Interaction Design for Behavioural Change

by Andy Polaine on December 9, 2008

in General

Interaction design is all about changing people’s behaviour. Without the action > reaction part, there is no interaction. Whether you click one button instead of another or stop to play with an interactive shop window , the art of interaction design is about understanding that transaction. (And it’s the subject of my, hopefully soon finished, PhD. Sigh).

Taken to a broader context, these principles have been successfully applied in areas such as service design and sustainable design. It is something we tried to look at in the Visualising Issues in Pharmacy project too.

But what about economics? Robert Fabricant from Frog Design has written an insightful piece on Frog’s Design Mind blog called Design For Impulse. He makes a good point about interaction design education too:

“If I was starting an Interaction Design program (like Liz Danzico at SVA) or taking one over (like David Malouf at SCAD) the one academic subject I would be sure to cover is Behavioral Economics.”

He then goes on to quote David Leonhart’s New York Times article about behavioural economics and the Obama administration’s interest in it:

“Behavioral economics sprang up about three decades ago as a radical critique of the standard assumption that human beings behaved in economically rational ways. The behaviorialists, as they?’re known, pointed out that this assumption was ridiculous.”

To explain behavioural economics more simply, I’ll quote the next paragraph in the article:

“Would-be weight losers pay $100 a month to belong to a gym they rarely visit. Borrowers get fooled into taking out a loan with an appealing teaser rate. Patients fail to follow even a basic regimen of prescribed drugs — a failure that can leave them with serious medical complications and Medicare with big hospital bills.”

Essentially, we all do things that make no rational or logical sense, even if we say we wouldn’t. And we’re especially irrational with money – who hasn’t shopped around for a tiny saving on groceries and then stopped to drink an over-priced coffee afterwards, negating the savings? (Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational is a good starting point, apparently. I haven’t read it yet.)

As the world we interact with becomes ever more interconnected and our need to understand everything from the economics of what we are designing through to the life-cycles of everything we use, understanding this psychology becomes essential. For interaction designs (and, I would add, some product designer and architects), this kind of thinking is, or should be, built into what we do. As Fabricant says:

“Outputs, Outcomes and Impacts are VERY different things and clients often confuse the two. As an Interaction Designer you better know the difference.”

It seems to me that Obama’s administration understand the psychology of interconnectedness very well. It will be interesting to see if they can put it to work on such a large, messy problem.

Out with the economists, in with the interaction designers I say!

(Once again, thanks to the ever-excellent IxDA discussion list for the heads up).

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David Sherwin January 19, 2009 at 5:18 am

Check out “Gut Feelings” by Gerd Gigerenzer. It’s up there with “Predictably Irrational” as a great explanation of current thought in behavioral heuristics.

2 Andy Polaine January 19, 2009 at 11:08 am

Thanks David, I’ll check that out – might be useful in my PhD too.

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