Adobe Discount Banner

Behavioural Design: The Art and Science of Influencing Behaviour

Behavioural Design: The Art and Science of Influencing Behaviour

Consumer behaviour and psychology have always gone hand-in-hand. However, behavioural design takes this connection to the next level – using research and influence techniques consciously and responsibly to guide people's actions. This emerging field combines insights from psychology, neuroscience, organisational behaviour and design to “nudge” behaviours without compromising autonomy.

As technologies evolve and choices proliferate, behavioural design offers a human-centred approach to motivating change. This comprehensive guide explains the fundamentals, ethical considerations, and real-world applications of behavioural design.

A Brief History

Behavioural Design

What we today call behavioural design has its roots in the behavioural sciences of the 20th century, led by social psychologists and economists seeking to explain human behaviour patterns.

  • Key pre-cursors in the first half of the 1900s included Ivan Pavlov's experiments with classical conditioning and B.F. Skinner's introduced operant conditioning. Both demonstrated the influence of stimuli and reinforcement schedules for driving behaviours.
  • The new field of behavioural economics took shape in the late 20th century to study the role of emotional, social and psychological factors in economic decisions. Pioneers like Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler showed that human behaviour often diverges from traditional economic assumptions.
  • As our ability to measure and analyse behaviours accelerated in the digital age, private companies increasingly took notice of marketing and sales applications—for example, recommendation engines at Amazon and Netflix.
  • The modern incarnation of behavioural design coalesced around centres like Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab, pioneered by BJ Fogg in the 1990s, to systematically apply behavioural models to shape human behaviour through digital channels.

Thus what was once scattered across academic silos has been integrated and focused into an applied behavioural design lens put towards ethical ends.

Core Principles and Models

Behavioural design rests on the premise that there are systematic ways to influence and initiate behaviours by shaping the context around people's natural mental patterns and cognitive biases. Let's unpack some fundamental principles and influence models:

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is based on using stimulus and reward to modify the occurrence of a behaviour. B.F. Skinner distinguished two types of behaviours:

  • Respondent behaviours are automatic reflexes and responses that occur as a reaction to certain stimuli. These are difficult to change.
  • Operant behaviours are voluntary actions that can be modified using reinforcement schedules after the behaviour. This is the focus area of operant conditioning.

There are four types of reinforcement schedules to increase the likelihood that a desired behaviour will re-occur in the future:

  • Positive reinforcement: Adding a pleasant stimulus following a behaviour to encourage repetition
  • Negative reinforcement: Removing an unpleasant stimulus to motivate behaviours
  • Punishment: Adding an undesirable stimulus or taking away a pleasant stimulus to discourage behaviours
  • Extinction: Withdrawing all support to eliminate behaviours
👉 Read More:  8 Ways To Make Your Homepage Design More Engaging

The timing and consistency of reinforcement is critical. Behavioural design leverages positive support on interval or unpredictable schedules. This forms lasting behaviours most resistant to extinction once the rewards stop. Examples range from liking notifications to keeping us checking apps to running loyalty programs in supermarkets or cafes.

Cognitive Biases

Human judgment and decision-making deviate systematically from purely rational models – also called cognitive biases. Behavioural design works by mapping contextual triggers to exploit people's hardwired mental shortcuts, emotional reactions or processing limitations. Common examples include:

  • Framing: Positive versus negative framing changes preferences
  • Anchoring: Initial numeric suggestions anchor perceptions
  • Loss aversion: Losing something feels ~2x worse than gaining something of the same value
  • Hyperbolic discounting: Smaller sooner rewards are favoured over larger delayed rewards
  • Choice overload: Too many options can lead to decision paralysis and lack of action

Designers build choice architectures and micro-interactions around these biases. For example, presenting a higher-priced premium offering first to anchor perceptions before showing cheaper alternatives.

Motivational Psychology

The behavioural design also draws lessons from theories in motivational psychology to drive recurring behaviours. This spans understanding innate human needs through optimising incentives and change management strategies. Models such as:

  • Maslow's Pyramid: Stepwise progression of conditions from basic > psychological > self-fulfilment. This provides a framework to identify what unmet needs could underpin compounding user behaviours or growth plateaus.
  • FOMO (fear of missing out): Driving user anxiety by triggering social pressures and scarcity cues that they will miss experiences or status gained by peers. Useful ethically in health contexts, questionable in social media feeds.
  • Goal-Gradient Effect: As we near the end of a journey or challenge, motivation spikes to finish it. This helps frame milestones, highlight progress, and boost retention.
  • Zeignarnik Effect: Humans better recall and return focus to incomplete tasks rather than completed ones. To-do lists, scoring systems, and other tracking systems bring users back until they reach closure.

Choice Architecture

Behavioural Design Choice Architecture

Once behavioural principles are understood, the next step involves choice architecture – structuring the context and environment around decisions to influence outcomes. Minor tweaks and micro-prompts at critical moments guide actions. Some examples:

  • Intelligent defaults: Opting people into receiving helpful information, services or protections by default unless actively changed, harnessing status quo bias. Countries using opt-out organ donation see considerable increases in donors.
  • Reducing frictions: Minimising steps needed, easing cognitive load and removing time delays to enable behaviours (e.g. auto-enrollment, auto-renewals, one-click payments).
  • Salience & placement: Drawing conscious attention to helpful options via visual contrast, prominent positioning or notifications when most relevant.
  • Framing & messaging: Positive vs negative framing changes receptivity and anchors meaning around information policies. Presenting identical info as surcharges vs discounts, taxes vs subsidies, or 5-day shipping vs 16-week standard affects choices.

A landmark 2008 study published guidance synthesising behavioural design best practices for policymakers called MINDSPACE. This broke down robust cognitive effects into more straightforward categories for applications (Messenger, Incentives, Norms, etc.) with examples. Ethically practised choice architecture balances multiple behavioural models to overcome, not exploit, human limitations.

Persuasive Design

Persuasive technology is the umbrella field focusing on digital systems crafted to form new attitudes or behaviours or reinforce existing ones. Behavioural design inherits these foundations but expands the scope beyond tech to the ecosystem of environments, communications, products and services influencing people's actions.

👉 Read More:  Brand Consistency: The Cornerstone of Memorable Brands

BJ Fogg's Behavior Model remains an influential blueprint merging ability, triggers and motivations to activate target behaviours:


  • Motivations: User feelings/incentives for wanted behaviour
  • Abilities: User skills/capacity/Simplicity to achieve Behavior
  • Triggers: Spark for action (facilitator or signal)

Triggers only activate behaviours when motivation and abilities are sufficient. Adding triggers alone fails if a capability is too complex or needs more encouragement. Fogg's model provides a checklist for closing behavioural gaps by boosting enablers, not unthinkingly adding more notifications or reminders layered onto broken systems.

Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab articulated seven key tactics for influencing behaviours through online platforms. While detailed for digital channels, most have analogues in the physical world:

  • Reduction – simplify and guide users through processes or decisions
  • Tunnelling – lead experience along pre-defined pathways towards goals
  • Tailoring – provide relevant content adapted to specific users
  • Suggestion – offer recommendations precisely when input is needed
  • Self-monitoring – allows people to track themselves and progress
  • Surveillance – observe users to facilitate or improve regimes
  • Conditioning – reinforcement tactics to drive habits

Key Figures and Thinkers

Behavioural design built on the foundations of behavioural psychology and economics pioneered in the mid-late 20th century. Some seminal contributors include:

F. Skinner

Popularised operant conditioning beginning in the 1930s and coined the term behaviour modification to adjust behaviours via stimuli. Built schedules of reinforcement and first conceptualised shaping behaviours across steps.

Science And Human Behavior
  • Skinner, B.F (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 461 Pages – 03/01/1965 (Publication Date) – Free Press (Publisher)

Daniel Kahneman

Helped establish the field of behavioural economics by analysing irrational patterns in judgment and decision-making. Awarded 2002 Economics Nobel Prize for prospect theory on how choices change based on certainty, losses, etc.

Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • Audible Audiobook
  • Daniel Kahneman (Author) – Patrick Egan (Narrator)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 10/25/2011 (Publication Date) – Random House Audio (Publisher)

Richard Thaler

His 2008 book “Nudge” brought the Seed Concept to the mainstream: How Positive Reinforcement and Indirect Suggestions Influence Decisions—He Co-wrote a preference framework with legal scholar Cass Sunstein on evaluating when it's ethical to nudge people.

Nudge: The Final Edition
  • Thaler, Richard H. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 384 Pages – 08/03/2021 (Publication Date) – Penguin Books (Publisher)

BJ Fogg

Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab was founded in the 1990s, pioneering how digital influence strategies can catalyse short-term behaviours. He authored the gold standard Fogg Behavior Model on critical elements for behavioural activation.

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything
  • PhD, BJ Fogg (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages – 01/19/2021 (Publication Date) – Harvest (Publisher)

Nir Eyal

Wrote best-selling books on user addiction and behavioural design tactics behind many successful apps. Discussed the ethical use of back-end variable reward schedules and other conditioning tactics.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
  • Hardcover Book
  • Eyal, Nir (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages – 11/04/2014 (Publication Date) – Portfolio (Publisher)

Pros and Cons of Behavioral Design

Like any potent tool, behavioural design risks misuse unless conscious precautions are taken and ethical foundations are laid. It raises valid issues around manipulation that demand ongoing dialogue. But when practised responsibly, behavioural design unlocks immense potential for social progress that supports human dignity and flourishing. Some key pros and cons include:

👉 Read More:  Understanding UX Writing - An In-Depth Guide


  • Cost-effective for organisational change management
  • Scales evidence-based policies
  • Boosts sustainability
  • Improves public health
  • Reduces bad defaults and inequities
  • Accounts for common human biases


  • Seen as manipulative by some
  • Risks over-optimising cultures
  • Potentially violates privacy
  • Difficult to implement correctly

Whether behavioural design moves societies backwards or forwards depends on how it gets applied. And as analytics grow more powerful, all organisations must grapple with influence – consciously or not.

Behavioural Design Ethics and Precautions

Given the increasing adoption of behavioural approaches, standards for ethical practice are vital. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein formalised the most used evaluative framework in 2019, titled RECIPE, standing for:

  • Respectful – supports user autonomy
  • Easy – efforts minimised
  • Consensual – opt-in and transparent
  • Important – clear benefits
  • Privacy – anonymous data use only

Many behavioural design projects also convene oversight committees, including ethicists, consumers and external critics. They pressure test initiatives against RECIPE criteria plus extended factors like:

  • Fairness towards under-represented groups
  • Accountability and reporting requirements
  • Validated evaluation metrics
  • Conflict of interest guidelines
  • Public comment periods

Skilled practitioners also insist that behavioural results run through an additional quadrant check before launch:

  1. Is the behaviour we want to encourage ethical?
  2. Does our intervention align with behavioural science principles?
  3. Will our measurement strategy provide valid insights?
  4. Are safeguards in place for rolling back issues?

This helps spot troublesome gaps early when it is easier to correct course.

Real World Applications

Healthcare Web Design Services

Behavioural design now permeates domains from public health policy to interactions on smartphones. Usage continues growing in response to rising population scale, technological complexity and the need for rapid cultural adaptations. Just some impact areas include:


Policymakers are embracing behavioural design realisations that past public health efforts erred in assuming people will act purely rationally. New guidance targets emotional cues and mental shortcuts to motivate change.

  • Prescription pick-ups soared 27% by changing the language from “Do you want to pick up” to “We will have your Rx ready on Tuesday after 2 pm unless you call us to decline.” This shift reframed user momentum and took advantage of choice biases.
  • Hand washing improved as much from poster displays of eyes staring at sink areas as from rational warnings about health risks. The subtle surveillance cue taps social conformity biases.
  • Patient checklists designed by surgeons reduced E.R. deaths by 36%, applying principles of maximum simplicity. Behavioural design recognises humans err most with cognitive overload – not disinterest.


Furniture icon Ikea uses behavioural design to guide ecological purchasing for mainstream buyers through digital platforms and in-person service touchpoints:

  • Online materials quiz for new customers simplifies the ability to select sustainable options upfront based on lifestyle needs.
  • The app outlines incremental eco actions tied to tangible rewards, leveraging goal-gradient to reduce waste.
  • Unique plant names boost perceived value and desire vs generic labels.
  • Staff members trained in reciprocity strategies for converting interest.

Ikea also openly shares behavioural research to allow copying of what works and discussing unintended consequences.

Product Design

Many iconic companies driving high user engagement rates leverage behavioural design elements – done well or questionably. Common examples include:

  • Instagram's unpredictable photos and notifications keep checking high via variable rewards
  • iOS added motion fluency to signal progress when touch lags, easing wait frustrations
  • Google framing devices in accountability reports nudge towards carbon offsets vs air travel cuts directly
  • Netflix anonymised data on trending titles and activity sparks FOMO cues to stay subscribed to socially relevant shows
  • Tesla self-monitoring displays give instant feedback on green driving to motivate through gamification leaderboards
👉 Read More:  30+ Ways to Boost Your Conversion Rate

Artificial Intelligence

A.I. systems make or influence growing shares of daily decisions in our information ecosystem. Behavioural design offers principles for how automated influencers could align better with human needs:

  • YouTube recommender systems optimising only watch times and ad revenue lead to radicalisation risks in the long-term.
  • Adding metrics for improving well-being steers outputs towards human flourishing vs short-term profit only.
  • Favouring transparency, the ability to correct misclassifications and meaningful human oversight counter opaque harms
  • Fostering informed consent around data collection protects autonomy and trust.

Machine behaviour shaping human behaviour requires thoughtful norms and regulations. Behavioural design thinking provides tested models.

How to Get Started Applying Behavioral Design Approaches

User Behaviour Flow Mobile App

Ready to incorporate more evidence-backed behavioural models into a project or initiative? Follow a stepwise process:

  1. Clarify specific target behaviours to establish or change along with the measurable outcomes that indicate success. Get broad participation in aspirational vision.
  2. Dive into root causes with ethnographic user research to unpack the emotional, social and cognitive backdrop around current behaviours. Look for unmet needs or broken system conditions requiring fixes before layering tweaks atop dysfunction.
  3. Brainstorm intervention possibilities that map findings to validated behavioural models like operant conditioning, MINDSPACE categories for choice contexts and Fogg's formula identifying gaps in user motivation, ability or triggers.
  4. Prototype potential behavioural design solutions using longitudinal experiments that allow factoring out noise before committing resources. Track against quantitative metrics and capture lived experiences.
  5. Keep evolving tactics based on findings while cementing an accountability process featuring oversight and milestones tracking towards ethical goals centred on benefiting people equitably.

The application opportunities feel boundless but must remain grounded in moral wisdom and evidence-based impact measurement.

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

Behavioural design holds advantages over education-only and purely rational choice models across contexts from public policy to interfaces. It accepts actual human capacities as the starting point and then artfully arranges environments for more optimal outcomes without limiting freedom.

As machine learning and psychological understanding continue advancing, the science and art of intentional influence will grow. Its practitioners will require heightened ethical vigilance to ensure human dignity stays centred. But done responsibly, behavioural design promises to help societies navigate coming waves of change more smoothly.

Key Takeaways

  • Behavioural design combines psychology, neuroscience and innovation to influence behaviours positively.
  • Operant conditioning uses stimulus and reinforcement to shape actions.
  • Choice architecture structures decisions by tweaking context
  • Persuasive technology offers tactics for steering digital experiences.
  • Practised responsibly, the behavioural design creates massive value – improving policies, products, services and more to benefit the quality of lives at scale. However, ethical precautions remain imperative as influence capabilities expand.

Frequently Asked Questions

What's the difference between behavioural economics and behavioural design?

Behavioural economics studies irrational patterns in human monetary decisions and often incorporates behavioural science insights into financial models and policies. Behavioural design takes those principles and proactively applies them to structuring choices/incentives across contexts beyond finance to influence action.

When does behavioural design become manipulation?

The line remains fuzzy, but central factors include 1) whether people explicitly consent and have a clear understanding of influence techniques at play, 2) if the designers carefully weigh ethical risks and conduct oversight, and 3) if better choices aid human dignity for more than solely benefitting companies. Absolute prohibitions on ever influencing peoples' behaviour seem unrealistic, so the question becomes how to build wisdom and standards around responsible influence.

👉 Read More:  The 50 Best Graphic Design Websites: Inspiration & Productivity

I have a small budget. What are simple, low-cost behavioural design interventions?

Many fundamental insights can be applied through changed messaging, visuals and choice prompts. For example, testing different positive vs negative framing, moving high-effort options to the top, editing messaging to reduce cognitive load, adding social proof descriptors, and using imperatives instead of passive voice.

How can I trust the lessons from big behavioural design labs and practitioners?

Healthy scepticism is warranted. One should examine who funded and might benefit from the findings before putting complete confidence in claims around influence techniques. Pressure testing through iterative small experiments makes sense rather than wholly adopting packaged solutions. Transparency of methods and data helps evaluate credibility.

Where is the future of behavioural design headed?

We likely remain in the early stages of tapping the potential for good. As machine learning and sensors expand their capacities to model cognitive patterns during experiences, behavioural design integration will transform service and business models – hopefully elevating societies if conscientious. More mainstream integration into education systems and company cultures also seems probable to promote ethics reflection alongside rising influence capabilities.

Last update on 2024-07-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Photo of author

Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

Need help Building your Brand?

Let’s talk about your logo, branding or web development project today! Get in touch for a free quote.

Leave a Comment

Trusted by Businesses Worldwide to Create Impactful and Memorable Brands

At Inkbot Design, we understand the importance of brand identity in today's competitive marketplace. With our team of experienced designers and marketing professionals, we are dedicated to creating custom solutions that elevate your brand and leave a lasting impression on your target audience.