What is Behavior Design?

The problem is: People try to change and they fail. No matter the ambition—making lasting, positive behavior change can be incredibly difficult. You can pick up an unhealthy habit very easily, but creating healthy behaviors is another deal entirely.

Ever since I dropped out of University in 2009 to run my first tech startup I have been trying to change and grow as a person. At the heart of any personal or organization change is human behavior. I have experienced the challenge of creating lasting behavior change countless times. I can think back to many ambitions and all my attempts to influence my behavior. Some were successful than others.

A Fundamental Misunderstanding

In the same way that you couldn't build a computer without knowing what it is or how it works, behavior requires a fundamental understanding in order for lasting change. Most people confuse behavior with ambition. Most people attempt big leaps. Most people make things way too hard for themselves.

And then they fail. They feel bad about themselves and begin telling stories about how they "don't have what it takes". When in reality, the problem lies in a fundamental misunderstanding about what behavior is and how it works.

Most products and services designed to facilitate change don't understand behavior either. When people sign up for a new app or a new service, they're setting themselves up for failure.

Most of these products and services are designed with flawed notions of human behaviors like, "No pain no gain", "It takes 21 days to create a habit" and "Breaking a bad habit just requires willpower", etc.

If you've ever given your all to make a positive change in your life like losing weight, living with less stress or becoming better at a skill you'll be happy to learn that there is another way to approach behavior change—one that is playful, creative and compassionate—one that is rooted in science and has proven to be effective for tens of thousands of people.

Introducing Behavior Design

Over the last 30 years a behavior scientist at Stanford University has been trying to unlock the keys to creating lasting behavior change—for good. His name is Dr. BJ Fogg.

Based upon his research and my experience with his work, I believe he's cracked the code to lasting behavior change.

A Systematic Approach

Behavior Design is a system of models and methods for creating lasting behavior change. Models are ways of thinking about behavior. Methods are ways of 'solving' for specific behaviors.

BJ studied under David Kelley, the founder of IDEO and one of the forefathers of design thinking. BJ's design methodology is rooted in the fundamentals of human centered design which makes it very appealing for anyone working in digital.

The Fundamental Model

The fundamental model of Behavior Design is called the Fogg Behavior Model (or FBM for short). It is a psychological model that explains when behavior happens. It provides both an equation and a visualization for understanding behavior and for troubleshooting when your desired behavior isn't working.

Understanding B:MAP

The Fogg Behavior Model is be written as B:MAP. It goes like this:

Behavior (B) happens when three things come together at the same time:

  • Motivation (M) — how much a person wants to do the behavior
  • Ability (A) - how easy it is to do the behavior
  • Prompt (P) - a trigger or reminder to do the behavior

If you remove any of these three elements, the behavior will not occur. This is incredibly simple and far more powerful than it seems. This equation provides a foundation for thinking about behavior and understanding how to either facilitate a behavior occurring, or prevent it.

Visualizing B:MAP

The Fog Behavior Model can be displayed on a graph like this:

Fogg Behavior Model

Motivation (M) is displayed on the Y axis from high to low. The higher the motivation, the more a person wants to do the behavior.

Ability (A) is shown on the X axis and we label this a spectrum from 'hard to do' on the left through to 'easy to do' on the right.

Prompts (P) occur anywhere in the middle. Prompts can be anything from a a text message or notification to an internal reminder (memory) or even an existing behavior that the person already does habitually.

The Action Line

There is an action line that demonstrates the crucial division between the prompts that succeed and the prompts that fail in causing a behavior to occur.

The shape of the action line reveals a powerful relationship between motivation and ability. When a behavior is very easy to do, a person does not need much motivation for a prompt to succeed. Think of how easy it is to tap and unlock your phone (the behavior) when a notification pings and appears on your home screen (the prompt). This is why devices are so addicting! They've engineered engagement based upon how behavior actually works.

Compensatorily, if a behavior is incredibly hard to do, a person mush have an enormous amount of motivation in order for a prompt to succeed. Think about running a marathon and the complex sequence of habits (automatic behaviors) and routines (sequences of behaviors) required for this behavior to occur.

A Major Breakthrough

BJ saw massive potential in the far-right side of the behavior model. When behaviors are very easy to do they have a much higher range of motivation and thus are much more likely to occur. One of the key factors that prevents lasting behavior change is that motivation comes and goes like a wave.

Most people set ambitious resolutions that are dependent upon a high level of motivation. While the motivation is high (at the beginning), the behaviors occur. Over time, the motivation wanes and the behavior occurrence does too.

BJ designed a 5-day program called Tiny Habits to test his theory about the power of behaviors that are very easy to do.

Prompt Design

He also sensed that the source of the prompt was absolutely key. Through research and experimentation, BJ discovered that prompts come from three places

  1. The person (P) performing the behavior (an internal reminder / memory to do the behavior)
  2. The context (C) around the person (a text message, notification, sticky note, etc.)
  3. An existing behavior or action (A) that a person already does (waking up in the morning and brushing your teeth, walking your dog, etc.)

BJ was curious about using existing behaviors as prompts for his Tiny Habits experiment.

The Power of Tiny Habits

Since BJ's initial exploration into the foray of Tiny Habits, over 40,000 people have taken the week-long course and the responses and results are astounding.

The Call to Action

As a person who is constantly trying to improve, I jumped on the opportunity to learn more about BJ's methods and apply them to my personal and professional life. Some of BJ's work is published on his website and you can always sign up to the next Tiny Habits course for free.

I've had the great pleasure of studying directly with BJ and his lovely colleagues in his home in California at one of his two-day bootcamps. I enjoyed it so much I continued studying with BJ afterwards and have since gone on to become the first and only certified Behavior Design teacher in Europe.

What's your behavior challenge?

If you're working at a company with big ambitions and complex behavior challenges, I'd love to help you apply behavior design for lasting positive change. Whether you're working on a digital product or are undergoing cultural transformation, I'd love to hear more about the problems you're trying to solve and see if I can help.

If you're a person who is trying to grow, I'd encourage you to find small, easy and specific behaviors that you can target and adopt over time.

Either way, I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch via email john@john-ellison.com or find me on Twitter or LinkedIN.