During our “Ask Me Anything” with Amy Bucher, author of Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change, we touched on subjects ranging from career advice to climate change, social justice, and the intersection of science and UX. Read on for a recap of the session, and please join our Slack here to stay informed about when our next #rm-chat author AMA will be!
Q: How have you applied your own behavior change design principles in your personal life? Give us an example! -DJ H.
A: Good question! Probably my most successful personal behavior change is becoming a runner. I didn’t run at all until I was almost 30, then one day I went on a jog on a whim and got really pissed by how bad I was at it. So I put together a training plan and somehow stuck with it, and now running is a major part of my life and identity. I would say writing Engaged is also an example. I used a lot of milestones, goal setting, and accountability tactics to get it written.
Q: Molly Stevens recently gave the closing keynote at the UXR conference and pointed to a series of next steps for the research community. One of them is “First, be seen as the scientists that we are. The work we do is grounded in years of study and scientific principles. We should emphasize and celebrate this, instead of diminishing or ignoring our foundation.” Molly is speaking about research specifically, but my question for you is more general, around the dynamic that you’ve found between science and UX—what have you seen? How have you navigated? What would you like to see? -Steve P.
A: This is a really thoughtful and thought-provoking question. I have found there is some tension between science and UX, but it’s inconsistent. I personally experienced the tension entering the design workforce with a PhD—when I first applied for roles I got quite a bit of pushback and remember being told in one interview that they knew I wasn’t seriously interested in the job (well, not after that response I wasn’t!). I’ve discovered I thrive working for companies that explicitly embrace science and value that part of my background. Where most of my work is in health, I think we still struggle to create products that are based on strong science and also have beautiful, elegant design. Health IT is typically a UX wasteland, and a lot of consumer health tech is not based on strong science. I try to think of this as an exciting opportunity and not a horrifying miss. I would like to see more collaboration and less ego. One person who I think is doing this effectively is Sherry Pagoto at UConn—she’s really into putting academic testing frameworks around consumer health tech so that it can gain the type of evidence base it needs to be accepted in healthcare settings.
Q: How is behavior change design (BHD) different from user experience design (UXD)? Are they both different labels for the same thing? -Nitya R.
A: I do think they are different. The main differences in my view are the use of established scientific frameworks in BCD, and the focus on behavior as the target of design. I see BCD as a subset of UXD.
Q: Let’s say someone falls in this BCD subset. A psych background and a significant amount of HCI knowledge and research experience, but not formally trained in the design-specific elements of UI/UX. How many companies make the distinction between these two roles in their organizations? (It seems nearly all jobs in behavior change tech require UI/UX design skills. But in doing this, companies are missing an opportunity: what the psych-heavy side has to offer.) -Mary M.
A: Great point, and I do not know the answer, but that reminds me of a fabulous resource! Ingrid Paulin of Rally Health made this great spreadsheet of companies around the world that hire people with behavior science expertise.
Q: Aside from your home turf of healthcare, what are the areas you’re seeing as having the most potential for designing for behavior change? Maybe better to ask: where are designers working now, and where might the be working in five years? -Lou R.
A: Climate change! There is SO MUCH opportunity there for behavior change work. So far the main obstacles I’ve seen to doing the work is that the money isn’t there, but the projects definitely are.
Q: Any other areas that stand out?
A: I attended an event at the World Wildlife Foundation about 2 years ago with the theme of behavior change and was blown away by some of the incredible work being done around the world on things like sustainable fishing practices and clean cooking fuels. Right now that’s all NGO-driven. As the economics around climate change shift I hope we’ll see more companies wanting to fund this type of work.
I also think politics is ripe for shaking up. There were a couple of behavior change type interventions around the 2016 election that I thought were interesting (Jane McGonigal worked on an app for example that encouraged people to get their friends to vote). The Environmental Voter Project is an organization using behavior change principles to get people to vote. There’s so much reform needed that I hope we see more focus there.
Q: Like you said above, with climate change, the projects are there but the funding isn’t. Is there a space where design for behavior change can move money toward these projects? -Katya H.
A: Easier said than done. I think the economics will shift around climate change as more organizations either realize the existing way of doing things is not sustainable, or they see that their consumers are interested in better alternatives. As I think about it, maybe the focus should be on helping to create buzz and desirability around more sustainable products or ways of doing things.
Q: There’s a revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary) spirit in the U.S. today, similar but different to what I saw in the 1960s. What role can government institutions and businesses play in encouraging behavior change when it comes to diversity and inclusion? And by this, I mean more than simply sending us daily emails about how much they care about BLM. -Bob T.
A: You hit on a great point here, which is that words without actions are (almost) meaningless, and people perceive words without actions as inauthentic at some point. One big role they can play is demonstrating through action what the change looks like. Organizations that actually have diverse leadership, for example, have a lot of credibility in talking about what it takes to hire a diverse work force and leverage the talents and perspectives of their people. What sucks right now is realizing how few companies are in a position to model anything. One thing I was very inspired by in writing my book was talking to Sheryl Cababa and hearing about the Tarot Cards of Tech she co-developed at Artefact. I think those kinds of design methods are a process-based way that orgs can start bringing more diverse perspectives into their work. I thought it was great this year seeing so many organizations acknowledge Juneteenth. We had to delay finishing a project because our client org made Juneteenth a paid day off on short notice—best reason ever to be late.
Q: When choosing a solution type, do you have a preference for a particular method/framework for prioritization of interventions to solve ability blockers? -Jeff G.
A: Yes! I tend to reach for motivation-based tools first because I truly believe that behavior change happens when the actions align with people’s motivation. That said, I work in a consultancy so my projects are for clients, and often I need to adjust my toolkit to fit the client’s parameters.
One example: I did a construction worker safety project, and we uncovered a lot of environmental adjustments that could be made at worksites to limit people taking unnecessary risks. But the client wanted to develop a training—so our output was a training. We presented on the environmental adjustments but I have no idea if anything became of that.
Q: Do you have any advice for those just jumping in the BCD pool? -Jode K.
A: I have been recommending recently that people start with a few more accessible activities that are part of the BCD toolkit. The three I’ve pulled out are doing a lit review of peer reviewed papers related to your project, creating an outcomes logic map that articulates the behaviors you’re trying to influence, and using a BC framework for a lensed brainstorm. The lensed brainstorm in particular is extremely accessible. I do versions of it with clients often.