Toward a Behavior-Based Framework

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A little while back Todd Wilkens at Adaptive Path described a shift away from task-driven design and to behavior-driven design which generated a lot of good comments, and I’m finally getting around to posting a bit of a response.

Todd says:

“[F]ocusing on services means having to deal with a much messier set of issues related to human behavior than in traditional interactive design. This is fundamentally changing the way we all go about doing design. In particular, I’ve been thinking that we may need to move away from a framework of tasks, goals, and states in favor of a framework focused on behaviors, motivations, and contexts.”

This is absolutely true, and we need a more complex way of classifying human behaviors, emotions and motivations than personas, which are overly simplistic (or are used in simplistic ways) much of the time. To take a simplistic case, drive to a Walmart near and urban metro and you will likely see high-end cars like Porsche Cayennes which are definitely not “Always low price”. Personas would typically focus on the budget-driven customer or the affluent one, yet in fact both aspects can be equally present in a single person, and they have very different goals at different points in their days/weeks/lives. To strip that complexity away is to strip away a person’s humanity. Likewise, a task-oriented approach would focus on the process of shopping (making a list, checking it twice, going to the store, unpacking, etc.), which is similarly devoid of motivations and emotions that help us understand why someone chooses Walmart for some shopping and the Porsche dealers for others.

In describing people’s behaviors we often fall into a trap of expressing them on a scale of “rational” to “emotional”, as though these are opposites of one another.

As soon as you start doing any ethnography you quickly realize that the same behaviors will be done by people who would normally be classified under very different personas, and that people who seem to fit into nominal persona definitions exhibit very disparate ranges of ways of living their lives at the more micro scale.

As Todd indicates, a much better approach is to focus on behaviors, and to use a fairly broad scope of that term, taking into account not just physical behaviors (driving a car, using a word processor, etc.) but also the mental and emotional shadings that go along with them. (Paul Adams has a nice thought on this.) Once you start focusing on behaviors you can be much more precise about how you are designing, as you are not force-fitting people into categories that never quite work. And you often find that new opportunities open up as you can target any aspect of the behavior spectrum.

Focusing on behaviors also allows engagement of any part of the product system, often beyond the discrete element you initially looked at. Todd cites my earlier statement that “the system is the product” - the product does not stand alone in a vacuum but exists in a broad system of services, brand, people, technology, etc. If you understand behaviors, you can see how the total system can optimize itself around those behaviors. By doing so you have the opportunity to potentially attract customers who might not fit your stereotypical personas, and who would otherwise go elsewhere or not buy at all.

Not only is the system the product, but individual people are systems. Treating them (us, ourselves) monolithically is just as silly and narrow-minded.

In describing people’s behaviors we often fall into a trap of expressing them on a scale of “rational” to “emotional”, as though these are opposites of one another. Purchasing something for emotional reasons can be perfectly valid, and in fact I would argue that any decision you want to feel good about in the long term has to feel comfortable both from a “rational” point of view (e.g., you paid a fair price for a reliable product that does what you need it to do) as well as from an “emotional” standpoint (e.g. the product fits your self image and helps you express that image, it matches your goals for fitting in with and sustaining your family/subculture, etc.).

In my view behaviors need to encompass both of these aspects and treat them as equal partners. Too often we design products that fulfill rational needs but which ignore emotional ones, and vice versa, and only by a holistic understanding of these within the context of people’s behaviors at both a macro and a micro level can we hope to be more accurate in our predictions of products’ desirability and financial success.

The highly rationalistic approach might be well-suited if all your customers are “maximizers” (as Barry Schwartz puts in The Paradox of Choice), but if not you’ll miss out on a whole boatload of people who are “satisficers” as their behaviors (including motivations) are going to be very different. (And by the way, people who are maximizers will be satisfers in many situations, and vice versa, so it’s not cut and dried.)

Todd asks if we need a new framework to create this understanding. My sense is that a lot of the pieces are already there, and most of the tools are in place, but they are currently divided between disciplines and are not well integrated enough in a focused way. This is the first barrier we need to get over.