Hacking Behavior
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Hacking Behavior

4 ways a Behavioral Scientist can help PMs

This was originally published as a chapter in the book, “Building Behavioral Science in an Organization

A product manager’s role is to oversee the research required to prioritize, design, and develop the features and go-to-market plan that will make a product a success. Doing this well requires a deep understanding of both the customer and market forces. This is where behavioral science comes in.

A behavioral scientist is someone who studies decision-making — why people (your customers) do what they do. This skillset and lens can be helpful at all stages of the product development cycle:

1. Ideation for new product development:

Bring a behavioral scientist into the room whenever you’re starting a new project. Every idea they have has some foundation in prior research. Their intuition builds on hundreds of papers they have read over the years.

A behavioral scientist goes beyond conducting typical focus groups and customer interviews. They take a deeper look at customer psychology by doing a ‘behavioral diagnosis’, which includes collecting data about existing behaviors; doing a literature review of the space, and mapping out the user’s environment of decision-making. These tools unlock more ideas, new opportunities, and different ways to look at the problem.

A behavioral scientist helps a PM go beyond what customers ‘say’ they want, and instead reveals the underlying psychology driving a person’s behaviors. What PM wouldn’t want that?

2. Research to understand customer needs and assess likelihood to succeed:

Behavioral scientists are skeptics. We don’t trust what 1–2 customers say and look for clever ways to validate insights.

After completing a behavioral diagnosis, the behavioral scientist partners with the PM to narrow down the long list of possible new features or solutions. Behavioral scientists are experts at isolating a key assumption and designing a rapid test to see whether it’s true.

A behavioral scientist pushes the team to avoid relying on their intuition for product decisions. They bring in rigorous research methods such as quantitative studies or clever prototypes to help uncover what actually has market viability.

3. Design. How does the new solution actually look and work?

Behavior change is all about the small details of life. A behavioral scientist wants nothing more than to get into the weeds (and the Figma) to help design those details.

Rather than thinking in terms of ‘solutions,’ a behavioral scientist thinks in terms of behaviors. What is the uncomfortably specific behavior you should design your feature or product around? For example, if you’re an education startup, you may want people to finish your online courses; if you’re a health tech company, you may want people to log their daily exercise in your app. A behavioral scientist helps the PM and design team home in on this behavior, then design small ways to drive customers to that behavior.

Behavioral science is about the details — people make different decisions depending on the design and context of an experience. A behavioral scientist partners with designers to ensure that all those small details (from copy to onboarding flow) align with the broader customer psychology. Many times we’re mocking up the actual flows in Figma to help show the small details of behavior change interventions and handing the file off to your design team.

4. Launch and learn. Measuring impact and assessing ‘what next’

We are what we measure. A behavioral scientist is great at figuring out what to measure and designing the learning plan upfront.

A behavioral scientist works with engineering and the PM to design the ‘launch and learn’ roll-out strategy. This includes generating an experimental design; the team’s hypothesis on which version will win; the sample size, conversion, and effect size; and how long the experiment will run.

They work alongside the data team to publish their data analysis plan prior to launching, and they’re frontline in terms of promoting both successful and failed experiments so the rest of the company can learn from the experience. They also help design the knowledge management system for reporting results to ensure that the long-term product strategy builds on the incremental learning journey.

OK now what? How to Integrate Behavioral Science into PM

There are two recommended approaches to integrating behavioral science into product management. One, have a behavioral scientist as the actual PM; or two, have the behavioral scientist report to the PM.

Option 1: The PM is trained in behavioral science

The first option is ideal for products and services that are focused on behavior change problems. For example, PMs working at places like Headspace (meditation app), Chime (savings app) or Classdojo (classroom learning) should have a background in behavioral science. Kelvin Kwong, the VP of Product at Big Health, a mental health, and digital therapeutics, is an experienced behavioral PM and works to embed behavior change models and nudges directly into their roadmap.

Option 2: Hire a behavioral scientist to work with your PMs

For products and services that aren’t directly tied to behavior change, the PM should hire a behavioral scientist to have on their team. It’s important that the behavioral scientists have a direct reporting line to the PM (vs. being put in the research section of the organization).

Behavioral scientists work across all stages of product development — from concept to code. Reporting directly to the PM will help ensure behavioral insights are not relegated to only one part of the process.

The Limitations of Behavioral Science

There are two primary considerations for PMs in the application of behavioral science:

Context matters

Our decision-making is strongly influenced by our environment (situation/context). Because of that, it’s difficult to drag and drop behavioral insights from one domain to another.

PMs must live and breathe the process of behavioral science, not just the psychology insights. The process is about testing your intuition via quantitative studies, controlled trials, or at minimum, slow rollouts. It’s about leading with a key behavior and hypothesis and being open to change your mind when it’s proven wrong. This is even more important if you’re building a new startup or product where the context is likely different from ones that have existed before.

It’s an art and a science

Behavioral science exposes key psychological principles that affect your users (and potential users) as they engage with your products. Which of these principles is the most important for your customers? Which should you tackle first? In a perfect world, you’d go through each in a systematic way to determine the most important levers. Of course, no product team has time or money for that! So when creating new products and modifying existing ones, you’ll need to make prioritization decisions with less data than is ideal.

At Irrational Labs, we use our 3B framework as a guide to drive these tough calls. We pick a key behavior (this is critical!) and then we focus on removing the barriers to this key behavior. Barriers can be logistical frictions (i.e., too many steps or choices) or psychological frictions (i.e., information aversion or attention). Only after the biggest barriers are removed, do we focus on the 3rd B — benefits. We add more immediate benefits (like social proof or points) or amplify existing benefits (your current value proposition)

Building successful products can be a rigorous process but it’s also one infused with creativity, non-linear thinking and bold risk-taking. To successfully incorporate behavioral science into product management, you’ll need a dash of art to go with your science.

Interested in diving into behavioral science? Want to learn how you can apply it to your product roadmap and customer discovery processes?

Try out our online behavioral design bootcamp.

This course was designed for PMs, designers and marketers to help you learn the most important insights from behavioral science and apply them to your work.

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Kristen Berman

Kristen Berman

Thinking about Irrationality. Behavioral Scientist. Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab.

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