Expert interview: Behavioural science applied to digital product design

Design | Interview - 9th December 2019
By Pixelfield team

How can behavioural science be applied to mobile app design and development? Why is it beneficial to strengthen your UX team with a behavioural expert and how is the diffusion of the digital and physical worlds influencing our behaviour? 

Marek Hasa

Marek is Pixelfield’s behavioural expert and a teacher of persuasive communication at the University of Amsterdam.

Marek, please tell me how can behavioural science help us to design more inviting and exciting mobile experience?

Well, one could easily write a whole book when replying to such a question! Let’s start broad. In one sentence, it helps us understand how and why people interact with an app in a certain way and subsequently adjust the environment based on empirical evidence. 

The power of behavioural science lies in its ability to map out the network of interconnected behaviours our target users move around in every day and understand their motivations to engage in all the different actions, as well as the barriers that prevent them from doing other competing behaviours. It supplies us with frameworks with which we can understand the mental processes behind every user action within the app – both conscious and automatic. And finally, it provides us with a useful toolbox of well-evidenced tactics often derived from behavioural economics – so-called nudges, subtle adjustments to the UI or UX which help us adjust user behaviour within our app.

Does this mean that it covers the UX research and user testing, but from a more broad and scientific point of view?

That’s one way to see it, yes. I would argue that behavioural science is a much broader field which can be applied in many different settings and for various purposes. The goal of UX research and user testing is to understand the behaviour and motivations of users within the app and to validate our assumptions. And behaviour science can help us with that. You can see it as a source of helpful frameworks and theoretical and empirical insights for which we can reach out when conducting UX research and working on the UX/UI design of an app. It’s also important to say that the use of behavioural science in digital design is not a brand new trend – many of the insights are already widespread and well-known among UX designers.

From the product owner’s point of view – what are the benefits of having a behavioural expert on the team, working with UX designers and product designers?

I believe that in many cases, UX and product designers will do fine without any behavioural people on board. If you’re dealing with a constrained budget and the user journeys you’re designing are rather simple, then you can just rely on your UX designer’s knowledge of the essential behavioural principles. 

However, if the challenges you’re trying to solve get more complex, I highly suggest teaming up with a person who can not only map out current vs. desired behaviours but also uncover hidden psychological mechanisms and deep-rooted motivations specific for all your personas. Behavioural specialists are equipped with the right toolkits to dig deeper and bring your design optimization process to another level.

Can you give me some examples of problems that would benefit from having a behavioural expert on board?

You can think of any UX challenge that is too difficult to solve without a thorough understanding of users’ motivations, barriers and the underlying mechanisms of their current behaviours. A challenge that might be too complex for the lenses of digital design.

For instance, the website of your political candidate might be struggling with increasing the number of subscribed volunteers for the campaign. Or it may be that your e-commerce app is failing to push people to also adding recommended accessories and other products that might complement the one they are already about to purchase. 

You can try solving both of these challenges just by rethinking the user journey a bit or adjusting the CTAs of your interface. But chances are you won’t be as successful as if you decide to dig deeper and understand the key mental processes that direct your users’ actions.

As a behavioural expert, can you think of some example situations in which people behave differently in the digital environment than in real life?

Digital products such as apps and websites often capitalize on their ability to craft and highlight the sense of urgency and prompt people to quick action. Social media have taught us to actively seek instant gratification when spending time on our mobile or desktop devices. When browsing through an e-commerce app or website, we’re much more prone to acting on triggers communicating scarcity or time-limited offers compared to an offline store situation. Generally speaking, people tend to be more driven by their emotions in digital environments and base their judgment and actions even more on heuristics and salient cues.

Based on this importance of emotions and heuristics, can you give our readers some tips on what to be careful about when working on a new digital product?

Never assume that your user is a fully rational being. Invest a lot of time and energy into learning about the situations in which they interact with your digital product or service. Understand their motivations and aspirations, the short-term ones might be even more important in digital environments. And try to hit the sweet spot when nudging your users with the right cues that are also beneficial for them – make sure you don’t overshadow your products and services with overly annoying prompts and aggressive design.

There’s no doubt that we’re getting more and more immersed in the digital world. Can you think of examples of how that affects our behaviour in real life?

I would say that every single aspect of our lives is already greatly influenced (some might even say “determined”) by digital technologies. It’s actually much harder to think of the opposite examples – is there anything in our lives that has still remained untouched by the digital world? 

Following up on my previous answers, I think people have become more strongly oriented towards short-term goals and instant gratification. They require more action and intensity in their daily lives – the amount they’re used to from their smartphones and laptops. And despite their rich social interactions online, their real-life relationships are weaker, they don’t invest enough energy into maintaining healthy friendships and family relations. But those are all merely general trends that definitely don’t apply to everyone.

How are the young generations, born into an informational and technological society, different from the older ones? How can we take this into account when designing new products for them?

That’s an incredibly broad topic that would deserve its own article, backed up with some interesting insights coming from hard data. But to give you a very general answer again, I think that some of the rather negative trends I mentioned in my previous answer apply to them more than to the older generations. On the other hand, they’re also naturally much better equipped when it comes to handling new technologies. It’s easier for them to process all the intensive flows of media content and urgent prompts because it’s been a part of their life since early childhood. They can easily adopt emerging technology and navigate through an innovatively designed digital product.

What can we expect from the connection of behavioural science and app design, UX and UI design?

Miracles, of course! On a more serious note, I think it very much depends on the type of project you’re dealing with and all its challenges. I can easily imagine that some rather simple digital products don’t really need any scientific behavioural input, especially in the first phase and even more so if they’re being built on a tight budget. Sometimes it might be better to just keep things as simple as possible at the beginning and kick-off the first version of the product without getting tangled up in psychological mechanisms and hidden motivations. But in that case, it may be wise to team up with a behavioural expert when analysing the first batch of data and deciding on the adjustments and additional features for future releases. Having someone familiar with behavioural science on your team can give your design process much more depth and save you huge amounts of money – sometimes the tiniest adjustment in the user journey or page layout can solve a problem you’ve been stuck at for months.

Which technology do you think is going to shape our behaviour and our experience in the upcoming decade?

Not that I am an expert on future technological trends but from the perspective of a behavioural designer, I am very much looking forward to augmented reality becoming a mainstream part of our daily lives. As soon as 5G becomes truly wide-spread, I believe we are about to see many new applications of augmented reality at home, on the streets or at work. And it will be very interesting to witness and study how our behaviour and the products and services we use adjust to this large-scale blending of digital environments and real life.

Written by
Pixelfield team
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