An Introduction to Behavioral Insights
“Every decision we make affects how people experience the library. Let’s make sure we’re creating improvements” (Schmidt & Etches, 2014, p. 158). Thus conclude Adam Schmidt and Amanda Etches in their influential book on user experience (UX) design for libraries, Useful, Usable, Desirable. This quotation is a truism for those of us who work in UX. We know that every design decision has some effect on the user experience, for better or worse.
Here is another truism: “There is no such thing as neutral design … small and apparently insignificant details can have major impacts on people’s behavior. A good rule of thumb is to assume that everything matters.” This quote could also have been lifted from Schmidt & Etches, but I found it in Thaler & Sunstein (2021, p.4), a book about behavioral insights (BI). BI is the study human judgement errors. We live in a complex world of endless choices, and we have limited bandwidth for making reasoned and careful decisions that serve our own best interests. Instead, we often make quick decisions based on gut feelings, learned biases, and mental shortcuts.
BI identifies and describes the universal and systematic thinking errors that plague us and develops design solutions to get around these errors. BI and UX are both interested in how design and behavior intersect. BI research supplies the evidence for good design. Exploring the field of BI can enrich and refresh our UX research and design practice. I’ve selected some resources to get you started.
A Behavioral Insights Reading List
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Daniel Kahneman is one of the founders of BI, and this book lays the groundwork for the field. Kahneman describes two ways we make decisions. Fast thinking is automatic, intuitive, and unconscious. It serves us well most of the time, except when we fall into some predictable thinking-error traps. These are the biases and heuristics which lead us to poor judgement and misguided behaviors. More rarely we engage in slow thinking. This is deliberative and reflective thought that leads to rational decisions, but it’s more taxing, so we tend toward fast thinking.
BI doesn’t fight our tendency to be fast thinkers. Its goal is to help people make better decisions and behave rationally through the careful design of our environment, including policies, spaces, technology, and so on.
This book is an important starting point for understanding BI, though it is less practical than some of the resources that follow.
Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. (2021). Nudge: The final edition. Penguin Books.
Nudge introduces the term choice architecture, the design contexts in which people make decisions. The authors describe the power that designers (choice architects) have in influencing our lives. For example, a cafeteria designer can arrange food selections to maximize profits or to promote healthy eating. An employer can offer a benefit package that is easy to access or difficult to find. Technology can be delivered with default settings that support or infringe upon our privacy. Thaler and Sunstein coined the term nudge to describe these design choices, as they prod us in a particular direction. Our limited mental bandwidth means we tend to follow the path of least resistance and accept the choices that have been made for us.
Let’s take that example of default settings. Our libraries are full of literal and figurative default settings. The printers are set to either single or double-sided printing. The discovery system displays a basic or advanced search first. Library staff arrange furniture for individual or group study. Busy, distracted users will accept these defaults most of the time, and their behaviors will follow these design decisions.
Nudge is a witty and informative explanation of key human judgement errors and the nudges that are effective in correcting them. This book reminds us of the powerful potential of our intentional—and unintentional—design choices to affect people’s lives.
Thaler, R. H. (2015). Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics. W.W. Norton & Company.
Misbehaving is an entertaining history of how BI developed as a field from its origins fifty years ago to the early twenty-first century when BI hit the mainstream and became a valued tool for governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. The UK government was the first to pilot a Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the Nudge Unit), which has since expanded into a global think tank. Their blog (https://www.bi.team/our-work-2/blog/) is an inspiring source for ways behavioral interventions can make a difference in the world.
The title Misbehaving alludes to the fact that people don’t always behave in ways that serve their best interests. Classical economic theory assumes that people are rational actors who always follow the most optimal path of self-interest. Behavioral economics challenges this view of “homo economicus.” Thaler writes, “Humans have limited time and brainpower. As a result, they use simple rules of thumb—heuristics—to help them make judgements” (p. 22). Thaler reminds us over and over “if you want to encourage someone to do something, make it easy” (p. 337). UX practitioners: take this to heart.
Hallsworth, M. & Kirkman, E. (2020). Behavioral insights. MIT Press.
Behavioral Insights is a quick guide to BI, covering its history, methods, promise, and limitations. There is a helpful section explaining why the randomized controlled trial is the gold-standard research method in the field of BI and the basics steps for developing a research protocol.
If you can incorporate randomized controlled trials into your UX practice, great! More likely, you will lack the time, expertise, or resources to do so effectively. The next three readings I’ve selected provide more practical and achievable ways BI can enrich your UX work.
Dolan, P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., King, D., & Vlaev, I. (2010). MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy. Institute for Government. https://www.bi.team/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/MINDSPACE.pdf
This report provides “nine of the most robust (non-coercive) influences on our behaviour” (p. 8) encapsulated in the mnemonic MINDSPACE. Each of these influences apply to any design situation, including libraries. For example, S is for salience, which simply means we pay the most attention to things in our environment that jump out to us because they are relevant or novel:
In our everyday lives, we are bombarded with stimuli. As a result, we tend to unconsciously filter out much information as a coping strategy. People are more likely to register stimuli that are novel (messages in flashing lights), accessible (items on sale next to checkouts) and simple (a snappy slogan). (p. 23)
Given the complex information ecosystem users encounter in libraries, we can use the salience principle to help them focus. This and the eight other behavioral influences are fascinating to read about and relevant to our work in UX.
Service, O., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., Algate, F., Gallagher, R., Nguyen, S., Ruda, S., Sanders, M., Pelenur, M., Guani, A., Harper, H., Reinhard, J., & Kirkman, E. (2014). EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. Behavioural Insights Team. https://www.bi.team/publications/east-four-simple-ways-to-apply-behavioural-insights/
This is a revised and simplified version of MINDSPACE, paring down nine behavioral influences to just four. EAST stands for easy, attractive, social, and timely. If you can incorporate these variables into a nudge, it’s more likely to be successful. For example, S is for social. As social animals, we seek belonging and will tend to follow group norms (p. 28).
One way to establish these norms is through explicit messages. On a visit to a doctor’s office, I spied two examples of how messages can set group norms. One was a poster that said, “VIOLENCE IN THE WORKPLACE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.” On the other side of the room was a bulletin board filled with thank you cards from patients. Staff had added a handwritten message, “Thank you for your kindness.” Both signs signal social norms. The first inadvertently communicates that violence has been experienced here and is in the realm of possible behaviors. The second sign’s focus on kindness and gratitude may have a more positive affect on behavior in the waiting room. We might review the signs posted in our libraries in this light. Are we inadvertently normalizing undesired behaviors by drawing attention to them?
EAST is a valuable resource to help us make the user experience useful, usable, and desirable.
OECD. (2019). Tools and ethics for applied behavioural insights: The BASIC toolkit. OECD Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1787/9ea76a8f-en
This publication introduces another useful mnemonic. BASIC stands for Behavior, Analysis, Strategy, Intervention, and Change, the steps for developing an effective nudge. This is a practical manual for conducting research into behavior change. It provides helpful case studies to show how to apply the research in practice. It complements the MINDSPACE and EAST frameworks.
Lewis, M. (2017). The undoing project: A friendship that changed our minds. Norton.
For fun, read this book. Popular author Michael Lewis (Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine) is famous for making complex topics penetrable to the lay reader. The Undoing Project tells the compelling story of how Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky collaborated to develop the insights that led to the field of BI. Tversky and Kahneman were constantly working to undo conventional wisdom about human thinking and behavior.
The Decision Lab (n.d.). Biases https://thedecisionlab.com/biases-index
This is a compendium of over 100 cognitive biases and heuristics with an explanation for why each occurs and how to nudge against them. My favorite bias in this list is bikeshedding, “our tendency to devote a disproportionate amount of our time to menial and trivial matters while leaving important matters unattended.” Excuse me while I reorganize my fridge.
TL;DR: Five Bonus Resources That Don’t Require Reading
Behavior Change for Good Initiative is a YouTube channel of behavioral science author talks hosted by Wharton University. (https://www.youtube.com/c/BehaviorChangeForGood/videos)
No Stupid Questions is a podcast that answers listeners’ questions about human behavior. I recommend starting with episode 116, “Do People Pay Attention to Signs?” (https://freakonomics.com/podcast/do-people-pay-attention-to-signs/)).
Behavioural Insights Team is a YouTube channel hosting podcasts and videos, including conversations with Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman. (https://www.youtube.com/c/TheBehaviouralInsightsTeam))
A Load of BS: The Behavioural Science Podcast showcases the application of BI to real world contexts. The podcast is a project of BEworks (https://beworks.com/), a behavioral science consulting firm. (https://aloadofbs.substack.com/)
Ideas42 is a social impact organization that uses behavioral science to effect change. A section the website called Behavior Science 101 has two inspiring TED Talks about applying nudges in public health and poverty reduction. (https://www.ideas42.org/learn/)
A Nudge to Explore Behavioral Insights Further
UX is a magpie discipline, drawing upon human computer interaction, interaction design, service design, design thinking, ethnography, and more. We ought to add BI to our repertoire for these reasons:
BI provides a theoretical basis and a vocabulary for understanding why and how design influences user behavior.
BI supplies practical evidence-based insights we can adopt for our UX design work.
BI flips our understanding of the relationship between user behavior and design. In UX, our designs follow our observations of existing user behavior (e.g., following users’ desire paths). With its understanding of human cognition, BI uses design to guide and influence user behavior.
Schmidt, A. & Etches, A. (2014). Useful, usable, desirable: Applying user experience design to your library. ALA.