You may recognize the terms behavioral science, behavioral economics, or the phrase “predictably irrational,” coined by Duke Professor, Dan Ariely. Behavioral science has disrupted academic theory and influenced the design of our daily lives in both subtle and significant ways; from the cable that prevents you from losing your gas fuel cap to the shift in our federal school-lunch program policy from opt-in to opt-out, automatically enrolling eligible kids. While behavioral science has been a topic of interest in the context of public policy and marketing departments, it is less frequently discussed in the field of product and service design. In this article, I explore examples of how researchers and designers can apply insights from behavioral science to increase the effectiveness of our products or services – in a non coercive way – and improve customer (or patient) satisfaction.

Behavioral science, the empirical study of human behavior and decision making, spans the disciplines of psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, and political science. Similar to the research methodologies deployed throughout the design thinking process, behavioral science is grounded in the direct and indirect observation of people through qualitative and quantitative approaches. The term came into being in the 1940s and was popularized in the 1970s by the work of two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (among others). Kahneman and Tversky observed that, contrary to traditional economic theory, humans are often not rational beings and our decisions are systematically affected by cognitive biases. Kahneman and Tversky’s findings were disruptive to traditional economic theory, which assumes people are perfectly rational and make decisions to maximize happiness (or utility), because they revealed our tendencies to do things like procrastinate an assignment or smoke cigarettes even when it is not in our best interest. These insights planted the seed of the modern field of behavioral economics and inspired the work of Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein, and many other influential people.

With a better understanding of exactly how and when people deviate from rational decision makers, we can begin to design solutions that account for our real human biases and use effective triggers to improve decision making and resulting actions. This is especially important in the context of healthcare as our design could lead to improved outcomes, impacting the mental and physical well-being of targeted patient populations.

Although the applications of behavioral science insights to product and service design are endless, I would like to highlight a few examples that we consider often at Essential:

Inertia Bias or the Status Quo Bias is a preference for the current state and a tendency to stick with default options.

Inertia bias is why people are reluctant to change their behavior or slow to adopt new products over existing products. Many people continue to eat high cholesterol food after the diagnosis of a heart disease or keep an existing health insurance plan even though it may not align well with an individual’s medical needs. With an understanding of this tendency, we can shift expectations to promote better choices. Designers should support incremental behavioral change by setting/adjusting achievable goals (esp. in regards to health coaching apps), drawing from existing mental models and familiar forms, and providing clarity to decision making through information architecture and content design.

Loss aversion is a tendency to place greater value on avoiding losses over receiving equivalent gains.

Many corporations leverage this aversion through marketing techniques, allowing free trial periods during which users develop ownership of the product and are less likely to return the product when this trial is complete. Designers could explore framing healthcare decision making in terms of losses rather than gains, emphasizing the loss of independence when physical complications arise from inadherence (e.g., loss of a limb, loss of vision, etc.).

Availability Heuristic is the assessment of a particular subject based on how readily an idea comes to mind (or through previous experiences with similar subjects).

People often make assumptions about others based on experiences with people from seemingly similar demographics, even though they could have very little in common. It is critical that all professionals, especially design researchers, are aware of this tendency. It is all too easy for a doctor to make an assumption about a patient based on their condition, when in actuality, no two patient experiences are alike and often unique, outside factors (e.g., relationships, financial stresses, mental well-being) strongly influence a person’s health. To mitigate potential negative consequences of this heuristic, clinicians must treat the patient rather than the condition and designers should support this through customizable health tools.

As these points indicate, we do not always act in our own best interests and our biases can lead us to make seemingly irrational decisions that sometimes lead to worse outcomes. If researchers and designers are aware of these mental shortcuts, we can develop smarter products and services that improve outcomes by reducing these biases. It is, however, not safe to assume that our behavioral science infused design solutions are final, as the next step in the design phase involves rigorous analysis and fine-tuning. Through quick and continuous feedback cycles we can refine the design to improve the efficacy of our solutions.

The potential scope of applying behavioral science insights is endless, extending across industries such as healthcare, education, energy, etc. I would love for this article to be a part of a larger conversation about infusing behavioral science in design. If you have additional ideas about the implications of behavioral science on design, please feel free to share your thoughts! If you are interested in learning about the additional cognitive biases I did not touch on in this article, check out the Cognitive Bias Codex.

Essential Design is a leading Innovation Strategy & Design consultancy. We work across the healthcare, consumer, and commercial industries, helping our clients conceive and drive to market comprehensive digital, physical, and service experiences.

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