UX Research for Behavior Change: Finding “The Right Users”

TL;DR

When recruiting users for research on behavior change products, don’t mistake “the right users” for users who already have a high degree of mastery. 
Instead, target users currently in the process of behavior change and learn *why* they started, *what* tools they use, and *how* they handle setbacks. 
Your learnings will help you better identify your product’s strengths and weaknesses and ultimately design for user failure.


Trainwrecks

During user research planning sessions, I sometimes hear the following stakeholder comment: 
“We don’t want to talk to trainwrecks.” 
“What is a trainwreck, exactly?” I ask in response.
“You know, people who are just a mess. We can’t help them.”

After further probing, I find that “trainwreck” usually refers to an extremely negative case; users who “are millions of dollars in debt” or “weigh 800 pounds” or “are eating out of garbage cans” (yes, I have actually heard these.)

I attribute polarizing examples to a lack of exposure to qualitative research. Stakeholders fear wasting time on “trainwreck” edge cases, forcing them to the other end of the spectrum and only wanting to interview users who “have it together.”

But users who have it together can also be edge cases.

“The Right Users”

Behavioral change products help users form habits that contribute to positive change over a period of time.

Behavior change and time

In your product’s behavioral area, some users are naturally high achievers. Take personal finance, for example. Perhaps high achievers understood the value of saving money at an early age; perhaps their parents demonstrated responsible spending; perhaps they researched investment strategies; or perhaps they are naturally interested in and gravitate towards personal finance topics.

High achievers sustain positive behaviors over time

High achievers build their own systems and processes over time, helping them achieve and maintain success — an envious position.

But if you’re designing a product for behavior change, your value proposition to high achievers shifts from “we can help you change” to “our product will work better than your existing system” — a pretty hard sell to someone who is already succeeding.

If you limit your interviews to only high achievers, you’re missing out on a wealth of data that can improve your product deliver on your promise of behavior change.

Interview for the journey, not the destination

Instead of high achievers, recruit users who are currently in the process of making the behavioral changes that your product is designed to solve.

Interview users who are “works in progress”

For example, users who are currently trying to:

  • learn how to code
  • lose 15 pounds
  • lower their blood sugar
  • pay off a student loan
  • start weight training

Strike a balance between the time spent on behavior change and level of progress. Users who have been working on their goals for the past nine months may not remember very early details about the beginning of their journey; users who have just started may still be searching for their winning formula.

Additionally, recruit users outside of your product. Interviews will not be completely product-agnostic; you want to understand what tools users employed. Just realize those tools may not be digital and may not include your product at all…

…and that is okay. Guard your research objectives from becoming a mechanism to collect product success stories or opportunities to sell your product. Product success stories are great marketing, but mixing them with user discovery research too easily contributes to organizational success theater. First and foremost, this is a user discovery mission. You’re there to listen and learn.

Whether research makes more sense as an on-site interview, phone interview, or longitudinal diary study is largely up to your resource availability, budget, and learning objectives. Your first set of interviews may result in even more questions (this is a good thing!) or a further refinement of recruiting characteristics.


Question Bank

Build on these general questions as starting points for your team’s learning objectives.
Triggers
Why did you start?
What triggered you? Why?
What did you want to accomplish? Why?

Preparation
Did you prepare yourself? How?
What did you research? What resonated with you? Why? What didn’t? Why?

Tools & Processes
Tell me about what you use to monitor your progress. Did you use anything else?
What works for you? Why?
What doesn’t work as well? Why?
When do you monitor progress? How often?

Support
What motivates you?
Probe into mentors/social aspects/friends

Success
Tell me about when you first felt success. How did you know? What did you do?

Failure
Tell me about a recent setback. What happened? Why? How did you react? What did you do?

The Future
Tell me about what you still want to accomplish


Mapping the behavior change experience

User behavior change tends to look aesthetically pleasing, like this smooth curve:

But likely the journey is filled with micro peaks and valleys; stops and starts.

*User behavior enlarged to show detail

As you collect interview data, look for patterns. Build a journey map of behavior change, including:

  • motivators/triggers
  • actions taken
  • tools used (and why)
  • failures/setbacks
  • actions taken to recover from failure
  • emotional state

Pick the most meaningful elements above to include in an initial map. I won’t go into the process of journey mapping; there’s so many high-quality, in-depth resources out there.

What to do next

Compare your product to the journey map
How does the sequencing of your product compare? Are there gaps? Include onboarding as well as notifications and emails.

Design for failure
How did users handle their setbacks? How does your product handle user setbacks? Or do your designs assume that users will never fail?

Conduct an empathy audit
Match the tone of your content with emotional states along the journey. If users are nervous and excited when they began their journey; how does your product support them? Think content, visual design, animation.

Your behavior change journey map is a living document that will evolve as you continue learning.

You may go through several rounds of research to hone in on the ideal recruits to learn from, or you may choose to zoom in on a particularly complex part of the behavior change journey.

These are just a few of many ideas. Go to where the questions take you.

After all, user research is in itself behavior change — an organizational habit that improves your product over a period of time.


Have you interviewed users for behavior change? Have additional techniques or tips? Do share!