Behavioral Research is Product Value

In behavioral research studies for web applications, observation of people leads to understanding. This understanding is a ground ripe for opportunity and choices for the direction of a product’s experience that can yield product (business) value.

As an example, let me take a recent research study that I led.

In the study, participants were given control of a prototype web application. They had to figure out how to accomplish a specific task. This task was to look at the contents of documents (text documents and emails) and flag them as “relevant” or “not relevant”.

As researchers and designers of products, we know that we would like these participants to take an ideal path to fulfill this task’s goal. We designed an experience, and we want to verify that the majority of people will actually live that experience. Our ideal path for these participants looked something like this:

  1. Select a document within a list
  2. Click on a button to view that document
  3. Identify if the content of the document was “relevant” or not
  4. Click on another button to mark it as “relevant” or not

During the research sessions with participants, we observe the sequence of actions that the participant takes. We then compare if their sequence of actions matches our ideal sequence. In short, we find a success rate between actual human behavior and the designed, ideal sequence of actions.

What did we find?

Ten of the ten participants did this:

  1. Select a document in the list
  2. Double-, or right-, click the document to view it
  3. Ponder aimlessly on how to actually view the document

This, unfortunately, did not match an ideal sequence of actions, but it was the evidence that we collected.

The design, and product, failed this very basic interaction. For one, we had not enabled (or knew about) the expected behavior of people using our application. For two, the actual button to view the document was not visually emphasized enough to call attention to it’s critical function.

At this point, we (designers and product owners) had two choices:

  1. In an effort to enable current behavior, we could implement the expected functionality of a double-, or right-, click
  2. In an effort to influence new behavior, and define an effective and market-differentiating product, we could seek to call more attention to our existing button

Enabling Current Behavior

Enabling an existing behavior is easier than changing behavior, and depending on many factors, any product owner, designer, developer, or otherwise influencer, may choose between the two as a way to define a product. But these two choices are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Going back to our research study, we could decide to enable double-clicking to view a document. This decision would enable the existing behaviors of people, and provide an on-par product experience within the industry as a whole.

At this point, some may call this job done, but that would be stopping short of exploring a product’s potential to create more impact within an industry. In contrast, we could also decide to explicitly disregard current behavior in favor of…

Influencing New Behavior

Imagine instead, we recognize that the product design lacks in a sort of activation energy to catalyze behavior change. In this sense, if we were to increase the visual emphasis of the button to view a document, we begin to encourage a new behavior.

Then we build more on top of it.

Since this button has a special, animated page transition associated with it when toggling between the document’s list and view, the product experience is also new to people. Many people in our industry have not seen something like it in existing industry products. This sort of experience is new, and it creates new value that can define products within any industry.

In short, what we’re doing is designing product patterns for human behavior. This is behavioral change psychology that folks like Dan Lockton and BJ Fogg make their careers out of.


In this particular example, there’s really no reason we can’t deliver on enabling the expected behavior, increasing the visual emphasis of our designed button, and including an animated page transition. Other situations may, and do, vary.

To be clear:

  • You need understanding gained from behavioral research to enable a behavior in a product
  • You need understanding gained from behavioral research to influence a new behavior in a product
  • Choosing to influence a new behavior can be a strategy for designing products that disrupt industries

Where can we go from here? How can we use this knowledge in our day-to-day work? For now, I’ll leave you with two questions for musing:

How do we consistently integrate behavioral understanding into entire product life cycles from concept to sunset?

Do we think there is more (business) value in enabling existing behaviors, or looking for the untapped avenues for influencing new behaviors?


If you’d like follow-up thoughts on these two questions,
let me know by sharing, commenting, or getting in touch!