Inventing behaviors, needs and perceptions

Picking up on my colleagues Robert Fabricant and Jon Kolko talking about the recent IxDA conference, I thought I’d add a few thoughts. I didn’t attend the conference, but their posts about behavior and its place in interaction design struck a chord with me.

Robert’s argument is that the true medium of interaction designers is not technology, but behaviors.

I definitely agree that behaviors are an end-result that we are seeking to address, whether it is by allowing them to stay the same (a new product does not require an alteration, which helps people adopt it) or by altering behaviors in part or in whole.

I’m not sure that behaviors rise to the level of medium, however, since we do not manipulate them directly. Changing behaviors may be an end goal, but we use an intermediary (software, physical products, services, brand, etc.) as our influencer. We are like writers: their end goal is to create a new universe in the reader’s mind and to perhaps draw them into action or a new way of seeing the world. The words are the means to that end, the medium, and the writer can hope that the reader responds the way they intend, but has no real control over what they end up feeling, thinking and doing. But I don’t know that writers would see reader emotions and behaviors as their medium per se. This is one of the interesting things about design and writing though, people constantly surprise you with how they’ve re-interpreted your work. It is both humbling (to realize the limits of our control) and also wonderful (to realize how creative people are).

In the case of interactions, the altering of behaviors can either be seen or used as a push, where the change is forced, or as a pull, where new behaviors are enabled and opened up that had previously been inconvenient, impossible, or simply unconsidered.

But there is more to it than behaviors; perceptions also play a large role, and we want to affect both of them. Perceptions lead to behaviors, and behaviors lead to perceptions; they are a loop, each building on, reflecting, and altering the other.

This is particularly true when talking about trying to create social change, as Robert is. Project M is as much about changing perceptions as it is about behaviors, as the two cannot be separated.

To tie this a bit into Jon’s presentation about synthesizing research, this is often where the rubber meets the road of determining needs, and then conceptualizing solutions that will allow new behaviors (and perhaps perceptions) and therefore satisfy those needs.

Often when analyzing user needs we are looking for needs that they did not express explicitly. We are therefore to an extent imagining, even inventing, what their needs are. Not blindly or randomly, of course, as Jon argues there is a chain of logic that needs to lead up to the determined needs, it’s just not always the familiar A+B=C logic. But this is not a mechanical process, there is a level of informed intuition required. The more breakthrough the need insight, the behavior change, and the product concept, the more intuition is necessary.

Furthermore, through our designs we are seeking to create new behaviors for people. Out of those new behaviors will come new needs, for every product introduces new problems directly or indirectly, even as it solves existing problems.

I think some people get uncomfortable with the idea that we are in the business of creating needs, changing behaviors, and changing perceptions. It smacks too much of marketing and manipulation. That can be true, and some people will use these methods for cynical ends. The methods in themselves are not inherently good or bad, just as words that writers are craft are not inherently good or bad. It is up to us to use them in ways that we think will benefit people and improve the world, rather than just to sell more stuff to supposedly gullible consumers.

The fact is, we influence behaviors and perceptions with everything we create, whether we intend to or not, and maintaining the status quo is just as much an influence as changing things. But we can kid ourselves if we maintain status quo that the world is created “out there” and that it is the way it is because of user choice, and we are just fitting into it.

If we seek to actively change things, our role becomes less implicit. Our responsibility thereby becomes more explicit. That is where things get tricky because, as Robert and Jon state, we do not have a model about behaviors (or perceptions) that can help us predict outcomes well enough to make our responsibility feel comfortable.