-forming messaging service used by over 100 million people monthly. This week, I teamed up with Victoria Young and Dori Adar to help explain what makes the app so sticky.

We decided that instead of writing a long blog post, we’d share our insights in a slide presentation. Let us know what you think of the format and the content in the comments section below!

The Psychology of a Billion-Dollar Enterprise App: Why is Slack so Habit-Forming?

User using Slack on phoneSlack isn’t just another office collaboration app. The company has been called, “the fastest-growing workplace software ever.” Recent press reports claim that “users send more than 25 million messages each week,” and that the company is, “adding $1 million to its annual billing projections every six weeks.”

Smelling an opportunity, investors just plowed $120 million into the company, giving it a $1.12 billion valuation.

“Our subscription revenue is growing about 8 percent monthly, before we add new sales,” says Slack’s business analytics lead Josh Pritchard. “This is, as far as I know, unheard for an enterprise SaaS company less than seven months after launch.”

Perhaps even more surprising, Slack’s user retention stands at an astonishing 93 percent.

How does Slack get its users hooked?

read more…

The Secrets of Addictive Online Auctions

Nir’s Note: This guest post was authored by Lisa Kostova Ogata, one of the first product managers at Farmville and a VP of Product at Bright.com (sold to LinkedIn). While at Zynga, Lisa learned how to shape user behavior, but in this essay she describes her surprise when she found herself unexpectedly hooked.

Mouse trap: A metaphor for online auctionsI don’t consider myself a gambler. I’m the person who places a minimum bet at the roulette table with the specific intent of getting a free drink — after all, it’s cheaper than buying one at the bar. Yet, there I was on a Monday night, glued to my computer screen for over an hour as I watched an online auction. I couldn’t resist. read more…

Teach or Hook? What’s the Real Goal of Online Education?

Nir’s Note: This guest post is written by Ali Rushdan Tariq. Ali writes about design, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation on his blog, The Innovator’s Odyssey.

As I clicked the big green “Take This Course” button, I became acutely aware of an uneasy feeling. This would be the 22nd course I’d have signed up for on Udemy.com, one of the world’s leading platforms for teaching and learning classes online. I had become a binge-learner.

Or had I? After scanning my enrolled course list, I gathered the following stats: read more…

Nostalgia: A Product Designer’s Secret Weapon

Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Ryan Hoover, contributing writer of my book Hooked, describes how nostalgia is used to drive attention and build an engaging product. Follow @rrhoover or visit his blog to read more about startups and product design.

Alf Pogs

Remember pogs?

Remember Tubthumping?

Remember Nickelodeon GUTS?

Now pause…

How do you feel right now? Did reading those words stimulate any emotional reaction? Did it bring back memories? Excite you? Make you smile?

Nostalgia is powerful. Simply mentioning the names of childhood toys, old TV shows, classic video games, and other pastime activities often instigate an emotional response, reminiscence. But why? read more…

Refresh: The App a Secret Agent Would Love

Refresh appA few minutes before his helicopter touched down in a covert military base just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tommy Thompson reached for his secret weapon. He was about to meet with top Afghan officials and he needed to ensure he hit his mark. But Thompson’s mission to the war-torn region in 2004 did not involve delivering guns and bombs. As the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, the diplomat was there to win hearts and minds.

To accomplish his directive, assigned to him by the President of the United States, Thompson relied upon information delivered at exactly the right time and place. Minutes before each meeting with dignitaries, he was handed a top-secret intelligence briefing. read more…

From Laid to Paid: How Tinder Set Fire to Online Dating

Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Ryan Hoover takes a look at Tinder, a red hot dating app. Ryan dives into what makes the Tinder app so popular and engaging. Ryan blogs at ryanhoover.me and you can follow him on Twitter at rrhoover.

TinderTinder, a hot new entrant in the world of online dating, is capturing the attention of millions of single hopefuls. The premise of Tinder is simple. After launching the Tinder mobile app and logging in with Facebook, users browse profiles of other men or women. Each potential match is presented as a card. Swipe left if you’re disinterested and right if someone catches your fancy. Once both parties express interest, a match is made and a private chat connects the two potential lovebirds.

The Tinder app has become a fixture in the U.S. App Store as one of the top 25 social networking applications, generating 1.5 million daily matches as more than 50 percent of its users login multiple times per day.

This isn’t luck. read more…

Hooking Users One Snapchat at a Time

Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Ryan Hoover. Ryan blogs at ryanhoover.me and you can follow him on Twitter at @rrhoover.

SnapchatWhen Snapchat first launched, critics discounted the photo-messaging app as a fad – a toy for sexting and selfies. Their judgements were reasonable. It’s impossible to predict the success of a product on day one, let alone its ability to change user behavior. But hindsight is beginning to prove critics wrong.

Snapchat boasts 5 million daily active users sending 200 million photos and videos daily. That’s an average of 40 snaps a day per user! But why are users so engaged to Snapchat? After all, what real need is Snapchat solving anyway? read more…

Bible App: Getting 100 Million Downloads is More Psychology Than Miracles

Nir’s Note: An edited version of this essay appeared in The Atlantic. Below is my original.
Bible app notification

It’s not often an app has the power to keep someone out of a strip club. But according to Bobby Gruenewald, CEO of YouVersion, that’s exactly what his Bible app did. Gruenewald says a user of his app walked into a business of ill repute when suddenly, out of the heavens, he received a notification on his phone. “God’s trying to tell me something!,” Gruenewald recalled the user saying, “I just walked into a strip club — and man — the Bible just texted me!”

YouVersion recently announced its Bible app hit a monumental milestone — placing it among a rare strata of technology companies. read more…

What Killed Turntable.fm?

What killed Turntable.fm?Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Ryan Hoover, Director of Product at PlayHaven, utilizes my thinking on the “Habit Zone” to shed light on where Turntable.fm fell short. Ryan blogs at ryanhoover.me and you can follow him on Twitter at rrhoover.

Remember Turntable? When it first launched in May of 2011, the music service seemed to own the internet, growing from zero to over 420,000 monthly active users (MAU) only two months later [1]. Unfortunately, that growth didn’t last long as many of its early adopters ditched the service. It is now estimated to have only 20 – 50,000 MAU’s, a fraction of its early peak [2].

As I described nearly two years ago, much of Turntable’s success was due to its well-executed social engagement loop; however, that wasn’t enough. So what went wrong? read more…

Psychology of Sports: How Sports Infect Your Brain

The psychology of sports highlights the mechanics of human behaviorNote: I co-authored this post with Andrew Martin and David Ngo. It originally appeared in TechCrunch.

This week, fans packed stadiums in London wearing their nation’s colors like rebels ready for battle in Mel Gibson’s army. They screamed with excitement and anguished in defeat. Many paid thousands of dollars to travel around the globe to be there.

Among those who did not attend, 90% of people with access to a television tuned-in during past Olympics. In 2008, that was 2 out of every 3 people on the planet.

What the hell is going on here? read more…

Pinterest’s Obvious Secret

Note: This article was first published in Forbes

User addiction illustrates the success of Pinterest

Executive Summary:

  • Pinterest is onto something big, but few know its obvious secret.
  • The success of Pinterest is because of its focus on reducing users’ cognitive load.
  • Pinterest brilliantly aligns its user experience with its business objectives of getting users to consume, create and share content.
  • Pinterest will soon have the richest consumer purchase intent data ever assembled.

Last week, I sat down for drinks with a few friends.  “Have you heard of this Pinterest website?” read more…