Best behaviour

Stating the obvious, lifting a smartphone and tapping any app’s icon represents a choice for the device owner – a choice between using the app, and doing literally anything else. For successful apps, use becomes habitual. More than that – for successful apps, it must become habitual.

One of the best insights I’ve seen on this topic (I don’t recall the source so unfortunately can’t give due credit) correctly stated that establishing a new habit means creating time for it. By implication, that will almost certainly require taking time and attention away from something else.

The assumption that a product will simply be used is an optimism bias that afflicts so many entrepreneurs and technologists. Viewing the challenge of designing products as not only the creation of a compelling experience, but one that impels someone to make room in their life to use it, is a sobering thought.

The ability of an app to achieve this place in someone’s life can go beyond what it offers in terms of functionality, and certainly how it looks. Every investment in a product or app, as noted by the BufferApp blog earlier this year, is an investment in a future self; a better self. For use of an app to become a habit, it must be able to deliver a desired transformation. The transformative potential of interactive technologies is something I’ve been immersed in on a number of key projects this year at Fathom.

First alerted to the resource by a blog post from Joe Leech, BJ Fogg’s Behavioural Model has been nothing short of a revelation. Like so much of what user-centred thinking brings to the table, it comes across as simple common sense, clearly articulated. And like so many of the best tools in UX work, it offers a framework around which to plan and execute design and content strategies. Think of it as an ‘Elements of User Experience‘ for behaviour change.

Fogg is a computer scientist and founder of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. Although not intended specifically for UX work, the Behavioural Model finds a natural home in the user-centred design process.

The link with Stanford certainly imbues the model with academic credibility, putting it alongside the work of Weinschenck, Kahnemann et al as a reference point for designers wanting to leverage the power of psychology in their work. In use, the model excels as a starting point in assessing the nature of a challenge, and pointing the way to the response without authoring it outright.

Work on the models sadly appear to have stalled with no updates in a couple of years, and the detailed resource guides withdrawn from the website. But what remains is left is a godsend for designers hungry for another framework to bring structure to the design process.

User experience, not user control

Amongst the bizarre interpretations I’ve seen applied to User Experience is the notion that UX is a coercive or manipulative pursuit. You can just see the eyes of cynical marketeers* light up at the thought that some form of Jedi mind trick might be available to lead consumers trance-like to a destination not of their own choosing.

Granted, dark patterns have emerged, for those who feel that unethical practice is the way to go. But the idea of control is a false premise.

The language of user experience design has made the transition into the marketing lexicon of web design. It’s become the phrase du jour in many client conversations, too; businesses quite naturally want to know what a more informed approach to design can deliver for them. The return on investment in UX is undeniable.

In the heat of a pitch, or to satiate a demanding client, it can be tempting to paint UX design as an exact science, a precision sport. And it isn’t.

It is the path of sanity in a world of ‘inspired’ guesswork and ego-driven design indulgence. Better of course to hypothesise, test and iterate during development than to rely on guesswork, only to find out a design is ineffective when it should be making a difference for your organisation.

Any claim to control the user’s experience is however a false one, akin to claiming that traffic flow is ‘controlled’ using traffic signals and road signs. People are not predictable animals. We may be engineers of the user experience; we can guide, inform, facilitate, enable, assist, and more. But we cannot control.

As a UX practitioner, to suggest otherwise is dangerously over-promising.



* Were such a thing were to exist…

Defining Empathy

As a student of the giants of our industry, I’m naturally a huge advocate of empathy and write often – on Twitter at least – about its importance to the UX design process.

So while it may be an imperative for effective user experience design, how should empathy manifest itself?

Last week I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long, one of the smartest people I know. An ex-social worker who studied behavioural psychology at university, he is naturally curious. He has always shown a genuine interest in anyone he meets; he wants to know their story.

When we talked about the work I was now involved in, I mentioned that he would be ideally suited to the discipline and we talked about people, their expectations and motivations.

During the conversation he mentioned a trait that his mother – herself a social worker – had brought him up to practice. This was Unconditional Positive Regard; the simple acceptance of another’s behaviour which provides that individual with support to achieve personal growth.

It struck me that this had huge relevance. While we are identifying the motivations and needs of others, are we not required to show positive regard for whatever these might be? If (in simple terms) we are attempting to connect individuals with their goals then it falls on us also to treat those goals and associated needs with respect.

So “Positive regard” appears to go with the territory. If we are then to deliver on the promise of a positive user experience for all of our desired audiences, does the element of respect not also need to be unconditional? This sounds like the very definition of human-centred design.

As UX designers, behavioural psychology is one of many areas we often find ourselves straying into, looking for meaning. Simple concepts like this can throw new light on our work, and further validate our approach whenever we doubt ourselves.

Needless to say it was an interesting conversation with my friend. I look forward to many more in the years to come.