Four Product Design Rules that Help Users Behave Better
Intellectually, we all know that each of us should be behaving better. We should exercise more, eat healthier foods, save more energy, and so on. But most of us fail to follow through because knowing the right thing to do is simply not enough to change our behavior. It turns out that getting rid of bad habits is a much harder thing to do. Can good product and solution design help? More and more examples are emerging that suggest the answer is “yes”. At Altitude, we’ve been knee deep in this movement with several clients, and recently, we’ve been working with a branch of the US military to develop systems that encourage beneficial behaviors among its service members.
This movement in product and solution design is based on groundbreaking cognitive science, which I invite all readers to explore more deeply. But our work and observations suggest that it can be boiled down into a set of rules, that when followed, will help ensure that a product or solution is more effective (and accepted) at creating the intended behavior change. So without further adieu, here they are:
1. Make your product dead simple and easy to use
This is the foundation and you cannot build a good house without a strong foundation. You are trying to get users to change habits. Any complication will ensure that they don’t. Cumbersome interfaces, long start-up times, unreliable components…every tiny detail needs to be sweated and simplified. A great example can be seen in comparing the Jawbone Up to the Nike Fuelband. Both are bracelet-based systems designed to help users be more active and healthy. In order to save battery life, Jawbone asks its users to plug the Up bracelet into a phone for uploading data. But Nike realized that such a small inconvenience could discourage use. So it invested in custom battery technology that would enable wireless synch. That’s the harder development path, but it will pay off in increased adoption.
2. Use measurement and feedback to serve as a reward for good behavior:
As this wonderful New York Times Magazine article points out, our habits are built on a three step cycle: cue, routine, reward. In order to help your users habitualize positive behavior, it is critical to build rewards into your product’s use cycle; and to do so in a repetitive, predictable way. One of the simplest and most effective methods is to build measurement of the intended behavior into the system and make sure the user gets simple, predictable feedback. So, for example, if you are designing a product or system to help people exercise, it’s important that users are rewarded with an ability to measure their improvement. At the end of every workout, let them easily see their progress, thus capping off the habit with a small reward. Better yet, give them real-time feedback during their routine.
3. As much as possible, build on top of existing routine
Even with a simple design and the right rewards, changing ingrained behavior is tough. So require as little change as possible. Carefully study the habits and behaviors of your users and look for those that are beneficial. Then try to design ways to encourage these behaviors instead of trying to create new ones. For example, when working with the military, we looked for ways to increase warrior fitness. Instead of trying to build new, more rigorous fitness routines, we designed a system to encourage more frequent and effective practice of the fitness routine that every service member had to know and complete as part of their standard physical fitness test.
4. Build in peer support and community:
A study conducted by Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan compared attrition rates of health club members. After 1 year, attrition rates for individuals were 50%; they were 26% for couples; 22% for families; and 6% if a member’s fitness routine required another person. This supports something we all know instinctively: anything hard to do is easier if you have someone to do it with. Luckily, as designers, we have a plethora of social media tools we can use to put this idea into practice. A simple implementation of this idea is to make it easy for your users to publicize their commitments and progress (e.g. a tweeting scale). A more sophisticated, and often more effective, implementation is to help your users create self-organized groups, as Oklahoma City did to great effect in its successful effort to collectively lose one million pounds, or to create virtual competitions as can be found in many of today’s fitness applications.
Designers have an incrasingly important role to play in helping to solve our coutnry's and our planet's challenges. But we must remember that at the heart of almost every challenge is a human beng with bad behaviors that need to be changed. By focusing on the person, and following the simple rules that emerge from this understanding, you will have a better chance at creating positive change.