Design Approaches to Behaviour Change

Written for the CarbonCulture blog

How users use, and what we can do

As the technology we use becomes more efficient, our own behaviour is often the ‘weak link’ environmentally, both at a societal level and at the scale of our everyday interaction with products and services. We might buy ‘energy-saving’ light bulbs and then leave them on all night, open the windows while the heating is on, boil a kettle-full of water even though we only need a mug-full, and stick with the default setting on the washing machine, wary of investigating the others.

Different ways of thinking about behaviour change

Our individual behavioural decisions (or the lack of them) at work and at home are responsible for a significant proportion of our energy use and waste generation.

In many ways, encouraging more sustainable behaviour decisions can be seen as a design problem, concerned with how and why people interact with the products and systems around them, and how that interaction might be influenced. (See Thom’s blog on the agency of products).

Lots of approaches to influencing behaviour have traditionally focused on ‘neoclassical’ economics. It’s assumed we’ll act differently if taxes change, or prices go up or down, or if we see something in it for us. More recently, behavioural economics has gained a lot of attention from politicians—an approach to economics that takes account of some of our ‘biases’ to understand better how people really make decisions about how to act. The UK Government’s ‘Nudge Unit’ has been applying behavioural economics to things like encouraging organ donation, payment of tax debts, and quitting smoking.

What can design offer?

Design gives us a slightly different perspective again. The design of the things around us—our homes and workplaces and the technology we use every day—inevitably influences our behaviour, whether we notice it consciously or not. The seats around a table, the colour of a warning sign, and the markings on a thermostat all affect the decisions we make and the actions we take. The contexts in which we make decisions is central to design, but often under-emphasised in theoretical models of people’s behaviour.

Persuasive design, and design for behaviour change are growing as research areas in fields such as healthcare, but also in sustainability, applying insights from multiple disciplines to the problems of influencing more environmentally friendly use of products, services, and environments. However, it’s evident that designers need to be able to draw on ideas from other disciplines, mainly a number of areas of psychology, and this is something that I’ve been working on for the last few years with the Design with Intent toolkit, a collection of ‘design patterns’ for influencing behaviour, bringing together techniques from a range of psychological and technical disciplines, illustrated with examples.

In the next blog we’ll explore how we can influence behaviour through design.