What is Behavior Design?

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:

What is Behavior Design?

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.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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