The basics of how to design products that change.

By Missy Titus (Product Designer at The Hunt)

A lot is written about User Experience design, but today, let’s talk about Behavior Design—specifically how to use Motivation, Ability, and Triggers to shape your users/customer’s behavior.

First things first:

What is User Experience Design?

UX (or User Experience) design is just that: proactively and thoughtfully designing the way your user interacts with your product. But it’s also much more than that. UX Design can affect people’s behavior, it can affect decisions they make, and it can affect their emotions and happiness as well.

What is “behavior change”?

Do I expect you to get people to all start walking on their heads or quacking like a duck or something? No (duh). What I mean by “behavior change” can be small, like encouraging a user to click a “like” button, or large, like getting people to care about saving the environment.

How do you change a behavior? What makes anyone do anything?

BJ Fogg, a professor of Behavioral Psychology at Stanford, has a model of human behavior that says it takes 3 things for someone to take any action: Motivation, Ability, and a Trigger. What that means is someone has to want to take the action, be mentally, physically, and monetarily able to take the action, and be triggered to take it, either by remembering to do it or being prompted somehow.

Here’s an example:

I have a problem. I need new running shoes. I want to buy new shoes because my old ones are worn out. I have #1, motivation. So let’s say I go to, and I look for running shoes. I find the shoes I want, I look at the price. It’s well-within my budget and they already have my credit card and shipping information saved. We’ve checked off #2, ability. And finally I see the big “Buy with 1 Click” button. Boom, #3, trigger, click it. And I’m done. Easy.

In this example, it was really simple for Amazon to get me to buy the shoes because I was already motivated, I knew exactly where to go and how to solve my problem. I had the money, the time, and the mental energy to click the button and complete the purchase. But not everything is that easy.

Here’s another, somewhat similar example problem:

I’m not really a big runner, but I think I’d like to get into running. So I casually decide I should probably get some running shoes. Since I’ve never done this before, I’m not even sure where to go to get good running shoes. I look at different stores online, and I find an online shoe store that specializes in women’s running shoes. I browse around for awhile, until I find a pair that I think are pretty good, I don’t really know. Then I see the price tag. $150!?!?! I had no idea these were so expensive. I’m a little on the fence about this already, but I decide, a little hesitantly, to go through with the purchase. After searching the page, I finally find the “buy” button, and at this point I’m getting frustrated, It takes me to a giant form, where I have to fill in my billing address, shipping address, credit card information, terms of service, email, password. Gah! I don’t have time for this. I close the page.

In this example, the company failed to convert me. I had some motivation, though not a ton, it was difficult to find the trigger, but I did find it, However I didn’t really have the ability, in money, time, and cognitive energy. Remember, we need all three to be successful, and although you might not be able to control all three, sometimes it’s enough to just increase one or two of these factors.

How do we increase these factors?

In order to be effective at dialing up any of these three, you really have to understand your user. This is where user research, empathy, and diving into the brain of your user comes into play.

There are two types of data: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative data is numbers, it can be counted. You can see how many people are dropping off at what point or how many more people click on the orange button rather than the green. It will tell you “what” is happening, but it can’t tell you “why.” Qualitative data is conversations and observations. Qualitative data tells you “why.” You use this data to find patterns and aha moments.

Qualitative data comes from user research, which should be part of validating any new product or feature idea and a few more times during the process to test that the solutions you’re building are working. There are a lot of different types of user research, enough to fill a whole other talk. I’m not going to go into specifics of how to do user research, but there are a ton of resources about that online. What I’m going to talk about is what you’re looking for and what to do with it once you’ve gathered some.

Let’s go back to the online shoe store and look at how they might have used research and psychology to increase my motivation, ability, and trigger.

Start with the “whys”

  • Why am I on this website? To buy running shoes.
  • Why? Because I think I’d like to start running.
  • Why now? Because my friend just uploaded a picture of me from high school on Facebook and I was shocked to see I’ve gained more than a few pounds.
  • Why running? Because I want a form of exercise that doesn’t require a gym membership.
  • Why? Because I travel a lot and don’t want to spend that money, especially if I won’t be around to use it much.

This isn’t much, but already there are so many goodies. Let’s see what we can do.

#1 Motivation

My motivation maybe doesn’t seem like something you have any control over, but you do. How? You have to understand not only the users problems, but their desires. To be clear, in order to meet a minimum required bar, you must figure out the users problems and convince them that you are the best way to solve them. To convert this type of user, they are already motivated to some extent. This doesn’t increase their motivation to solve a problem (but it could increase the likelihood that they go to you to solve it.)

To increase motivation, you have to figure out the desires they don’t even know they have.

When I first came to the website, I kind of wanted to running shoes. My problem wasn’t that I needed running shoes I could just as easily have gone without (and ultimately, I did). My problem was that I wanted to exercise without going to a gym. In this case, the shoe store’s competition is other shoe brands, sure, but it’s also other forms of exercise, like swimming, Zumba, rock climbing; it’s diet; and it’s me deciding not to do anything at all.To win me over, they need to convince me that running is the best solution to my problem.

To appeal to me, specifically, they could show images of fit women running through the streets of exotic locations. Testimonials of how this woman loves to travel and the first thing she does when arriving in a new city is go for a morning run through the streets, beautifully lit by the soft light of dawn, peaceful and serene. Tell me how light the shoes are, how easy they compress to pack! I’m inspired. I want to be that woman. I can see myself running through quiet city streets, making these shoes my trusted travel companions.

You’re not selling shoes—not really. You’re selling a lifestyle, a story I can tell about myself, and a desired outcome.

If I believe that these shoes can give me the lifestyle of my dreams and solve my problem? At this point, I’m very motivated.

You can do this for pretty much anything. For a productivity app? My desire is to be an almost super human productivity machine, accomplishing more per day than anyone thinks is possible, impressing my boss and getting a promotion. For a mobile game? I want to be social, to interact with my friends by playing a popular game; or maybe I want to be seen as unique, playing an indie game with off-beat art; or maybe that I’m skilled and smart, by playing only super challenging games and sharing my incredibly high scores.

Figuring out how to push these buttons comes from asking the “whys” until you uncover some useful insights about your customers dreams and desires.

#2 Ability

Ability means a lot of things. To go back to BJ Fogg’s model, there are 6 types of ability: Money, Time, Energy, Social Pressure, Familiarity, and Brain Cycles.

Money, Time, and Energy are pretty self-explanatory. The rest are a little trickier.

Social pressure: am I conforming to the norm? Is this going to cause me embarrassment? Will people lose trust in me if I make this decision

Familiarity: Am I already familiar with this such that it wouldn’t be hard to learn. Would it be a mental burden for me to learn?

Brain cycles: (Otherwise known as mental energy.) How much hard thinking is involved, do I have the mental energy to commit to this?

A person’s ability is factored by whatever they have the least of.

If I don’t have enough money, it doesn’t matter how easy to use or popular your product is, I don’t have the ability to buy it. If I don’t have any time, it doesn’t matter how cheap or familiar I am with it, I don’t have the ability to do it.

Ways to alleviate each of these factors:

Money: make your product cheap or target only people who have a lot of money.

Time: make it fast (or support a paying model which speeds it up) or only target people who have plenty of time*.

Energy: make easy to use physically.

Social pressure: present social proof (logos, testimonials, recommendations).

Familiarity: make it similar to something they know, follow paradigms, don’t reinvent the wheel.

Brain cycles: make it simple and easily understood.

Now, increasing ability can be tricky. There’s no way to increase all 6 types of ability and maintain a business. You’ll have pick and choose. How do you choose? By understanding your user! (Sensing a theme?) Is your target demographic college students? They probably don’t have a ton of money, but they’re more willing to take the time to grind or share on their social networks (they’re not going to get fired for playing candy crush!). Or is your target Engineering Directors of enterprise companies? They probably don’t have a lot of time and they don’t want the shame and possible punishment for making a wrong, untested choice, but they have a nice, hefty budget.

In the shoe store example, I didn’t have a ton of money or time, and I wasn’t familiar with the product so learning about it took a lot of mental energy. If they had required less mental energy from me to fill out the form by breaking it into several sections or letting me pay with a service like PayPal, I might have completed the purchase. They could have offered me a deal to subscribe to their newsletter to get 15% off on my first purchase. Or maybe I’m not even their target audience, so they don’t care that I didn’t buy the shoes. Maybe they’re targeting wealthy housewives who don’t mind paying top dollar to the best quality shoes.

It’s just as valuable to know who you aren’t targeting so you know not to optimize for them. The key is to think about what your audience has and what they don’t have. Try to alleviate any extra hurdles.

Just as important as convincing me that your product will solve my problem, is letting me know that it won’t require anything of me that they can’t give.

#3 Trigger

The trigger is what makes me take an action. Whether that’s signing up for a product, hitting a like button, or opening an app. Something has to happen to trigger that action.

Sometimes a trigger is external, like a button or a notification. Sometimes it’s internal, like boredom or a nagging urge to do something.

External triggers are easier. Making sure the button you want your user to click is easily visible at the right moment is a good start. If I have to search for functionality that I need, I’m not a happy customer. Also, how can I take advantage of a feature if I don’t know it exists?

Triggers can also be reminders, like e-mail newsletters or push notifications, they remind me that you exist and the best ones entice me to come back.

But external triggers can be more nuanced. Want me to make an in-app purchase? I might know that I can buy more currency in your mobile game, maybe I can even see the button. But most of the time, I’m probably not highly motivated to do it. If you’re smart about it, you wait until I’m just about to achieve the next level and all I need is just one more item, but I can’t afford to buy it. A modal dialogue prompting me to make the purchase could be all it takes to gain a paying customer. But tread carefully, because too many of these can be annoying and cause me to stop playing entirely. That’s not what you want to trigger.

Internal triggers are more difficult. They require conditioning your user—internal triggers are the way that you always go to Google when you need to search something or you mindlessly open Instagram while waiting for the bus. Internal triggers require your product to be widespread and your users to be what Nir Eyal calls “hooked.” When someone says they’re “addicted” to Facebook, this is what they mean. Using Facebook satisfies some internal itch for them.**

Another way to produce internal triggers is by using “gamification” techniques. Human beings feel an internal urge to check off boxes, fulfill tasks, complete sets, and gain social standing. Using these in games is obviously beneficial, but when used sparingly and appropriately, this can be affective in non-game products as well. LinkedIn effectively uses the metaphor of filling up a progress bar to get users to fill out their profile, and more recently Facebook has been leaving empty spaces on your profile with prompts like “What movies have you seen?” to get users to fill out these sections.***

So there you go. Human beings are complex and sometimes we don’t even know what we want or why we do the things we do. Studying behavioral psychology and techniques can give you an edge up on your competition. These are the basics of using Motivation, Ability, and Trigger to better understand and better serve your users and customers.

*Generally, the biggest constraints are time or money. When someone doesn’t have one, they’re willing to make up for it with the other.

**If you want to learn more about creating “addictive” products, I highly suggest reading “Hooked” by Nir Eyal?

***Granted, I find this highly annoying.

This post originally appeared on Medium

Photo by Luca Mascaro