How Barriers Sabotage Our Behavior

NOTE – Today’s post is from Erik Johnson, who blogs about behavior, psychology and other topics at He also  helps organize the Action Design DC Meetup!

Why do we so often fail to do things that we actually want to do? Why do so many products fail to create action by their users, even if it’s something they desire and is good for them? Whenever a user’s intended behavior fails to occur, you can usually find a barrier getting in the way, even if it’s painfully simple. Eliminating those barriers has a profound impact on the behavior of your users.

That impact is clear in organ donation rates. In 2003, only 28% of Americans had officially signed up as organ donors, a supply woefully inadequate for the demand. Meanwhile, countries like France, Poland and Austria had nearly 100% of their citizens registered to donate.

Researchers attempted to discover why there was such disconnect. Were Americans that much less giving than their counterparts in those other nations?

That didn’t appear to be the case. When polled, 85% of US citizens approved of organ donation.

So what made the other countries different? In the nations with the highest donation rates, citizens were automatically opted in to donating. They had the right to change that if desired, but very few did. On the contrary, the US opted its citizens into being non-donors and concrete steps were required to be a donor.

Those steps, even as simple as filling out a form, acted as a barrier to the behavior they desired. Behavioral economists have brought to popular attention the importance of defaults (opt in vs opt out) in these situations, but the systematic search for simple barriers (aka channel factors) hasn’t received as much popular attention outside of the psychology literature.

It sounds overly simplistic and, well, lazy, that something as trivial as signing an extra form would prevent millions of people from doing something that they wanted to do, but we all have barriers in our lives that affect what we do more than we realize.

I discovered the power of barriers while attempting to create a habit of waking up earlier. Being an early bird allows me to utilize my most productive hours of the day and builds discipline that feeds into all other aspects of my daily life.

The problem is, I LOVE to hit the snooze button. It’s hard to convince my brain in the morning that an extra 10-20 minutes in bed isn’t crucial. To break this, I knew that I had to identify the barriers to the action.

First, I moved my phone (which acts as my alarm clock) to the other side of the room. This would force me out of bed to turn it off. I hoped this would create momentum to keep me up.

Nope. I would wake up in a daze, shut off the alarm clock and run right back to my warm, comfortable bed. I realized it wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to get back to sleep, though. It was freezing in my apartment and I was cold outside of the bed. It was easier to get back in then walk to my closet and find warm clothes to put on.

So, I made it easier for myself. Before I went to bed, I laid out a sweatshirt and sweatpants next to my phone. Then, when I shut off the alarm and felt cold, the solution was right there. I removed the barrier and the snooze button was hit no more.

Similarly, barriers have a profound effect on products that aim to drive behavior change. The tiniest bump in the road can prevent the desired action of the user to take place.  Product friction, a similar concept, is commonly talked about in product design, but its role in changing behavior is less discussed.

So, when designing a product intended to create a specific action, there are two scenarios in which you must understand barriers:

  • If in the early stages of product design, what is preventing your user from doing the action in the first place? How can you remove that? Good user research and field testing can help here.
  • If you already have a product, but it isn’t resulting in the desired outcome, then study where your users are getting stuck. Are there too many steps? Is it inconvenient for them? Is it too easy for them to put it off for later? Are the instructions too vague?

For an example, let’s look at thermostats. 89% of people never program their thermostats because it’s complicated and inconvenient to do so, resulting in inefficient energy usage and high utility bills.

Nest improved this by eliminating the barrier. Instead of requiring users to do the programming, it eliminated that step by automatically tracking patterns and implementing preferences based off of their customers’ actual behavior.

Whether energy usage, organ donations or morning wake up times, barriers are all around us and affect what you and your product’s users do every day. To have profound impacts on behavior, always be aware of when and how these barriers occur and what can be done to remove them, no matter how small or trivial it may seem.

Erik Johnson currently works in Federal consulting as the Deputy Program Manager on a large IT system project. He’s also an organizer for DC Nightowls and helps with local DC start up The Trip Tribe. Find him on Twitter at @erikleejohnson