How to apply behavioural economics to the design process

The story of a Behavioural Design Workshop at Hyper Island

Radina Doneva
7 min readJun 5, 2018

Behavioural Design is all about creating the right environment for people to make a decision or take action towards their goals. It can be applied to encourage a desired behaviour, to stop unwanted behaviours as well as to form habitual routines.

Behavioural design is often referred to the concept of nudging, which “proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behaviour and decision making of groups or individuals” (thanks Wikipedia). The term was coined by Richard Thaler who built on the “fast and slow thinking” theories of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, and introduced nudging to public policy. Proving the positive effects of applying behavioural economics in practice got him a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 2017. So with all these Nobel recognitions the field of behavioural economics is getting more traction and gaining importance in the design field.

To me, behavioural design is a combination of the design process and behavioural economics. Design is a creative, generative, explorative approach to problem-solving — it’s the crafty cool kid on the block. Behavioural economics is the nerdy one — scientific, measurable, analysing how people make decisions. The two don’t play together easily, but when they do — great things can happen.

The role of the design process is to explore the whole user experience and go wide on the end-to-end journey, while behavioural economics zooms in on the specific moments of decision making and applies small nudges strategically to cause a big impact. That’s why behavioural design can also be very well applied to the human-centred design process to make products and services more intuitive, effective, and easy to use.

Back to Hyper… What did the workshop cover

Everything at Hyper Island is hands-on, fast-paced and real-world ready so we translated all theory into a practical 101 talk and a workshop applicable to the briefs that the students are currently working on.

The first step of the process is to do explorative research to understand exactly what people do in context. It is best to combine different research methods to get the complete picture.

Unlike traditional economic theories based on the idea that humans always act in their best interest, behavioural economics argues that people don’t make rational choices and are influenced by their environment, social norms, and an array of cognitive biases.

While doing the research it is important to capture all factors affecting the user’s decision making — apart from individual cognitive biases, people are massively affected by their surroundings in terms of how choices are framed and what is visible to them at any given time. As social animals, humans are evolutionary conditioned to behave in accordance with tribe norms and to do what others are doing — particularly role models of authority and liking.


Considering all these factors we can synthesise our knowledge about users by using the behavioural persona tool. While traditional personas represent one fictional ideal customer to target, behavioural personas are based on real people involved in the service and focus on what they do, how they do it and why. I wrote more about them here.

The journey map is the tool to synthesise our understanding of the context of the persona and visualise their current experience regardless of the service or product they use. There is no one way to do journey mapping, and it makes sense to adapt the format for each project. The basic structure consists of the steps users take and the touch points plotted on a timeline. For behavioural design, it is helpful to illustrate each step as a job story to clarify what users need to get done and what outcome they are seeking to get out of it.

By having the holistic view of the context, you can identify behavioural principles that explain the current decisions and the ones to help you ideate how to nudge your persona towards a desired action. A great tool for this is the Persuasive Patterns deck of cards to plot applicable principles against the journey map. The selected patterns are very relevant to product and service design . To learn more about the plethora of cognitive biases and how to play with them — a good starting point is thе awesome cheatsheet by Buster Benson.

Once you’ve identified some opportunities, you can define the ideal future state — capture it with a “How Might We” design challenge and introduce a new job story with the intended behaviour and envisioned outcomes.

Behaviour = Motivation + Ability + Prompt

The Fogg Behavior Model (B=MAP) by BJ Fogg, PhD is useful guidance to identify what stops people from performing behaviours or how to support desired behaviours. Here’s a plain explanation — for a person to do something, they have to be sufficiently motivated and able to do it as well as something has to prompt them to act at the right time. Below is a non-exhaustive list of factors affecting people’s motivation and ability as well as examples of prompts. These can be used like Lego blocks to design behavioural interventions.

In behavioural design, it’s important to design the environment in which the action is taking place as much as the touchpoint of interaction. A design idea for intervention may be brilliant, however, if either motivation, ability or a prompt is missing - it won’t work. Hence, we need to analyse the context in which the key behaviour is happening and which factor needs to be adjusted for the intervention idea to be successful.

Test & Measure

Testing the effect of the behavioural intervention is very important to get actual evidence that the design works in the real world. During ideation, we get very creative and might plug in assumptions to the mix, so we need to validate that we’re doing the right thing to get the job done.

One way to go about it is with hypothesis-driven experiments. Starting with a design hypothesis that outlines the idea and how it will cause the desired behaviour. Then describe how you’ll go about testing it and what you will measure. It’s also important to define what result will be convincing enough that it works.

The key premise of running experiments is that correlation does not equal causation. This means that even if we observe the behaviour happening, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is because of our intervention.

To check if this is true, we do an A/B test — getting two groups of similar participants — presenting one group with the design intervention and the other not, then see what happens over a period of time. In the end, you compare the results and see if there are any significant differences.

A/B testing and controlled experiments are the most common methods for validating behavioural design, however, there are many more ways to test effectiveness. For example, the Validation Patterns card deck is a collection of different lean testing approaches to validate risky assumptions.

It’s important to remember that even if the numbers show good results, we still need to make sure that users will like the change by using qualitative testing methods to obtain feedback for improvement.

Workshop outputs

The Hyper Island students went through the process of creating behavioural personas for their project, picking the most crucial action on the journey maps to address and defining a behavioural challenge. After using the Mental Notes cards to identify key behavioural factors that apply in the context of their challenge, we ran a crazy eights ideation session to solidify the intervention concepts. Some amazing ideas came out of it — Uber for emergency contraception anyone?!


Applying the lens of behavioural economic principles can be helpful to identify new opportunities and invisible barriers for users. However, similar psychological factors can also be used for not-so-good purposes — it is a tool that can be (and is being) misused by ill-intentioned businesses to manipulate people into buying their products or “hooking” them on to addictive apps. We encouraged the DXD students to have critical thinking and always ask themselves what are the consequences of what they’re designing.

As designers we sometimes get too focused on the design goals and forget to think about the consequences of our solutions. Sense-check at every step: is what we’re designing in the best interest of the people using it?

Please, don’t use behavioural economics to make people buy more things they don’t need or become trapped and unable to delete their account (see: dark patterns). Instead, use behavioural design to create meaningful change in people’s lives. That would be ace!

If you’re interested in introducing behavioural design in your organisation and would like us to facilitate a similar workshop with you — get in touch!