What is Action Design?

Action Design is a step-by-step process for building products that help users change their behavior. Traditional product design is about building good products – products that people will like.   Action Design is about building products that are effective at helping people change their behavior as well – so they can do things that they haven’t been able to do before, such as:

  • getting back in shape
  • paying off credit card debt
  • managing diabetes
  • learning a new language
  • getting involved in their communities

Action Design shows companies and organizations how to build these products – by applying the recent explosion of research in behavioral economics and psychology to the practical tasks of designing, implementing, and testing behavioral products.

The Action Design process draws upon the experiences of the product team at HelloWallet, who have been applying the research literature in their personal-finance apps over the last three years.  It also draws inspiration from the Action Design DC Meetup, a forum where practitioners in the DC area share their own experiences and techniques for behavioral-products.


What’s the Process Itself?

At a high level, the Action Design process is five-steps:

  • Prepare:                             know your users and your behavioral goal
  • Design:                              design the product to facilitate action
  • Implement:                        convert the design into an engaging, usable product
  • Measure:                            run experiments & statistical models to gauge impact
  • Learn & Repeat:               iteratively improve the product and its behavioral impact

The “Design” part starts with finding the simplest, most cost-effective way to help the user change their behavior.  There are three broad ways to accomplish this:

  1. “Cheat”.
    In many cases, the best way to help someone act is to remove the work altogether  – leveraging technology to perform the action automatically, subject to user consent.  For example, auto-enrollment in 401(k)s, and intelligent defaults on power-user settings for complex equipment (cameras) and applications both “cheat” by removing the need for the user to act beyond giving consent.
  2. Build habits.
    Once formed, habits save the mind from needing to devote scarce mental energy towards repeating a useful behavior (like brushing teeth or driving to work).   Researchers increasingly understand the mechanics of habit formation.  In short, forming a habit requires a clear trigger to act + a simple routine + an immediate reward.  Applications that help users form useful habits can effect sustained behavior change without continued user effort.
  3. Help users make a conscious choice to act.
    Sometimes, hard work can’t be avoided – but an application can help the user make the choice to act and follow through.  There are three core ways by which Action Design can help:

    1. Designing the action itself so that it’s easy to take,
      via small wins that help the users feel challenged but capable.
    2. Structuring the environment to encourage the action,
      via motivation, facilitation, triggers, and the removal of distractions.
    3. Preparing the person to take the action,
      via education, linking to self-identity, and building associations with past experiences.

In each case, Action Design leverages the literature on decision-making and behavior to offer practical tips on how to structure the application for behavioral impact, while leaving product managers and designers the freedom to use their expertise to build a beautiful and engaging product.


Where Can You Learn More?

We’re formalizing the Action Design process now.  As we do, we’ll post more information about the method here.  As part of that formalization,  we will be speaking at local events in DC about our thinking – you can find a list of speaking events here.  Also, we know the process is far from polished, and we welcome your thoughts and feedback.   Please just post a comment on this site or drop Steve Wendel a line at research at hellowallet.com with any comments!

If you’d like to learn about other practical techniques, please check out the Action Design DC meetupa community that we’re helping organize for practitioners to swap notes on behavior-changing products. More information can be found on the Meetup Page.

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