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8 tips for developing and designing successful behaviour change apps and websites

8 tips for developing and designing successful behaviour change apps and websites

First ask: what do you want people to do?

Behaviour change platforms, such as apps and websites, are being rapidly developed to elicit a plethora of different behaviour change activities, from promoting health, charity and happiness to driving sales and service uptake.

By BWA Research Fellow, Peter Slattery

But what works? Here are eight tips for designing successful platforms, based on my research at BehaviourWorks Australia, and experiences working with clients.

1. Use the Fogg Behaviour Model to brainstorm potential behaviour change interventions

B.J. Fogg, the founder of persuasive technology and director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab, argues that behaviour requires three things: (i) motivation to undertake the behaviour, (ii) ability to perform the behaviour, and (iii) something (internal or external) to trigger the behaviour.

Behaviour change is therefore about changing aspects of individuals, contexts and environments to influence these factors.

The ‘Fogg Behavior Model’ (above) provides a simple, but sufficient, model for brainstorming how changes in processes, technologies or contexts might promote the desired behaviour.

So, start the project by asking: What is the thing that you want people to do? Where, when and how do they do it? And, can an app or website make performing that behaviour easier, more rewarding or more regularly salient?

2. Establish feasibility before you continue

Every year, thousands of people create startups with great conviction. Virtually all of these startups fail. In many cases, the ideas were never feasible, but the founders invested considerable time, effort and money into their projects before discovering this uncomfortable truth.

One way to avoid similarly costly failures is to do some simple feasibility checks on your ideas.

Here are four that can be useful.

  • First, have you checked that your platform is an efficient way to achieve your goals? Creating a behaviour change platform is usually hard and expensive. Indeed, it may not be the most cost-effective solution to a problem, even though it can feel like the most inviting.
  • Second, check for ‘typical mind fallacy’. Are you assuming that your audience thinks like you? Sure, you like this app idea. Sure, it would change your behaviour. But will it also work for a sufficiently large audience of people with different lives, values and priorities?
  • Third, check for ‘planning fallacy’. Are you underestimating how long things will take and failing to recognise the inherent complexity and challenge of realising your idea? Investigating how much time, effort, expertise and resources similar platforms took to build can be a useful way of reducing this risk.
  • Finally, have you considered the costs required to get and hold your audience’s attention? It is an easy mistake to focus on what is possible if you have people’s time and attention without considering how hard it can be to get – and keep – a large captive audience.

3. Expect the unexpected: Go lean

Behaviour change is a fluid and emergent process. Contexts and users change and with them, the techniques that are effective.

Technology usage patterns are also constantly changing. What worked five years ago, or even five months ago, may be now outdated.

To deal with this uncertainty, I recommend that platform designers use a lean approach.

In short; develop the project in small chunks with rapid feedback cycles. Set and monitor metrics and expectations. Test your early ideas and assumptions with your audience. If positive, test a prototype that does the most important things, in the simplest ways.

See if targets respond as expected. If your assumptions are being validated, scale up the investment of resources and test a more advanced prototype. If not, then consider pivoting into a different idea or stopping the project altogether.

4. Work from what’s worked previously

It is almost a truism, but the most efficient way to build something better than what exists is to improve on the best existing version.

There are many more ways for platforms to fail than to succeed.

A successful platform got everything critical right and nothing critical wrong. With that in mind, if you work from what has worked before, you minimise many avoidable risks, including the risk of discovering that key processes or technologies are incompatible.

However, even though it is unwise in most cases, many people default to starting afresh with a new app or website, rather than building on past efforts. With this in mind, I recommend that behaviour change platform designers be open to copying and improving similar services.

5. Seek attention, but carefully and sustainably

In persuasive technology literature, B.J. Fogg describes the concept of Kairos – the optimum time to persuade.

In health, a similar concept of Just-In-Time Adaptive Intervention is now used to discuss where and when interventions are optimal.

As both suggest, successful platform designers need to plan their attention-seeking carefully; to be salient when most useful and absent when unneeded.

Perhaps nothing is more fundamentally important for behaviour change platforms than getting and holding relevant people’s attention. It doesn’t matter how good a platform is if none of the target audience knows about or uses it.

Fortunately, there are now many ways to reach people, including multiple forms of media. However, these options also make it easy to overreach and overwhelm potential users by demanding more attention than they desire to give.

Too much attention-seeking and your notifications or emails will get banished to the blocked list and your supply of attention will be cut off completely.

6. Make simplicity a priority

It is increasingly recognised within behaviour change, and persuasive technology circles, that behaviour change is often easier to produce by simplification than motivation.

However, designers of platforms often underestimate the value of making things simpler. This can be due in part to ‘typical-mind fallacy’ – platform developers are often both more technical and knowledgeable about their platforms than their users and can easily fail to spot the things that are confusing or difficult.

Some approaches to increase simplicity include breaking processes into smaller steps, good design and simplifying and splitting out the text to make processing the information as easy as possible.

7. Motivate as much as possible

There are many ways to motivate. One of the most common – providing information – is necessary, but usually insufficient for optimal performance.

Instead of just explaining what they want and how to do it, designers should also make it very clear how a desired behaviour will benefit a potential performer.

Unfortunately, many designers, particularly in non-commercial contexts such as governments and charities, default to believing that they don’t need persuasion; that people will do what is desired by the platform if they are motivated, and leave if they are not.

The reality, as many commercial organisations know, is that small tweaks can significantly affect what platform visitors do in aggregate.

In addition to direct arguments for action, platform designers can also motivate behaviour in other ways; including appealing to human biases; for example, to mimic others’ behaviour and to trust authorities.

In some cases, the use of game design elements in non-game contexts, or gamification, can also help to increase adherence to normally boring requests.

8. Optimise for repeat engagement

Rather than treating influence as a ‘one-and-done’ process, successful platforms often require escalations of commitment and engagements; the execution of a series of smaller successful nudges rather than a single hard push.

For example, if your platform fails to persuade someone to donate, then maybe you can get their email or social media details. In time, with more opportunities to influence them and build trust and interest, you may get your desired outcome.

Identifying and tracking these ‘goals’ is an essential part of monitoring and optimising your ‘funnel’ – the process of moving users along the ‘value chain’ from visitors, to active users, to recommenders, to revenue generators and success stories.

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