Three strategies for designing for behavior change

Behavioral design strategies provide high-level direction for how a product should be designed.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from our recent book Designing for Behavior Change, by Steve Wendel. This excerpt is included in our curated collection of chapters from the O’Reilly Design library. Download a free copy of the Experience Design ebook here.

How can a product help its users pass all the way through the Action Funnel and actually take action? There are three big strategies that a company can choose from to change behavior and help users take action. Two of them come straight from the research literature and from the difference between deliberative and intuitive actions. The third is less obvious, but immensely powerful — it’s called cheating.

The conscious, deliberative route is the one that most of us are familiar with already — it entails encouraging people to take action, and them consciously deciding to do it. Users have to pass through all five stages of the Action Funnel, and often spend considerable time on the conscious evaluation stage.

The intuitive route is a bit more complex. Recall from Chapter 1 that our lightning-fast, automatic, and intuitive reactions arise from a mix of various elements: associations we’ve learned between things, specific habits we’ve built up, our current mindset, and a myriad of built-in shortcuts (heuristics) that save our minds work but can lead us astray. Of these, habits are the most promising route to developing a sustainable path to behavior change because there are clear, systematic ways to form them. And once they are formed, they allow the user to pass effortlessly through two of the stages of the Action Funnel — the conscious evaluation and the assessment of the right timing for action.

The third strategy takes a lesson from Chapter 1, that our minds are usually on autopilot, to the extreme: it decreases users’ need to act altogether, so they simply need to give consent if they wish the target action to occur. This strategy — to “cheat” — I’ll argue is the most effective and desirable of all.

In the following sections, I’ll go into detail about each of these strategies, and when each of them is most appropriate, but in short, here are the guidelines:


If what you really care about is the action getting done, and it’s possible to all but eliminate the work required of the user beyond giving consent, then do it.

Make or change habits

If the user needs to take an action multiple times (like eating better or spending less), and you can identify a clear cue, routine, and reward, then use the “habits” strategy. Also use this strategy if the user is fighting an existing habit — to cleverly undercut it, rather than using brute force to stop it directly.

Support conscious action

If neither of the other two is available, then you must help the user consciously undertake the target action. There are ways to make this process nicer and easier, but it’s still the hardest path to follow.

In each case, the individual makes a conscious choice; what’s different is what is being chosen and what happens afterward. In the first strategy, the person chooses whether to give consent to the action occurring on her behalf. In the second strategy, the person chooses whether to set up the conditions for habit formation (or for stopping an existing habit), and chooses whether to repeat the behavior until the habit is formed (or broken). In the last strategy, the person chooses whether or not to take the original target action. If the action is to be repeated, so is the choice. There’s no (ethical) way to avoid having the user consciously choose whether or not to act, but products can change the nature of that choice by selecting among these three strategies.

How can you help users take better pictures with your camera? Provide a manual (“support conscious action”), provide a frequently used and easy menu system (“build habits”), or set intelligent defaults (“cheat”).

These behavioral strategies provide high-level direction for how the product should be designed: how it accomplishes the process of behavior change. Behavioral tactics (such as comparing users to their peers, highlighting the pain of losing an opportunity, or priming them to think about particular topics) don’t provide much overall guidance on how the product should work. Instead, they can be slotted in at various junctions in the product to make each piece of the product more effective.

Steve Wendel’s Designing for Behavior Change is available here.

This post is part of our ongoing investigation into Experience Design and Business.

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