When is behavioural science good design?
22 June 2018
By Ed Gardiner
I work between the worlds of behavioural science and design and often get asked the question 'so when is behavioural science good design?'
This article attempts to answer this question, reconcile some of the differences and discuss how and when these two fields can work together to be a powerful problem-solving force.
What do I mean by behavioural science and design?
Behavioural science is broadly the study of how and why people behave the way they do, drawing on insights and methods from psychology, economics and neuroscience.
It includes fields such as cognitive science, behavioural economics, and judgement and decision-making, providing the basic principles for what causes?- and how to cause - ?specific behaviours to occur.
Design has multiple definitions. At a functional level, design is a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose. For example, while the purpose of a kettle is to boil water, one can better accomplish that purpose by arranging the elements differently, as a hot tap.
At a process level, design is a creative approach to problem-solving that brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable (see Design Thinking). This approach - design thinking or human-centred design - provides a process and set of tools for people to follow in order to practice good design. The IDEO design process and the Design Council double diamond are among the best known of an ever expanding set.
At a higher level, design is about determining people’s true, underlying needs, and creating products and services together that help them (see How Apple is Giving Design a Bad Name).
Certain abilities are associated with this design mind-set, for example navigating ambiguity, moving between concrete and abstract, and understanding collective needs (see Let’s stop talking about THE design process). Not everyone who is a designer has this mind-set, and not everyone who has this mind-set is a designer.
So, when is behavioural science good design?
From a functional perspective, one could argue that if the behavioural intervention - ?a product, service, communication or other interaction developed using behavioural science to cause a specific behaviour to occur? - performs the desired purpose by changing the desired outcome, then it is good design. ‘Behavioural’ or not, it’s astonishing how many products and services fail at this basic level.
However, judging an intervention purely based on outcomes may ignore the value of good design, both in terms of its contribution to improving outcomes, and broader enjoyment.
Is the Behavioural Insight Team’s seminal example of drawing attention to social norms in a tax letter to increase response rates good design (see Applying behavioural insights to reduce fraud, error and debt and Ivo Vlaev's research)? Did it change the desired outcome? Yes. Did it conform to all of Rams’ principles? No? - ?it’s not aesthetic (to be fair, most letters are ugly). Would it have been more effective - or enjoyable - if it had? Maybe.
It’s harder to make a judgement of good design based on process because no one process is suitable for all problems. Behavioural science is a top-down process: state the desired outcomes, research and list the behaviours needed to achieve the outcomes, match the behaviours to intervention types and empirically test the ideas.
Design is a more bottom-up process: explore the problem, system or needs to be addressed, define the problem and desired outcomes, create or support the development of ideas, prototype and test.