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Product Design From a Behavioural Perspective

Why are some products more successful and appealing than others? Which product features and design aspects influence the way we feel about products? And how can we leverage accumulating insights from behavioural science to improve product offerings?

Why are some products more successful and appealing than others? Which product features and design aspects influence the way we feel about products? And how can we leverage accumulating insights from behavioural science to improve product offerings?

Make it easy

Our attention span is famously limited, and some researchers even argue that we consciously and subconsciously avoid actually paying attention in order to conserve our cognitive resources [1]. When people make unfamiliar choices, for example when first buying and testing a product, they are more likely to rely on the intuitive, effortless cognitive stream (also referred to as "System 1"), exposing them to a range of psychological biases [2]. Limited cognitive capacity has been linked to a wide variety of behaviour relying on deliberative, higher-level cognitive processing [3], such as the identification and overcoming of self-control conflicts [4], well-being [5] and making choices [6]. Moreover, when resources are scarce, individuals have been shown to make worse decisions due to a misalignment between their short-term actions and their long-term goals [7].

In his book 'Simpler', Cass Sunstein, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and previously Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, suggests that simplifying and explaining choices can improve individuals decision-making quality greatly by draining fewer cognitive resources (also referred to as 'choice architecture' [8]). In support of his recommendation, one particular study has shown that simplifying the decision about which savings plan to use by reducing it to a simple yes or no decision increased enrolment in retirement savings by up to 20% [9].

But how does all this apply to product design? When innovating products, designers must think about when consumers are most likely to use their product, and how much of their cognitive resources they are willing to use. In all but the rarest occasions, consumers will be relying on their automatic, intuitive processing to guide them through their usage of a particular product - this kind of operating is easy, preserves cognitive resources, and provides positive reinforcement to the user. However, as soon as the user switches from automatic, intuitive processing to more deliberate reasoning, they need more cognitive resources for the job, which would have been used for something else - a rather negative user experience. Taking this into account, designers should focus on making their product innovations simple and easy, avoiding an unnecessary increase in user attention. The focus should be to reduce redundancy and complexity; this way, they can decrease the cognitive tax on users imposed by their product. Products need to be designed in a way that does not drain cognitive resources, whilst helping individuals conserve the same in order to pay attention to something else. This idea of simple design is one of the hallmarks of Apple's success, as their products are simple, easy to use and intuitive.

Make the quirks of the human mind work in your favour

In addition to making a product simpler, there is another toolbox of behavioural design that is yet to be taken advantage of. Rather than appealing to the deliberative mindset of consumers with ever-increasing product features, products can be designed to purposefully take into account the fallacies and biases in our intuitive and automatic cognitive processing.

One particular example revolves around the problem of medication adherence. Many people often forget to take their medication, resulting in an estimated loss of $188bn in the US alone. When deliberately reasoning about their medication intake, most individuals recognise the necessity and importance of taking their drugs regularly; however, in the spur of the moment, taking medication is often forgotten as it does not enter our conscious awareness at the right time. Enter GlowCaps, a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University, Rutgers University and the National Institute on Aging led by Kevin Volpp, currently in randomized control trials to prove its effectiveness. When individuals forget to take their medication, GlowCaps flash and play a ring-tone to demand conscious attention. If that doesn't work, GlowCaps are programmed to call a pre-determined telephone number to alert the individual. In addition, individuals are entered into a sweepstakes if they remember their medication, adding an element of variable pay-off that has been shown to increase motivation [10].

But behavioural design should not stop there. It has the power to turn big societal issues into new opportunities for enterprises by creating innovation in specific markets. As outlined in his fantastic talk at TEDxUniversityofStAndrews 2013, Ed Gardiner, who is leading a new collaboration between Warwick Business School and the Design Council UK called the Behavioural Design Lab, challenged designers to alleviate governmental pressure due to an increasingly aging population, arguably one of the biggest problems society will face in the next 50 years. In particular, the design brief focused on how to live with dementia, especially in nutrition, as many people suffering from dementia forget to eat, leading to malnourishment and a transfer into care. By exploiting the relationship between smell and memory, the product ODE beautifully merges behavioural insight with great design by releasing a scent at mealtimes, stimulating appetite with a gentle reminder to eat. With this simple solution, individuals with dementia can stay at home for longer, thus improving their quality of life significantly as well as reducing expenses for care.

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment!

Time and again, research has shown that individuals are not always aware of their decisions. A particularly illustrative story deals with the Ford Edsel, an automobile designed and developed by Ford Motor Company in the late 1950s. At the time, it was the most well researched car ever produced, with extensive consumer surveys and panels on the most appealing aspects of a car. However, contrary to Ford's projections, the Edsel never gained popularity and sold poorly, resulting in a major loss for Ford. This failure to take into account the disconnect between what consumers may say a priori about their preferences and their ultimate purchasing behaviour should serve companies as an apt reminder that experiments are a vital component to more accurately understand the viability of a product.

Behavioural design can make an impact in specific areas, but it should not be limited to the planning and implementation stage; instead, product designers must be willing to undergo carefully designed experiments to test the effects of their innovation on potential users. If not, they risk the same fate as Ford's Edsel: designing with the best intentions may sometimes lead to major failure.

In their new book 'The Why Axis', authors Uri Gneezy and John List emphasize the need to conduct experiments to "probe inside the closets of the greatest problems we are facing [...], to collect feedback, test, and test and test again to discover what really works and why." Hence, product designers should expose their new innovations to experimental rigour, to find out which design features reduce cognitive resources most effectively, and how to most effectively engage with a customer's automatic and intuitive cognitive processing. The end result could be a stronger product as well as greater welfare created by behavioural design. Sounds like a win-win to me?

Edited by Kiran Kishore


[1] K. Fujita, "On conceptualizing self-control as more than the effortful inhibition of impulses.," Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev., vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 352-66, Nov. 2011.

[2] J. A. List, "Does Market Experience Eliminate Market Anomalies?," Q. J. Econ., vol. 118, no. 1, pp. 41-71, Feb. 2003.

[3] M. Inzlicht and B. J. Schmeichel, "What Is Ego Depletion? Toward a Mechanistic Revision of the Resource Model of Self-Control," Perspect. Psychol. Sci., vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 450-463, Sep. 2012.

[4] M. T. Gailliot, R. F. Baumeister, C. N. DeWall, J. K. Maner, E. A. Plant, D. M. Tice, L. E. Brewer, and B. J. Schmeichel, "Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor.," J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., vol. 92, no. 2, pp. 325-336, 2007.

[5] W. Hofmann, M. Luhmann, R. R. Fisher, K. D. Vohs, and R. F. Baumeister, "Yes, But Are They Happy? Effects of Trait Self-Control on Affective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction.," J. Pers., Jun. 2013.

[6] A. Pocheptsova, O. Amir, R. Dhar, and R. F. Baumeister, "Deciding Without Resources: Resource Depletion and Choice in Context," J. Mark. Res., vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 344-355, Jun. 2009.

[7] K. D. Vohs, "Psychology. The poor's poor mental power.," Science, vol. 341, no. 6149, pp. 969-70, Aug. 2013.

[8] P. Dolan, A. Elliott, R. Metcalfe, and I. Vlaev, "Influencing Financial Behavior: From Changing Minds to Changing Contexts," J. Behav. Financ., vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 126-142, Apr. 2012.

[9] J. Beshears, J. J. Choi, D. Laibson, and B. C. Madrian, "Simplification and saving," J. Econ. Behav. Organ., vol. 95, pp. 130-145, 2013.

[10] J. Gneezy, Uri and List, The Why Axis. Public Affairs, 2013, p. 288.

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