‘Design is the business of behaviour change’ | Interview with Richard Shotton

Richard Shotton

“If you're working in design, you're basically in the business of behaviour change, and all Behavioural Science is a study of what are effective ways of changing behaviour.”

So declares Richard Shotton, one of the key speakers at this year’s Design Leaders Conference 2024 and a passionate advocate for the use of Behavioural Science in the design industry.

Richard is the founder of consultancy firm Astroten, which has helped Google, Facebook, and Sky, among others, apply findings from Behavioural Science to their marketing. He is also the author of The Choice Factory (2018), voted best sales and marketing book of the year at the Business Book Awards and The Illusion of Choice (2023), hailed as a “behavioural economics masterclass” by The Media Leader.

At his Design Leaders Conference 2024 talk, Richard will encourage designers to engage with Behavioural Science and outline why it has benefits for the industry, particularly in the area of problem solving.

As Richard points out, the discipline has “thousands of studies” which academics have tested “in rigorous controlled conditions”, and which have been peer reviewed, resulting in a wealth of data and solutions that “can be applied to design or any business challenge”.

“Whatever challenge a designer has,” says Richard, “there's going to be a study out there that can help solve it.”

Why use Behavioural Science?

Behavioural Science studies why and how people behave and respond the way they do, through experimentally examining the impact of various factors, including conscious thoughts, motivation, and social influences.

Given that design seeks to engage, persuade, and encourage behavioural change, it would seem an indispensable tool for the industry, but Richard feels it is not used enough.

“In terms of why brands should use it, thousands of Behavioural Science experiments have been undertaken by scientists and psychologists,” he says. “Behavioural Science isn’t speculative. It is based on peer reviewed, observed, experiments, so they've got a greater probability of success.

“That doesn't mean every insight from every academic is watertight, but, if you pick an experiment that's been found to be valid by multiple independent psychologists, you know you're onto something quite powerful.”

Behavioural Science is valuable as it takes account of both the practical reasons behind a person’s choice and of the hidden, less obvious, reasons, such as the influence of Social Proof and our own unconscious biases.

“Too many people rely on what we call ‘claimed data’,” says Richard. “If we are designing a product or designing communications, we often, as brands, go out and ask people what they want. That's problematic from a Behavioural Science point of view, because people often don't know their own motivations. They'll talk about the very sensible, rational, reasons for wanting a pair of trainers, but that will often give you a very small subset of their genuine motivations. They won't talk about some of the irrationalities that drive their behaviour.”

Beyond biases

One such driver is bias. Richard outlines why designers need to be aware of their own preconceptions when approaching a brief.

“There is what’s called the ‘false consensus effect’,” he says. “You're involved in a project and a problem you’re trying to solve. You are spending all manner of hours working on it. You're much more engaged, much more knowledgeable than others about it, but that creates a gap with the audience. The danger comes in that we tend to overestimate how representative our own views are.

“It's not that we think everyone is like us, we just over-exaggerate the commonness of our points of view. So whenever you're designing anything, you've got to be very careful about using your own experience as a guide to what people want. It might be relevant, but you will overestimate its accuracy.

“You've got to go to greater lengths and research what people actually want. You need to move from claimed data being your primary source of insight - surveys and focus groups - to instead think of yourself as a scientist and run experiments. That might sound off-putting, but if people have a website, if they have a shop, if they're selling in big supermarkets, these are essentially laboratories. And don't ask people how a piece of design affects them. Create a simple A/B test. That is a much more accurate guide to human behaviour than simple questioning.”

The power of Social Proof

One of the most widely examined phenomena in Behavioral Science is Social Proof, the concept that people’s decisions are influenced by others, compelling them to act within societal norms or expectations.

When applied to design, it is the idea that if we make a product appear popular, it becomes more popular still. For Richard, how Apple became synonymous with MP3 players in the 2000s is illustrative.

“When Apple launched the iPod, they weren't the market leader. They couldn't honestly go out and say, ‘We’re the number one MP3 player’, but luckily for Apple, their competitors had allowed their success to become invisible.”

MP3 players from Sony and Samsung had small logos and the device was usually in the user’s pocket. “The only thing on public display was the headphones and they were interchangeable,” says Richard. “What Apple did so brilliantly was to have completely distinctive white earbuds - the only brand that used white earbuds. So if you saw someone listening through white earbuds, even if you couldn’t see the iPod itself, you still knew it was Apple. They turned the private consumption of Apple into something public and noticeable and it felt like the Apple iPod was much larger than it actually was.

“That's a lateral use of social proof. You're not directly saying you're popular, but you are behaving distinctively, making sure you're noticeable, and therefore creating this illusion of popularity. That is something designers could think about more. You want to make the consumptional usership of your product visible and public, not private."

‘Make it Easy’

Richard is a strong believer in clear communication, quoting the American author Carmine Gallo’s maxim: “Condense, simplify and speak as briefly as possible”. Such ideas also inform his view that the removal of small obstacles and inconveniences in the user experience - also known as removing friction - results in wider benefits for the designer, the client, and the user.

“We tend to think it's the appeal that matters, and if we can make a product as appealing as possible, then people strive to overcome the barriers and hurdles put in front of them,” says Richard, “but studies show that even seemingly trivial hurdles tend to have a disproportionate effect.

“Think about Netflix. One of the best things they did to increase viewing levels was to remove the friction of having to get your remote control to watch the next programme. It used to be when your episode finished, you then had to use the remote to watch the next one. They flipped that. So now you have to get the remote control to not watch the next episode. That small bit of effort impacted people's viewing levels.

“I think most designers recognise that small bits of friction will put off usership or engagement. Behavioural Science goes a step further and says people, including experts and professionals, tend to underestimate the scale of that impact. Designers need to think through the customer journey, identify even the smallest difference, the smallest barrier that's getting in someone's way, and then resolve it.”

Richard is a persuasive advocate for Behavioural Science as a problem solving resource material for designers. Designers seeking a greater understanding of Behavioural Science and how to engage with it, will find much food for thought at Richard’s Design Leaders Conference 2024 appearance.

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