Behavioral Design: How to Design for User Engagement

June 25, 2020

Whether you’re at the grocery store, on your way to work, or sitting on your couch using your smartphone, you’ve experienced behavioral design—it is everywhere. Understanding behavioral design will help you spot it, appreciate it, and implement it across your projects to promote the desired action.

What is behavioral design?

It’s the intentional cues that influence the actions a creator wants the user to take. Almost every product we use has an intentionally designed set of features to drive specific behaviors and create habits.

The book Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, identifies popular recurring patterns that widely-used products use to make sure their users are habitually engaged.

The author calls this the hook model. When you break down the hook model, it looks like this:

  • A company creates an external trigger: a call to action or a marketing campaign and sends it out to users and customers.
  • This customer then takes an action. It could be signing up for the product, the app, or a service.
  • Once this user has signed up, the product or the service has this characteristic of a variable reward. Now every time their customer logs in, there’s a new feature they need to discover. For example, on Facebook when you log on or when you wake up in the morning, there’s always a notification. You may not know it, but that’s specifically designed to drive behavior.
  • Once you have variable rewards, the user is more engaged, and is more likely to be invested in the product or service. Think back to our Facebook example: content, photos, friends—we’re all invested in Facebook.

At this point, the company doesn’t need to spend extra money to get a user engaged with their product because an internal trigger is now activated—they’re hooked. Think back to the last time you used Facebook because you saw a Facebook ad. Facebook doesn’t have to do that, instead, we all intuitively go to Facebook because our internal triggers are activated.

Behavioral Design...get out of my mind!

Don’t panic—you’re not brainwashed. These products are specifically designed this way, but it’s not always used for driving consumerism or social media. There are positive use-cases.

When behavioral design is done right, it seeks to create pleasant experiences for the user, is business-oriented, and ethical. Products are designed for a pleasant experience because users find value in the products that make their lives easier. And if the product makes their life easier, they’ll naturally come back to it.

Which is exactly what makes behavioral design business-oriented, because if they continue to come back without businesses spending more marketing money, this is GOOD for business.

Behavioral design is also ethical because trustworthy products are a win for the users and the business. It’s a win for the users when they don’t have to wonder about their data or what the company is doing with the investment that they’ve put into this product. It’s a win for the business because the more users are engaged with the app, the more potential there is to target them with the right product or service.

A SingleStone Example of Behavioral Design

The GitHealthy app we created at SingleStone is an example of behavioral design being used to bring a pleasant experience. On this app, we purposely change the background color and add visual elements based on the health of a specific Github Repository and the Github Organization.

This was designed to act as a form of notification and variable reward. When a user is met with a red background and a sad face, they are enticed to get it towards green with a happy face, becoming a type of game for the user. This sort of treatment allows the experience to be different every time they use the app which results in the desired behavior from a business perspective.

An example of unethical behavioral design

We heard the good, what’s the ugly?

Now, behavioral design can, unfortunately, be done unethically. When behavioral design is done unethically, companies tend to use tricks. Look at the photo to the right. No, you don’t have a hair on your screen. The company that designed this ad purposefully designed it with a string of hair right in the middle of it. Why? They wanted you to click on the string of hair, and inevitably click on their ad.

Behavior designed the unethical way purposefully hides desired user actions, tricks the user, or hopes the user would just give up trying. Have you ever tried to delete an account, but were led down a path of frustration with step after step? Sadly, this unethical behavior from companies is way too common. Go look today at the number of steps it takes to just find the option to de-activate your account on Facebook. Compare that to the steps it takes to sign up for a new one. Drastically different experiences, right?

At its core, the unethical way to design behavior prevents the user to achieve what they want when they want to. Exploiting behavioral design in this way is bad for business and can break the trust your users granted you.


So, the tweetable takeaway from this post? Behavioral design done right seeks to create pleasant experiences for the user, is business-oriented and ethical.

What are some of the ethical and unethical uses of behavioral design you’ve seen of late? Better question – are you in the market for a new gig? We’re hiring! Come hang out with us.

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Orlando Arias

Senior Designer

Orlando is a designer and a learner at heart. He has over 12 years of experience, with an emphasis in digital product design.

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