We in the design business love when people do what we want. Nothing is more satisfying than when a user intuitively understands what to do with what we've built. At the heart of good design, however, is understanding what the user really wants to get done.
But what of designing for behaviors people don't want to do, at least not right now? We all know we should eat healthier, exercise more, create fewer greenhouse gases, give more to charity, and vote in every local election from city council to school board. But do we? Despite countless organizations and nonprofits encouraging us to do what we know we should, we often don't. Why is designing for behaviors in the user's best interests so hard?
Recycling is Trash
Back in school, I remember having lunch with my mother when she came into town for a visit. We sat in the cafeteria at the Stanford Graduate School of Business campus. After our meal, she offered to take our trays to the trash while I cleaned off the table. But what she encountered was not one garbage can, but four.
I watched her as she first stopped and tried to comprehend what to do. She wanted to comply with the recycling instructions but as she stood there, dirty tray in hand, her mind was struggling to figure out what to do. Each bin was color-coded and had a description identifying what could and could not be thrown in.
Since English is not her first language, she struggled to understand the cryptic signs. The red bin was for glass, plastic, and cans. The blue bin for paper. The yellow for something else and the gray for still another thing. Our forks were made out of an eco-friendly material, so she hesitated to know where to put those, composting or recycling? Our plates were made of paper but they were soggy from the food we ate. Where were those supposed to go?
She put her aluminum can in the red bin first, but then, after standing, thinking, and the occasional false start, she gave up and put all her contents in the grey trash bin marked for landfill. "At least I didn't make a mistake. Everything can go in the trash, right?" she said as she came back to the table. My mother knew she hadn't done what was asked of her and I could tell by her embarrassed tone that she was blaming herself.
The "It's Me, Not You" Effect
Too often, the result of poor design is shame. Users think that they are at fault, not the designer. Anyone who has conducted a usability test has heard the phrase, "I'm sorry" when users can't figure out what to do next. But the true tragedy of poor design is that users begin to change their self image and stop trying altogether.
This form of learned helplessness is what I call the "it's me, not you" effect and occurs when people are conditioned to stop responding to opportunities to help themselves. The effect is made possible by a reflexive response to blame our condition, and not the context.
Unfortunately, the effect gets worse the more times the user fails to complete the intended action. The person begins to cement opinions about their abilities, making it harder for them to try again next time. A dieter begins to think, "I’m unable to lose weight. I'm just overweight. It's who I am.” The non-voting citizen justifies not casting a ballot, saying "I'm just not political." and becomes increasingly apathetic. Just as momentum makes doing a behavior easier, not doing something makes it more likely that the user never will.
It’s easy to blame the user for not trying hard enough. But what blame rests with the designer? If the design trade is the discipline of facilitating human behaviors, then failures of action are also failures of design.
When my mother returned to our lunch table, she felt a bit less capable then when she left to throw away her trash a few minutes before. Instead of helping her do something, the designed experience of asking her to recycle everything on her tray left her feeling worse. Sure, she could have spent more time trying to figure out what was being asked of her, but given her priorities at the moment, namely seeing her son and getting rid of a heavy tray of garbage, it's hard to blame user error alone.
But it didn't have to be that way. For example, before the iPad, my mother wrote off technology as something only young people used. "I'm too old for that," she would say whenever I would encourage her to write me an email. Now, however, the iPad has liberated her from the belief that she was incapable. The apps she uses most accomplish simple singular tasks, like email or take pictures. And through a series of small actions, the device has increased her ability to do more than she could before, encouraging her continued investment in learning new behaviors.
No lecture could have increased my mother's motivation to use technology. She'd written it off as something that just wasn’t made for her. Yet, increasing people's ability to accomplish more is what long-term change is all about and it's up to the designer to engineer the behaviors that change lives.
If you'd like to discuss this topic, come join me at the Cooper Parlor on Design and Activism this Thursday.
Cooper Parlor: Design + Activism
Date: Thursday, July 19th
Time: Doors open 6pm. Salon starts 6:30pm. Ends at 8:30pm
Cost: Free of charge (60 seats. First come, first serve.)
Location: Cooper headquarters
100 First Street, 26th Floor (Enter the building on Mission Street)
SF, CA 94105
Photo Credit: Pylon757
Top Consumer Psychology Articles
- The One Fitness App That Hooked Me For Good
- Here's How Fortnite 'Hooked' Millions
- How Apps Can Shape Your Future Self
- How Netflix's Customer Obsession Created a Customer Obsession
- Want to Design User Behavior? Pass the 'Regret Test' First
- How to Trigger Product Usage that Sticks
- How to Get People to Help Each Other, Online and Off
- Here's How Amazon's Alexa Hooks You
- How to Use Psychology to Make Persuasive Video
- How to Use Personality Science to Drive Online Conversions
- The Unbelievable Future of Habit-Forming Technology
- The Secret Marketing Power of Evolutionary Psychology
- Don’t Ask People What They Want, Watch What They Do
- How Cognitive Biases Can Help (and Hurt) Your Business
- What Most People Don't Know About Behavioral Design
- How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design
- Your World is Full of Placebo Buttons (and That's a Good Thing)
- How to Build Technology that Feels Like a Friend
- 3 Pillars of the Most Successful Tech Products
- Here's How to Ethically Manipulate Other People
- How Two Companies Hooked Customers On Products They Rarely Use
- How to Hook Users in 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Die Dashboards, Die! Why Conversations Will Reinvent Software
- The Secret to Sending Emails and Notifications That Work
- How to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- Hooked for Good: How Habit-Forming Products Improve Lives
- Good Products Start With Good Questions
- Human + A.I. = Your Digital Future
- Why 'Assistant-As-App' Might Be the Next Big Tech Trend
- People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently.
- 4 Ways to Win Your Competitor's Customer Habits (Slides)
- Here’s Why You'll Hate the Apple Watch (and the Important Business Lesson You Need to Know)
- The Secret Psychology of Snapchat
- The Psychology of Notifications: How to Send Triggers that Work
- How Technology Tricks You Into Tipping More
- The Limits of Loyalty: When Habits Change, You're Toast
- 4 Ways to Use Psychology to Win Your Competition's Customers
- The Real Reason “Stupid” Startups Raise So Much Money
- The Psychology Behind Why We Can't Stop Messaging
- The Psychology of a Billion-Dollar Enterprise App: Why is Slack so Habit-Forming?
- Framing Reward is as Important as Reward Itself
- A Free Course on User Behavior
- It’s Not All Fun And Games: The Pros and Cons of Gamification at Work
- Getting Traction: How to Hook New Users
- Designing for Behavior Change Book Review
- The Sneaky Trick Behind the Explosive Growth of the Kardashian Game
- How Successful Companies Design for Users' Multi-Device Lives
- The Link Between Habits and User Satisfaction
- What Triggers The Best Word of Mouth Marketing?
- What Tech Companies Can Learn from Rehab
- The Secrets of Addictive Online Auctions
- Teach or Hook? What's the Real Goal of Online Education?
- Using Mind Control to Raise Startup Cash
- How To Build Habits In A Multi-Device World
- How To Cope with Your Insane Jealousy Of The WhatsApp Deal
- Why Do Fads Fade? The Inevitable Death Of Flappy Bird
- You'd Be Surprised By What Really Motivates Users
- Nostalgia: A Product Designer's Secret Weapon
- How You Can Help Users Change Habits
- Is “Lean Startup” Right for Your Idea?
- Hunting for Habits: Keying in on smart design to make a product irresistible
- Are Companies Too Obsessed With Growth? How to Measure Habits
- Refresh: The App a Secret Agent Would Love
- Angel or Devil: Who’s Really Investing In Your Start-Up?
- In 10 Years, We Won't Use Personal Technology
- 4 Simple Things I Did to Control My Bad Tech Habits
- "Yes, And": The Two Words that Created a #1 App
- From Laid to Paid: How Tinder Set Fire to Online Dating
- What if In-App Purchases Came to Real Life?
- Hooking Users One Snapchat at a Time
- How To Save Your Startup From The “Spotlight Effect”
- Bible App: Getting 100 Million Downloads is More Psychology Than Miracles
- How to Boost Desire Using the Psychology of Scarcity
- Marketplaces & The Curse of the Network Effect
- Today's Behaviors, Tomorrow's Startups
- Venture Capital and The Superstitious Investor
- The Future is Driven by Interface Changes
- Why Business is Addicted to Habits
- Viral Loops Or Viral 'Oops'?
- Making a Marketplace
- What Killed Turntable.fm?
- What You Don't Know About Human Intuition Can Hurt You
- Designing to Reward our Tribal Sides
- New Video - "Hooked: Building Habit-Forming Products"
- How Technology is Like Bug Sex
- Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do
- The Network Effect Isn’t Good Enough
- Mass Persuasion, One User At A Time
- How Investment Drives Engagement (Slides)
- Getting Your Product Into the Habit Zone
- Where Have The Users Gone?
- Infinite Scroll: The Web’s Slot Machine
- Designing User Habits Video
- Psychology of Sports: How Sports Infect Your Brain
- This is Your Brain On Boarding: How to Turn Visitors Into Users
- User Investment: Make Your Users Do the Work
- Behavior by Design Video
- When Designing for Good Is Bad
- Stop Building Apps, Start Building User Behaviors
- The Next Secrets of the Internet
- User Growth and Engagement: A Hacker Metric
- Spotting the Next Facebook: Why Emotions are Big Business
- The Billion Dollar Mind Trick: An Intro to Triggers
- Why Everyone Hates I.T. People
- Hooking Users In 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Abolish The Reference Check
- Variable Rewards: Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy
- How to Design Behavior (The Behavior Change Matrix)
- How To Design For “Normals”
- Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire
- User Habits: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts
- What Is, and Is Not, Your Product's Job
- Pinterest’s Obvious Secret
- Personalized eCommerce Is Already Here, You Just Don’t Recognize It
- Where is the Web Going?
- The Developer Divide: When Great Companies Can't Hire
- Being a Quitter Makes You a Good Entrepreneur
- Behavior by Design
- Why You Should Run Your Business Barefoot
- Are you a Startup Star, Wacko, or Wannabe?