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Business, Science

How to Create Products that Facilitate Long-Term Behavior Change

Understand the user’s mindset:

It is especially important to understand the mindset that individuals are in, as it shapes how they respond to your application. These different facets of self can be selectively activated, and shape our behavior in different contexts. Similarly, if a product can change how a person sees herself (i.e., her self-concept), it can have profound impacts on long-term behavior. When you ask users questions, they may not answer the question you think. In many cases, they’ll answer a simple quick version of your question. This undermines some of the answers we get from surveys (especially), and it reminds us that we should not take responses too seriously when we ask people whether they will commit to changing their own behavior. Also, if you have a sense of the simple shortcuts people are using, you can target those shortcuts directly.

Emphasize Social Proof:

People are more likely to take an action if they think other people are as well—for a wide range of reasons. It is our perception of other people’s behavior that matters the most; that perception can be (and has been) shaped for good and for ill. Your users have busy lives and limited mental resources to devote to your product. You can’t assume they have a lot of available attention, willpower, or memory. Build your interfaces to respect our limitations as people, and try to take into account the other demands on the user’s brain.

Generate Cues:

When users are just starting to undertake a new action, external cues are vital. For example, if you’re beginning to run each morning, placing your running shoes by the door is a good cue. Here are a few strategies products can use for external cueing:
Placing the product in the user’s daily environment. Using a slightly different cue each time to avoid being ignored
Building strong associations with parts of a person’s existing routines. As the action becomes more familiar, products can help users build strong associations between an internal cue—like hunger or boredom—and the action. When designing for behavior change, you should also avoid, or co-opt, distracting cues that seek the users’ attention at the same time. Email inboxes are very crowded in the morning with lots of cues to act, for example.

Create Trust:

Users evaluate your product, and the action it supports, in the blink of an eye. You can’t avoid this, and it happens automatically. But from a behavior change perspective, there are particular aspects of this automatic assessment you should be paying attention to: Trust. Your product is encouraging your users to do something. Even when they want to take the action, they will be hesitant if they don’t trust the company behind that encouragement. Whether or not a user trusts the product, and company, is often an intuitive sense. “Watch where you get your product signal. If you ask people what they want to do, or whether they have the motivation to use your app, you’re engaging their conscious minds. But it’s their intuitive minds you have to pass first, and that isn’t something people articulate on surveys. Ideally, watch their behavior, and don’t listen to their mouths.

The first-time user experience really matters. You may be able to convince or entice someone to try out your product and action the first time. But the more your action requires repeated use, the more that you rely on intuitive reactions. And those reactions build on what they’ve actually experienced, the associations they’ve made, and the emotions they felt about your product and action.

User Research:

There are four possible barriers to action, which a good product must avoid. Products can readily help users by providing a clear action plan; specific plans grease the pathway to action. They can address self-doubt and anxiety about failure head-on as well by talking about other users that were successful, for example. Resources and skills are trickier. With good user research, you can identify the resource constraints that particular user groups face and their current skills. You can then either accept that some users won’t be served well by the product or plan around them.

Time Action:

You can think about the timing of action in terms of two factors: what the product actively does to make the timing ripe for action, and what it does to align with the times when a person is naturally inclined to take action. To make action urgent, products can use time-sensitive content like news, which is inherently timely (if you care about the content at “all). NPR provides this, and so does Facebook (the latest news about your friends). Products can also construct urgency—by creating pre-commitments or using specific dates for planned action. Instead of making something urgent, products can wisely align themselves with events in a user’s life that already provide that urgency. The user may need to take a similar action as part of her work, for example, and the product can hook into and build on that opportunity. This is similar to the ancient Greek concept of “Kairos” or the opportune time—it’s the product’s job to be there when the opportune time for action arises. Products can use internal states like boredom to drive action, but those internal states are a double-edged sword. On one side, they can drive the particular target action, if the person thinks that the product will relieve the negative feeling. On the other side, they could drive a different action that also relieves boredom. Which do you think is more likely—your users surfing the Internet to relieve boredom, or playing with a mobile phone application that helps them plan healthy meals?

These five mental events—a cue, which starts an automatic, intuitive reaction, potentially bubbling up into a conscious evaluation of costs and benefits, the ability to act, and the right timing for action—are prerequisites for people to execute the action. You may have noticed that they also form an acronym: CREATE. That’s because these five elements are what we need to create action.

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