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Behavior Science Has a Place in UX

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On any successful product or design team, it’s likely that its members come from a variety of professional backgrounds. “User experience” has proven to be a large umbrella that encircles researchers, visual and interaction designers, developers, and product professionals. Now another group is carving out a home in the UX world: Applied behavior scientists.

There have been some behavior science-centric research and design organizations for the past decade or so, although not all of them would consider themselves part of the UX world. For example, ideas42 was founded in 2008 and applies behavior science to “complex social problems” in ways that overlap with UX skillsets. Similarly, the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) was founded in the UK in 2010; its projects using nudges and other psychology-based techniques often lead to the redesign of service processes or artifacts such as bills and alerts. Mad*Pow, the strategic design agency where I work, founded a behavior change design team in 2009 in order to bring an evidence-based lens to projects where the goals include changing complex user behaviors in health and finance. Despite these and other early entrants, behavior science has remained a bonus, not a core skill, that UXers are expected to bring to their work.

Until now.

Behavior science as a UX discipline had been gaining momentum for a while, but COVID-19 and the shift to remote collaboration has accelerated that. In the next five or so years, we will see more organizations carving out a specific role for people with behavior science training. At the same time, more UX professionals will add behavior science tools to their repertoires. Between the top-down and bottom-up dynamics, we will see the growth of the applied behavior scientist as a UX discipline. These changes are happening for a few reasons:

Applied behavior science training is easier to access

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether a UX professional was exposed to applied behavior science was often a function of circumstance. People who lived in cities with more behavioral UXers might encounter them and their work at local events. Targeted behavior science training for UX professionals was available but often required travel to attend. Now that remote events are the norm, the only geographical limitation people face in accessing cool behavior science UX content is time zone-related. In the past year, I’ve attended meetups in Vienna, Dublin, and Sydney, to name just a few, and I’ve hosted trainings for attendees who are all over the world. It’s much easier now to connect with relevant applied behavior science content and forge a network of like-minded professionals.

Formal education for applied behavior scientists now exists

In the past, there were two main ways applied behavior scientists were made. One was getting a degree in a social science like psychology and then working in an applied setting to gain industry experience. The other was to get trained as a designer or researcher and to acquire behavior science training on the job through reading, events, bootcamps, or mentorship. In the last few years, more schools have begun to offer blended training that prepares people specifically to do applied behavior science. University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences and the University of Michigan’s Design Science MS are two examples.

The first generation of applied behavior scientists is coming of age

In 2015, Vox declared the rise of the Chief Behavioral Officer. Despite similar headlines every year or so, there are still very few companies that have actually installed a CBO. We may finally be at a turning point, especially in healthcare and finance, as more companies realize that a tightly interwoven behavior science perspective can make them more effective at winning customers and market share. Critically, this is happening just as the people who began working in applied behavior science in its earlier forms are reaching the point in their careers where they want leadership roles. When people who believe in the value of applied behavior science sit at the top of organizations that do UX work, they will hire more applied behavior scientists in UX roles.

The availability of more behaviorally trained UXers can’t come soon enough, as many of the key challenges on the horizon are tailor-made for people who understand how to design for human behavior. Some of the specific problems that the UX applied behavior scientist will tackle are:

Behavior change for COVID-19 and its aftermath

It has become clear that vaccination is not a panacea. The COVID-19 vaccination rollout is fraught with difficulties and will take months to complete. And even then, there will remain a need to design for vigilance in case of an outbreak and the ability to quickly respond and contain it. From creating compelling communications that address vaccine hesitancy to nurturing the conditions that prompt successful completion of a two-shot vaccination sequence, to refining the service delivery of vaccinations, to coaching other behaviors that mitigate contagion before population-wide inoculation is achieved, there will continue to be a need for individual- and small-group level interventions to achieve public health goals. Many of these interventions need the one-two punch of brilliant UX and solid behavior science to succeed.

Virtual experiences require an understanding of context

As long as the world is still dealing with COVID, virtual technology will influence how people work, interact with services (including health care), and socialize. Chances are, virtual will also play a larger role in the post-COVID world than it did before, as people realize that it can be more convenient and lowers barriers to participation. An interesting complexity to designing and delivering virtual experiences is that people interact with them in their own environment. It’s impossible to orchestrate the details of an experience remotely the same way as in-person. This opens a world of opportunity to rethink basic concepts like waiting rooms, work meetings, and creative collaboration, but also requires people who deeply understand how context influences behavior. Guess whom that is? Applied behavior scientists.

Algorithms and machine learning are based in behavior science

Scroll through Twitter or your favorite news site, and you’ll almost certainly see a mention of algorithms, machine learning, or artificial intelligence within a few minutes. These tools enable companies to deliver content and experiences in a more targeted way and are scalable, so there’s great potential value. But it’s easy to find horror stories about algorithms gone wild. To really harness the potential of algorithm-driven design, UX teams need to include applied behavior scientists. Many of them have specialized training to evaluate the quality and meaning of data that are used to determine how people experience a product or service. An applied behavior scientist can detect confounds or biases in historical data that should guide whether and how it’s used in design (which is the source of many of the missteps that make the news). Behavior scientists also understand motivation and cognition, which helps them to determine how an experience should be delivered by an algorithm to produce the best results. Algorithms and machine learning aren’t just math; they’re design tools that are shaped by and can in turn shape, human behavior.

Personalization done well is psychology

More companies want to offer personalized experiences to their customers, whether it’s recommendations within an app that drives continued engagement (hello, Netflix and Spotify) or curating the actual product for an individual’s needs (like StitchFix or Kiehl’s Apothecary Preparations). The increase in personalization is, of course, related to the availability of data for algorithms that drive recommendations, but the focus here is on the experience that gets delivered. Again, applied behavior science plays a critical role on the UX team that creates a personalized product. Training in behavioral theories helps designers understand what prompts or tools to offer to get people to answer the call to action. Understanding motivation allows designers to fine-tune the experience to meet what people find easiest, most enjoyable, and most rewarding. The psychology of motivation explains why personalization is such an effective approach when done well, and strategic use of digital elements in a product or experience enables it to happen at scale.

The future is bright

I expect that UX teams five or ten years from now will boast members whose primary label is applied behavior scientist, and many others who have added behavior science skills to their crafts as researchers, visual designers, and so forth. Behavior science itself is a field in motion, so there may be new sub-specialties or approaches that bridge into the UX world. There will be no one model for what an applied behavior scientist looks like.

For UXers who want to be a part of the applied behavior science revolution, this is a great time to be in the field. A growing community stands ready to welcome you.