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Are behavioural science and design the building blocks of innovation?

Are behavioural science and design the building blocks of innovation?

14 April 2014

Behavioural design has the potential to bridge the gap between research and practice to revolutionise how we tackle social issues. Behaviourial Scientist, Edward Gardiner discusses how we can use this research to create a healthier society. 

The leading causes of death in the world are non-communicable diseases. There is strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring. UK households are among the most in debt in the world.

All of these issues have one thing in common.


We smoke. We eat too much sugar. We drive everywhere. We leave the heating on and the windows open. We spend beyond our means. We drink to excess. The list goes on.

The biggest issues in society, from obesity to climate change, are due to behavioural and lifestyle risk factors we embrace on a daily basis.

So if we know this, why do we not eat more fruit and veg? Why do we sign up to the gym but never go? Why do we eat out when we can’t pay the bills?

More importantly, how can we design ways to guide and support people in realising their intentions? How can we create a social movement for healthy eating or make a game of saving energy?

These questions are at the heart of behavioural design, a field that unites behavioural science with design thinking to tackle social issues.

Don Norman, a cognitive scientist and designer, first coined the term in the 1980s in relation to how the total experience of using a product can influence people’s thoughts and feelings. He described how new designs must be expedient, functional and usable, not just attractive. 

Since then, there have been significant advances in our understanding of behaviour and the role of design in the development process, from computers to local services.

Human reason, left to its own devices is apt to engage in a number of systematic errors, to make better decisions in our personal lives we ought to seek workarounds

Steven Pinker

Behavioural science is broadly the study of human behaviour, seeking to understand human choices and wellbeing by drawing on insights and methods from psychology, economics, philosophy and mathematics. As the field grows, there is increasing debate about where the lines are drawn between theories but there is no doubt over the need to understand ourselves.

In the words of Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, “human reason, left to its own devices is apt to engage in a number of fallacies and systematic errors, so if we want to make better decisions in our personal lives, and as a society, we ought to be aware of these biases and seek workarounds. That’s a powerful and important discovery.”

“Seek workarounds.”

Understanding how we tick is half the challenge, applying these insights in the real world is potentially an even greater one. This is where behavioural design can help close the gap between research and practice.

Design is a creative approach to problem solving, taking a people-centred approach to quickly develop ideas through an iterative process of testing and refinement. Designers have long enjoyed a relationship with the social sciences and have the skill to transform scientific insights into products, services and places that genuinely make our lives better.

Echoing Don Norman’s original principles, Mat Hunter, Chief Design Officer at the Design Council describes how “designers improve the world by reshaping the world around us, that could mean better homes, simpler products or services that are shaped around real people’s needs”.

Together, behavioural science and design can be the building blocks of innovation.

Shaking things up

The common assumption is that people who make poor choices have made an active decision to do so. Intention is computed from action and the conclusion is that these people are either unable or unwilling to change. The default solutions focus on information, skills or incentives.

Each of these has their place but for too long, organisations have relied on the outdated view that people are governed by a rational self-interest, weighing up every decision like a High Court judge.

History is full of programmes with a firm rationale but minimal impact.

In reality, we often make decisions intuitively, effortlessly and with little conscious awareness, leading to behaviours that may sometimes appear self-defeating. Information alone is not enough to change behaviour.

To tackle issues such as obesity or climate change, not only do we need to research how and why people actually make decisions, but also use design the design of products, services and places to help people make better decisions.

“In certain domains, a behavioural revolution has already occurred”, says Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School. “The modern graphical user interface, central to personal computers, tablets and smartphones, has resulted from pure and applied psychology, and intensive experimental testing.”

Similar revolutions are now occurring in healthcare, energy and public policy.

Of course, not everyone agrees that this is good thing. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and co-author of Nudge who spent four years in the Obama administration, was once described as “the most evil, dangerous man in America”. Opinions are always divided whenever people’s choices, liberty or responsibility are questioned.

That’s why at the heart of the behavioural design approach is the people we are trying to benefit.

The Double Diamond

Our approach is based on the Design Council’s ‘Double Diamond’, a way of describing the divergent and convergent stages of the design process and the different methods involved.

The process is divided into four stages:

1. Discover the problem

Social issues are complex. Even when the goal is clear, the problem is often ill-defined and uncertain. We embrace this uncertainty by focusing on the people involved. Observational methods are used to describe the needs, wants and behaviours at the root of an issue.  

2. Define the cause

One we know what, we can understand why. Existing insights or novel experiments are used to isolate the crucial factors that influence the target behaviours. These ‘basic principles’ form the brief from which new ideas can be better designed and tested in the field.  

3. Develop ideas

The most creative ideas lie at the intersection of disciplines. We use our networks to bring together the right teams to tackle the brief and support them throughout development. Ideas are incubated from pencil on paper to tangible products and services.

4. Deliver what works

As ideas become real we use prototyping and field trials to test and refine what works. The same experimental methods are used to determine if we are successfully influencing the outcomes of interest. Proof of concept is demonstrated in lieu of longer term measures.

A call to action

Change can only happen collaboratively.

The complexity of the issues faced by society demands that industry, academia and the creative industries work in new ways together. The Behavioural Design Lab, a partnership between the Design Council and Warwick Business School, makes it easy to build these crucial partnerships.

The lines between the public, private and voluntary sectors are blurring and social enterprise is now entwined with commercial, political and charitable goals. 

This is a good thing.

The apparent tension between increasing profits and reducing units, for example in the food and energy industries, should no longer be a barrier. For example, under the leadership of Paul Polman, the Unilever Sustainable Living plan seeks to double sales and halve the environmental impact of its products by 2020. 

By focusing on better outcomes for society, a strong evidence base and practical results, we can help organisation meet these core aims.

Behavioural design is capable of helping the way people think, feel and behave for the better.

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