The power of context: using behavioural design for sustainability and well-being

For a long time, designers have participated in fueling un-sustainability and been a part of the problem. It’s time we take responsibility and make the triple bottom line a default part of the design process. But how? Behavioural design can help.

Erlend Hovgaard
Sofie Jensen

New solutions and technologies are not going to be enough to achieve sustainability. The 'last mile' of design implementation or social intervention will always require an individual to make a choice and act in a certain way — e.g. vote, recycle, consume less, take a medication, allow a child to go to school, etc. Many of the United Nations’ SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are linked to human behaviour — norms and attitudes that require behavioural changes from individuals, organisations, and societies.

But changing human behaviour is often very challenging, and our intuition about what drives behaviours is often flawed. For example, more information to increase awareness is often not enough to trigger change. As designers, we need new tools in our toolbox to design for better behaviours. Luckily, there is a field of science dedicated to these issues, with plenty of powerful, proven, and practical insights about how people make decisions, and what drives human actions. It’s aptly called behavioural science. And its insights fit quite perfectly into the design process!

This is the origin of behavioural design, which is design practice using insights from behavioural science to modify the environment where a particular decision is made. By making these changes, we can nudge people towards a certain goal. The combination of behavioural science with design’s practice of empathising with and involving users in the process, can offer solutions that serve both planet and people, without sacrificing profit.

Designing for humans means we must understand how humans work

The user is at the centre of design, so the importance of getting under the skin of our users and understanding their lives is a given for us as designers. Yet understanding humans as a species has not been as important, although this perspective offers crucial insights. To design accurately for humans and their needs, we should look through the behaviour science-lens as well. Here are some examples of key insights:

Humans are pack animals

One of our key strengths as a species is our incredibly complex social systems. To be able to speak languages, take others’ perspective, and build narratives, we have developed brains specialised for processing social information. That’s why we effortlessly remember the details of dozens of relationships in our social circle, but often struggle to perform mental calculations, which are far from our 'default mode'. Quite literally, the default mode of the human brain is thinking in terms of stories and social relations.

Humans are passionate

We are emotional beings, and this helps us make decisions fast. Actually, it allows us to make decisions in the first place. For basically every choice we make there are a lot of very similar alternatives. Without emotional cues indicating our preferences, we would get stuck trying to decide between them on a rational level. Emotions are also great motivators. For example, love helps us survive sleepless nights with screaming babies. Anger, on the other hand, helps us take on social discomfort when we have been wronged.

Humans are doers

Comparing the facts of each alternative in every choice we need to make would take a lot of time and wouldn’t be a viable life strategy. In fact, in prehistoric times, doing this was synonymous with early death. That’s why we have our automatic processing system, the so-called 'system one'. It uses simple rules of thumb to make choices so that we may act quickly. Most of the time it serves us well, but it also makes us vulnerable to certain biases in thinking and behaviour.

The problem can also be the solution

Biases are predictable patterns in behaviour that are illogical or 'irrational'. They’re often the result of mental shortcuts, called heuristics, used to ease mental load. There are many different biases and heuristics, but in general terms they lead us to:

  • Prefer something that we already have today over something we could have tomorrow.
  • Make us more focused on avoiding a loss than receiving a gain.
  • Favour not having to make a choice at all, so just going for the default.
  • Prefer doing what everyone else is doing and want what everyone else has.
  • Pay more attention to information that confirms what we already believe or wish to believe.

These biases often lead to some serious problems. We don’t value future gain enough to fight climate change or save for retirement, for instance. But these biases and heuristics can also serve us and help us achieve our goals. Because biases and heuristics are triggered by our context, we can nudge people to prefer some choices over others by making changes in the context a decision is made in.

An excellent example is the case of voluntary retirement saving schemes in the United States. Several studies have shown that by making saving plans opt-out rather than opt-in (meaning you are auto-enrolled if you don’t do anything), you can double the percentage of employees actually saving. In this way, our biases can be leveraged to engage in behaviours that benefit us. Another example is that people will live more sustainably if they are told that their neighbours or friends are doing it.

What makes these behavioural interventions even better is that they are often cheap and easy to implement. They have outsized effects, and work for most people regardless of their ethnicity, gender, upbringing, or political orientation. And there are even lots of easy-to-use guides to implementing behavioural insights available for free online! They help you understand important biases and mental shortcuts related to whatever you’re designing or trying to understand, and they suggest proven strategies for how to change behaviours in specific ways. Here’s an overview of our favourites:

→ Ease, motivate, socialize the change by Behavioural Insight Team UK: Focuses on reducing friction and effort for preferred alternatives, evoking emotion and desires to increase motivation and giving social reference.

EAST, by Behavioural Insight Team UK: Similar to the previous model, but with an added focus on timing.

BASIC by OECD: A full model of how to proceed from behaviour analysis to launching an intervention.

Fogg’s Behavioural Model by B. J. Fogg: Focuses on ability, motivation, and timing, like the EAST framework without the social perspective.

How might we design context responsibly?

To sum up, by using behavioural insights in design, we can help realise the behaviour changes so desperately needed to achieve the sustainable development goals. The practical how-to is explored in the different frameworks outlined in the table above, but there are some important things you need to think about before you run off and start nudging behaviours.

The first is concerned with measuring impact.

As these behavioural nudges work subconsciously, their effect cannot be satisfactorily evaluated through interviews or qualitative user tests. Behavioural data, preferably quantitative in form, is needed to thoroughly examine the impact of behavioural design. RCTs, the golden standard of quantitative research, and other quantitative designs are therefore important tools to learn and use in tandem with behavioural design, to ensure that what you are making is actually working, and in the direction you intended.

The second, and most important thing, is that of ethics.

Making some choices easier to make than others is straying close to choosing for people. If not done right, it can result in services that influence people to do things that go against what they want. Luckily, design includes tools and important perspectives that can alleviate challenges like this, for example participatory design and co-creation. A quote from Gandhi hits the nail on the head here: 'Whatever you do for me but without me, you do against me.' Read more about the ethics of behavioural design, in the final installment of our article series about behavioural design coming soon.

Behavioural design represents a best of both worlds-solution, combining the general, cognitive perspective from behavioural science, with the individual, experiential and emotional perspective from design. With new tools in our toolbox, and sound ethical thinking, designers are in a great position to accelerate progress for the good of the planet, and the people and animals living on it. So, let’s go!