How to build products that actually work

“The value is in what gets used, not in what gets built.”

Kris Gale

Products only create potential

One of the key indicators that strategy is working is there a change in the behaviour of our customers or key stakeholders. Strategy influences products and services (hereafter referred to as "products"), and products can influence people, however if the products don’t result in a change of behaviour then we haven’t made a meaningful difference. Well crafted products create a potential to produce better outcomes, yet ultimately its up to the person for whom the product has been developed to determine if that potential is realised.

But getting people to change their behaviour is difficult because when a person meets a product it is the person who has the work to do in adapting to the product, and not vice versa. It is therefore essential that we incorporate thoughtful behavioural design into our products.

Behaviour has 4 influences

Behaviour is simply the way person acts, and it’s determined by a constellation of mostly psychological factors. There are 4 key factors that influence behaviour. If we can understand how these factors catalyse a person into action then we can play a more effective role in influencing their behaviour.

These factors are;

  1. Attention
  2. Motivation
  3. Decision making
  4. Actionability

1. Attention

The first factor influencing behaviour is attention. Our habitual behaviour is largely characterised by inattention and inertia. This means that all other things being equal, we are likely to carry on doing what we have been always been doing. Human beings are creatures of habit, so for a significant portion of our life we are on auto-pilot. If you want to change someone’s behaviour the first thing you need to do is grab their attention. In digital products one of the most common ways of doing this is the use of app notifications. Social media anyone?

2. Motivation

The second factor influencing behaviour is motivation. Motivation is the catalyst that arouses people to action and it arises when a person meets their own unmet needs. As human beings we share common drives, so we can call on these across all of our customers. Meaning, autonomy and self-expression, mastery and connectedness are some of the motivations we all share.

Motivation is also specific to different groups of people. For instance Māori and Pasikifa tend to place greater value on whānau and larger communal groups. And motivation is of course specific to the individual. When designing our products we should keep in mind the motivations of our customers and consider what is important to them so that we can influence their behaviour.

3. Decision making

The third factor influencing behaviour is decision-making. If we pass the gateways of attention and motivation, then the next obstacle that is faced is a decision. The wiring of our brains means that there are a number of different, so-called "cognitive biases" that affect the way we make decisions. As an example, we tend to value the present much more than the future. This means we often make decisions that provide convenience or pleasure to our “present-self” at the expense of pain or inconvenience to our “future-self”. Consumer finance companies leverage this cognitive bias mercilessly. So does that muffin shop that pumps its aroma into the streets.

Our brains also look for shortcuts when making decisions. For instance we will look at what other people think about something, and sometimes value that over the effort of coming to our own decision. The use of celebrities to endorse a product, or the use of customer testimonials are examples of this. There are numerous other influences on our decision making and understanding what these are can help with influencing behaviour.

4. Actionability

The fourth and final factor influencing behaviour is actionability. Having our attention caught, our motivation piqued, and a decision made is a great start, but nothing happens until the decision is acted on. What stands in the way of this is the question of how easy it is to take action. This includes questions like;

  • will it cost much money?
  • will it involve much physical effort?
  • will it take much time?
  • will it take a lot of thought? We need to consider the effort involved in taking action and empathise with our customers, and do as much as we can to make the action as accessible as possible.

Incorporating behavioural intelligence into the solution

People don’t come to products that they don’t know about or for which they haven’t been enticed to with an engaging offer. That’s why the marketing budget for many types of products is as large as the product development budget. There’s a line from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” which goes If you build it they will come. Its a wonderfully romantic idea and one that has inspired too many product designers with promising products but no customers. But by making use of the proven principles of these behavioural design and engineering principles we can make the less romantic but much more realistic line – If you build it, and then influence them, they will come, and stay.

When attention, motivation, decision making and actionability all come together then new behaviours can emerge. Product design, behavioural engineering and marketing are three separate disciples, but it is only when they are integrated together that we can create products that make a meaningful difference in the quality of the lives of the people we care about.