Emotion | Emotion | Mixed Emotions | Behavioural Design Skip to main content
Reading time 10 min

Behavioral Design

Mixed Emotions Live 198

At SUE & The Alchemists (SATA) and SUE | Behavioral Design (SUE), it's all about behavioral change. The agency has offices in Amsterdam and Breda and is a consultancy, academy, and research center all-in-one, so they are firmly rooted in hands-on experience. And that really works. That is why we at Emotion are crazy about them and have had nearly our entire team trained to start working on behavioral change. This overview gives you a glimpse of what it's all about.

Guest contribution by Klaas Dijkhoff, founder of SUE & The Alchemists and speaker at Mixed Emotions Live 29 september 2022.

Behavioral Design is all about influencing

How can you influence your spirit and shape your behavior? How can you change the behavior of others, but also your own? How can you help people make better decisions? Behavioral Design is a systematic approach to understanding the thought process and making decisions. This is the basis for interventions that lead to behavioral change. And that may involve all kinds of topics, large or small, ranging from elections to buying a carton of milk.

The most pragmatic definition of Behavioral Design that we have found so far is this:

Behavioral Designers combine psychology, design, technology, and creative methods to find out why people do what they do. And through experimenting, they try to find out how they can mobilize them to change their behavior.

Behavioral Design is a method

SUE sees Behavioral Design as a combination of Design Thinking with behavioral science while focusing on changing behavioral patterns. SATA thereby specifically focuses on strategy and perception. Design Thinking focuses on problem solving after first acquiring a great deal of insight. That is the basis for creativity. Thinking of as many ideas as possible and turning the best one into a prototype. This will then need to be tested in the real world to see what happens. According to Ideo, the godfather of Design Thinking, this will give you:

  1. Better insight into why people do what they do.
  2. Better ideas about where to look for solutions.
  3. Better prototypes, because you have a better understanding of what kind of behavioral result you are designing for.
Mixed Emotions Live 192

The ethics of Behavioral Design

The line that separates positive influence and manipulation is quite fragile. The problem is that those who want to design behavior to benefit others often feel guilty about applying Behavioral Design. While those people who use this knowledge to manipulate and mislead others are often more motivated and advanced and have no qualms about applying it. Think of, for example, how extreme-right populists exploit fear and uncertainty. Or how tech companies stoke our desire for social connection until it becomes an addiction.

At SUE and SATA, we are very sensitive to this ethical component. That is why our mission states that our goal is "to release the power of behavioral psychology to help people make better decisions in life, at work and at play.” This is sacred to us - we refuse work that does not adhere to this.

Behavioral Design is all about designing choices

We aim for behavioral change. But we must create interventions at several different levels at the same time:

  1. Attention - how can you ensure that something receives attention?
  2. Curiosity - how can you ensure that people will want to invest energy to find out more?
  3. Perception - how can you ensure that something will be seen as the most appealing option?
  4. Experience - how can you ensure that you give someone a positive feeling?
  5. Behavior - how can you increase the likelihood that people will respond to your trigger?
  6. Habits - how can you ensure that people will maintain the behavior? (save money, live healthily, etc.)

This list shows that Behavioral Design is all about how we design choices and how we present choices. This is all about human decision-making and how the brain works. Messrs. Kahneman and Tversky, however, discovered that approximately 96% of our thinking is automatic or unconscious. Our brain makes most decisions by taking shortcuts, in order to unburden the 4% bandwidth of our slow, rational brain. (Read the masterpiece "Thinking Fast and Slow".)

So, behavioral influence, in fact, comes down to how can we help people make decisions without having to think. Because the longer we need to think about something, the more stress we experience. And the fewer choices we ultimately end up making.

Behavioral Designers think 'outside-in'

The most common mistake is thinking inside-out. Designers will take the benefits of a product and pitch them so that people will see their value. Behavioral Designers do it the other way around. We take the human as starting point and try to find out what he/she needs to be successful. So, what fears, doubts, prejudices, or bad habits will impede that person from embracing the desired behavior. Or, which pains, or frustrations can we resolve for them?

We have further developed these basic principles in the SUE | Influence Framework©. This model elicits all the forces that influence the behavior of the people for whom we design interventions.

Behavioural Designers work with principles from the science of influence

The next step: how do we convert a deep understanding of the forces that explain the behavior of people into ideas for behavioral change. We have developed a handy tool for this: the SUE | SWAC-tool©. It explains which pieces of the puzzle you need to solve in order to create a context that convinces someone to do something and continue doing it. You only need to ask yourself four simple questions:

  1. How can we ensure that someone WANTS to adopt the new behavior?
  2. How can we ensure that someone is ABLE to adopt the new behavior?
  3. How can we awaken this new behavior at the moments when it really matters?
  4. How can we trigger this new behavior time and time again?

This will help to quickly identify what is keeping people from adopting the behavior you are looking for. Your desired behavior is often 'new behavior' and that is why it is important to trigger it time and time again. Only then will it become automatic.

Mixed Emotions Live 184

Behavioral Designers research, prototype, and test

How people make decisions is highly dependent on context. They are full of stories they tell themselves and full of irrational convictions. What's more, even the tiniest change in how something is framed or contextualized can have a dramatic influence on how people perceive its meaning. When an Englishman says that he finds something “interesting”, he will often mean quite the opposite. A Dutch person hearing this wouldn't know the difference. That is why research and prototyping are so important. So, first strip off all the layers of a problem, observe people and put yourself in their shoes. Then test the interventions.

Domains of Behavioral Design

The number of ways in which Behavioral Design can be applied is infinite. Because ultimately, most of what we as people do is geared towards influencing the behavior of others. You can apply it to leading teams or designing products. Or to trigger people to buy a product. Or to change the way they see a service or an experience. Or to create financial habits, personal habits, or healthy habits. Or to influence how they see you, what they think of you. Or to get them to support your mission, to believe in what you are doing, to attend your concert or to vote for you.