Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
August 30, 2022 · 12 min read

How to use behavioral design to build better products

Behavioral design for project managers

Ask a project manager what superpower they’d pick, and you’ll most likely hear the same answer: reading minds.

As people who make products, it’s our job to understand what real people actually want to the best of our abilities. That’s why we spend so much time and money on user research, customer feedback, and working in Agile sprints.

But user interviews and feedback sessions can only tell you what people think of a product you’ve already made. That’s why so many product leaders and CEOs are turning to psychology.

Behavioral psychology studies why we do what we do, like what we like, and think as we think. When applied to the craft of building products and software, behavioral psychology — or behavioral design — helps you understand why your users do what they do and can help you craft experiences they love.

Luckily, you don’t need a Ph.D. to start applying the basics of psychology to your team and product. In this guide, we will cover the basics of behavioral design, how it applies to product work and project management, and how you can use it to supercharge your team.

What is behavioral design?

Behavioral design is an ethical framework for understanding and systematically influencing human behaviors in physical and digital environments.

That’s a lot to unpack in a single definition, so let’s break it down:

Behavioral design may seem like a new name for an old idea. But it’s more important than ever.

We now have access to millions of data points on how our users interact with products. And the rise of AI and machine learning (ML) models means that data can be more easily understood and acted on.

Finally, we also have more tools and options for how we influence user behavior. Agile development cycles and ubiquitous smartphone usage allow for quick adjustments to your product based on real behaviors.

For example, an app can sense a user’s behavior, send that data to be processed in the Cloud, and then use the results to modify your UX and help guide them in the right direction.

Remember that users are real people. Use behavioral design to help them do more of what makes them feel good.

Why should project managers care about behavioral psychology?

Simply put, mastering behavioral psychology is a matter of life and death for most products.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the main metrics most companies (or at least SaaS companies) use to measure the success and health of their business:

What holds all of these together? Habits.

Every business critical metric relies on habitual actions. As a project manager or product lead, the more you can persuade users to return, use your product, and give you their money, the more comfortable and successful you’ll be.

Habits turn your product into a default behavior. Just watch your friend (or partner) the next time they mindlessly unlock their phone and go straight to Twitter/Instagram/TikTok. These behaviors aren’t by accident — they’re designed.

But this is where many otherwise ethical and empathetic product builders go astray.

The dangers of the dark (design) side

When the usual tools don’t work, designers are tempted by the dark side — behavioral design patterns designed to coerce and manipulate rather than guide.

Here’s how you can think about the difference between light and dark design patterns:

Dark design patterns aren’t just doing your users a disservice, they’re also a bandaid solution for a larger problem.

When users realize they’ve been tricked, they’ll respond with anger and frustration — and often in public. The long-term impact of dark design patterns can be worse than the problem you were trying to solve in the first place.

Dark Design Patterns

So, how can you make sure that you’re designing products in a way that’s ethical?

Make sure you’re always following these three rules:

  1. Be transparent. Don’t try to trick users. Instead, use techniques and tools they’re familiar with to help guide them in the right direction.
  2. Be in service of the “job” your user’s hired you for. Users “hire” apps and tools for a specific reason. Make sure your design intervention helps users do what they want rather than helping you increase usage of a new feature.
  3. Stay aligned with social good. Above all else, remember that users are real people. Use behavioral design to help them do more of what makes them feel good.

If you keep those three rules in mind as you use the tools we’ve listed below, you’ll be staying on the right side of behavioral design.

The long-term impact of dark behavioral design patterns can be worse than the problem you were trying to solve in the first place.

The 17 essential tools in the behavioral design toolbox

So, how do you actually influence behavior through design?

The behavioral designer’s toolbox is varied and includes different ideas for different user types, uses, and contexts.

Not every tool or idea works for the same people or in the same situation. Some work better for consumer products, while others are designed for B2B — it’s a game of trial and error to see what works.

Let’s go through the big list:

1. Cues (or triggers)

What it is: Cues — also known as triggers — are events that prompt users to take a certain action. They’re the basis of habits. Every habitual action requires some cue to set off the chain of desired behaviors.

How it works: The goal of a cue is to create a positive connection between a specific trigger and an action. You can either develop your own cues specific to your product or borrow from some of the many examples you’ll see in other apps and tools.

A simple example: In Duolingo, users are prompted to create a streak of days where they practice a new language. The cue that gets them to take that action is a simple daily reminder from the company’s owl mascot. When you complete

Taking it a step further: A Cue is an essential part of the habit-forming process known as the CAR framework. CAR stands for Cue, Action, Reward. In order to build habitual use of your product, a user needs to receive a cue, take the desired action, and get a meaningful reward afterward.

2. Reinforcement learning

What it is: Reinforcement learning (or “reward” learning) is a design technique that increases the frequency someone uses your product by providing carefully controlled rewards.

Reinforcement learning

How it works: The human brain is hardwired to build habits and learn through reinforcement. As users engage with your app or product, they receive positive reinforcement, including points, badges, discounts, or even just praise.

A simple example: Let’s stick with Duolingo here. As users complete their daily work, they’re given a streak score — how many days in a row they practice a language. But on milestone days (days 3, 7, 14, etc.) they receive a special animation designed to hook them into continuing their work.

3. Optimal challenge

What it is: Optimal challenge refers to the “sweet spot” of challenge a user is willing to take on to complete an action.

How it works: A psychological principle called “flow” describes the state where your skills and the challenge presented are perfectly aligned. Outside of flow, you’re either putting users at risk of burnout (too much challenge) or boredom (not enough).

As users engage with your product, you can gauge their skill level and adjust the challenge accordingly to keep them coming back.

A simple example: Onboarding campaigns are the quintessential example of the optimal challenge principle. At each step of their journey, you can increase the challenge provided to them until they master your tool.

4. Stopping rules

What it is: Stopping rules are environmental cues that tell us we’ve completed an action and it’s time to stop. For example, an empty plate after dinner.

How it works: Our brains look for cues to tell us when we’ve completed an action. Without one, we will sometimes do things we don’t want to, or that create a negative association with an action (like eating an entire buffet and getting sick).

A simple example: Social media feeds learned the power of stopping rules when they created infinite scroll. Instead of telling users they’d consumed all of their friends’ posts, they started to pull in more content to keep them going.

5. Stimulus devaluation

What it is: Stimulus devaluation is a way to change someone’s habitual behaviors by removing the cue—action association.

How it works: Habits are formed by receiving positive rewards for certain actions (that’s the basis of reinforcement learning). But if you want to change that behavior, you need to break the association. Stimulus devaluation introduces friction and delay between the trigger and the action to unwire the habitual action.

A simple example: Video games, gambling apps, and other tools that could lead to negative habits will often add a necessary time delay to reduce the negative actions. For example, you might have to wait 5 minutes before you can play another hand of poker or ten minutes before you can start another mission.

These delays allow people to still complete the action without the risk of forming a negative habit.

Behavioral psychology can feel like a dark art, but it’s really just good design when done ethically and transparently.

6. Choice architecture

What it is: Choice architecture is the purposeful design of an environment to nudge people towards specific actions or choices.

How it works: Our brains deal with thousands or even millions of pieces of information every day. To stay sane, we’ve evolved to perform default behaviors. By choosing what information you present to a user and creating a hierarchy of choice, you can help them decide that the most valuable actions should be their default behaviors.

A simple example: When you look at a restaurant menu, you only think about the choices presented to you. The same goes for an app toolbar or a website’s navigation. What you put in your main nav will influence your user’s behavior more than items in a drop-down menu or in the footer.

7. Cognitive load balancing

What it is: Cognitive load balancing is the deliberate holding back of information to help users build their knowledge about your product or tool.

How it works: Most studies agree that the human brain can only hold around seven items at any given time in our working memory. By holding back information or only dolling out features over time, users can build their base of knowledge slowly and steadily.

A simple example: As users engage with your app, you can start to highlight new tools, plug-ins, or add-ons. Rather than asking them to engage with everything at once, you can limit the amount of cognitive work they need to do to see the desired result.

8. Soft incentives

What it is: Soft incentives are promises of future rewards for actions taken by a user today.

How it works: Habits are built on a tight connection between cue, action, and reward. But what if you can’t provide the reward right away? Soft incentives take advantage of our human desire for community, personal accomplishment, and approval to persuade people to complete complex one-off actions.

A simple example: When you start using most new social media apps, you have no friends, no personalized news feed items, and a lot of work ahead of you. But by including the promise of connection and personalized feeds (through choosing topics you enjoy), they can get you to put in the effort of adding friends, answering questions, etc.

9. Personalization

What it is: Personalization is when you adapt an app, interface, or tool specifically for the user’s persona.

How it works: Not everyone thinks the same way — especially if your company is targeting multiple audiences with different needs. For example, marketing teams and developers. With personalization, you can change many of the design choices to be more aligned with a persona’s needs.

A simple example: Planio is a project management tool used by technical, marketing, and support teams. But depending on the audience, we can highlight different features and use cases.

For example, we can highlight our integrated code repositories and easy sprint planning tools for our developer audience and content calendars and growth experiment pipelines for our marketing audience.

Calendar View for a launch campaign

10. Gamification

What it is: Gamification is the adoption of specific “game-like” features or behaviors to make products more engaging.

How it works: Video game designers are masters at getting players hooked into wanting to play more. They might use rewards, new power-ups, or unlocking new features to get you to push through a challenge and keep playing. The same can work in your app or product.

A simple example: HubSpot is a suite of tools for sales and marketing teams. As part of their customer success strategy, they created HubSpot Academy, where users can learn new skills and receive “certifications” to share on social media.

HubSpot Academy Certifications
Image source: HubSpot Academy

Not only does the reward structure gamify the learning experience, but it also becomes an additional marketing tool for HubSpot. As people get new badges, they share them on social media and bring in new customers.

11. Optimal information flow

What it is: Optimal information flow is the ideal ordering of steps and density of information to keep someone interested in completing an action.

How it works: Everyone can handle different amounts of information at a time. By purposefully designing a flow that is easy and not too dense, you nudge users to continue.

A simple example: Signup drop-off paths show you where users lose interest in your behavior flow. If you see that people are leaving when asked to input personal information, ask if it’s really necessary to the sign-up process or if you can move it to later on after they’ve become a user.

12. Social proof

What it is: Social proof refers to the theory that people adapt their behavior based on what others say or have done.

Social Proof

How it works: Human beings are social creatures. We crave belonging and being a part of our ‘tribe.’ When trying to persuade users to take an action, show them that others have already done it and been successful.

A simple example: Almost every website uses some form of social proof — either testimonials, videos, or reviews. All of these elements ‘prove’ to users that it’s OK to sign up and that you can be trusted.

There are also opportunities to add elements of social proof in your product as well, such as on upgrade pages or in explainer videos.

13. Ambient communication

What it is: Ambient communication is the non-verbal information and design choices you use to convey complex information quickly.

How it works: UX designers use all sorts of tools to convey information non-verbally — from colors to charts, graphs, information hierarchy, and more. These visual cues work because our human brain relies on past experience to guide us. You don’t have to explain that green is good and red is bad to a user.

A simple example: Apple’s Activity app on the Apple Watch needs to pack a ton of information into a very small space. To do this, they use concentric colored rings to show your daily progress towards different aspects of your health.

Apple Activity Rings on the Appl Watch
Image source: Apple Support

14. Scarcity

What it is: Scarcity is the concept that humans make decisions based on the availability of an item.

How it works: We naturally tend to place more importance on items if there are fewer of them available. By creating a sense of scarcity in your app or product, you can push users to take action more quickly.

A simple example: If you’ve ever been on a hotel booking website and seen a pop-up that says “only one room left!” you’ve seen scarcity at play. While some marketing sites use fake scarcity to coerce users to take action, it’s also a legitimate tool for helping people not miss out on their desired action.

15. Endowed progress effect

What it is: The endowed progress effect is a phenomenon in which humans are more motivated by a sense of having already started towards a goal.

How it works: Starting from zero is hard. But if your users already feel as though they’ve begun a process — signing up, importing leads to your CRM, etc. — they’ll be more likely to follow through with the rest of the action.

A simple example: Many products use information that users provided during the sign-up period to auto-fill forms within the app. This way, when they start using it, they’ll see that they’re already “60%” finished getting set up.

16. Anchoring (psychological pricing)

What it is: Anchoring is our tendency to latch onto available information or make choices based on only the visible options.

How it works: When you’re presented with a price or a piece of information, your brain holds onto it. Then, any following pieces of information are judged against what you’ve already seen. So, instead of assuming a $500/month plan is expensive, it looks like a deal next to the $1,000/month one.

A simple example: The most common example of anchoring is in pricing. When a user lands on your pricing page, you can create context and anchor them in your world of pricing.

For example, at Planio, our Diamond plan is the best value for most customers, and so we’ve designed it to stand out the most on our plans page. When users land here, they’re anchored on the cost and feature-set of the Diamond plan and will judge the others against it.

Planio Diamond plan stands out

17. Sunk cost

What it is: Sunk costs are our fears of losing something we ‘already have’ even if it means not getting something new.

How it works: Humans tend to fall victim to what’s called loss aversion. We overvalue what we already have and undervalue what we could have. For example, if given $50 and the choice to gamble it and either double your money or lose it all, most people would keep the $50.

A simple example: Actively showing users how much time and effort they’ve invested in your tool is a powerful way to build up sunk costs. For example, a weekly or monthly report on their usage can show them that they’re getting value from your tool and what they’d lose if they walked away.

Master the persuasive art of behavioral design

Behavioral psychology can feel like a dark art, but it’s really just good design when done ethically and transparently. Your users want to succeed with your product. All you’re doing is lighting the path for them.

Use these tools and ideas to build the best product possible, and you’ll have loyal and happy customers for years to come.