Illustration by Justin Secor

A behavioral approach to product design

Four steps to designing products with impact


Changing behavior is hard. We see it everyday — New Year’s resolutions fall through, gym memberships remain unused, and well-intentioned plans to eat less, or save more, never come to fruition.

There are many products and services to help nudge us towards our goals—whether that’s making healthier eating choices, developing better financial habits, or maintaining a more active lifestyle. Yet creating products that successfully accomplish these objectives can be immensely difficult. Designers are realizing that traditional design methods are not always enough to effectively tackle these complex behavioral challenges.

At Opower, our team takes a uniquely behavioral approach to product design, leveraging the latest behavioral science research to create useful, delightful user experiences that motivate everyone on earth to save energy. Understanding the psychology and science behind how people interpret information, make decisions, and take action enables us to deliver more effective designs — in doing so, we’ve successfully changed people’s habits and helped customers save over $1 billion on their energy bills.

The four stages of behavior design

Recently, our team developed a simple four-stage framework that we use to guide our design process and evaluate the behavioral effectiveness of our products. In this article, we’ll introduce the framework and describe techniques that all designers can use to ensure their products are as engaging, persuasive, and actionable as possible.

Stage 1: Grab attention

The first thing people want to know is — why should I care? As designers, we may have a fantastic product, but nobody will ever know if we can’t get people to pay attention to our message and consider using our product.

Techniques

  • Make it inviting. Draw people in with eye-catching aesthetics, engaging storytelling, or compelling motion design.
  • Elicit an emotional reaction. Create designs that stand out and remain memorable by appealing to our emotions — whether that’s surprise, curiosity, or urgency (e.g. using techniques like scarcity or loss aversion).
  • Show personalized content. People respond strongly to messaging that is customized and relevant based on their behaviors, interests, and values.

Examples

  • Airbnb creates a strong first impression on their front page with compelling imagery and videos. The language is warm and inviting, drawing users in and encouraging them to explore the site.
  • Mint sends emails notifying customers of unusual spending patterns. These emails effectively grab our attention because they are both personalized and emotional — the message is surprising (and possibly alarming), which compels us to investigate further.

Stage 2: Influence decisions

Once people are interested and engaged, we need to present a clear, convincing argument that nudges them to take action.

Techniques

  • Provide clear, straightforward content. Eliminate jargon and make your message specific and simple to understand. Offer content that answers a person’s questions and helps them make an informed choice.
  • Offer recommendations. People will be more compelled to do something when provided clear next steps or options. Users value suggestions and personalized advice from experts or trusted sources (including social networks).
  • Describe the benefits. People want to know what’s in it for them. This might include extrinsic rewards (money, rebates), lifestyle benefits (comfort), or appeal to a person’s intrinsic motivations and values.
  • Reframe the message. Alter perceptions and encourage action using behavioral science messaging. Anchor people toward a specific choice, persuade them through scarcity, or use social motivators such as social comparison or social proof.

Examples

  • Opower has encouraged millions of homes to reduce their energy use by using social comparison — showing them how much they use compared to similar homes in the area. Although people don’t typically think much about their energy use, this information is powerfully influential, getting people to reconsider their energy habits and find ways to use less.

Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites use several methods to influence our decision to make pledges. Projects frequently offer both extrinsic benefits (e.g. early access to a product) and intrinsic benefits (e.g. pride in supporting a cause you care about). Pledge recommendations are reinforced with behavioral science techniques like social proof (how many people have pledged) and scarcity (limited time and limited spots for each pledge tier).

Stage 3: Facilitate action

After a person has made the decision to act, the next step is to help them follow through, making the action as easy and barrier-free as possible.

Techniques

  • Simplify the action. Break down target actions into small, achievable steps. Reduce cognitive load on a user by simplifying an interface, chunking information, or introducing progressive disclosure. Identify and address common barriers that prevent people from taking action.
  • Guide the experience. Shape the experience in a way that facilitates action. Common techniques include walkthroughs, callouts, or pre-determined defaults.
  • Help users create a plan. Encourage people to set goals and commit to actions. Send reminders and follow up on their progress over time.
  • Trigger at the right moment. Timing is critical — make sure you trigger a person to take action during the times they are most motivated and able to take action.

Examples

  • Brigade, a startup that encourages people to discuss their opinions on news and political issues, recently created several tools to facilitate the voting process. Right before election day, the app helped people find their local polling place and provided voting recommendations based on a user’s responses to several issue-based questions.
  • ZenPayroll Giving makes charitable donations easy by removing friction and allowing employees to make contributions directly from their paychecks through regular, automatic withdrawals. Donations are then automatically documented on an employee’s W-2 at the end of the year.

Stage 4. Sustain behavior

Taking action once is not enough. For products to truly have a long-lasting impact, our designs need to motivate people to continue their behavior and feel a sense of progress over time.

Techniques

  • Celebrate progress. Reward people with positive feedback and show progress over time. Consider a variable rewards schedule to increase engagement and reinforce behavior change.
  • Build a long term relationship. Rather than one-time communications, design for experiences that extend over time and improve as we learn more about the people using our products.
  • Emphasize intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the strongest driver of long term behavior change. Research shows that people are drawn to experiences that give them a sense of purpose, social connection, status, self expression, mastery, and autonomy.

Examples

  • Nest sends monthly reports that display a customer’s energy use patterns over time. For people who don’t manage their thermostat settings day-to-day, these engaging infographics provide an opportunity to show how Nest helps saves energy and money. Also, badges like “leafs” and “kudos” appeal to our internal sense of status and competition.
  • Runkeeper and other fitness apps use various techniques to help us sustain behavior long term. Users can set activity goals and keep track of their progress, both individually and as part of a social group. Personal bests, leaderboards, and ongoing positive feedback help trigger our intrinsic motivations for self-mastery, social connection, and status.

Final thoughts

As designers, we need to consider the range of experiences people go through when using our products — understanding what nudges them to begin caring, take action, and stay motivated and engaged over time. Applying a behavioral lens to our work helps identify what stages in the journey are working and which could be better, ultimately strengthening our designs and mitigating the risk that our products will be quickly ignored or forgotten.

We hope this framework is useful to other designers looking for ways to incorporate behavioral thinking into their design process. If you’ve found this helpful or have additional ideas on ways to improve it, we’d love to hear!


Want to learn more about behavior design?

The Opower design team has given talks and written articles about incorporating behavioral science into the design process: