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3 Ways to Fuse Psychology and UX Design to Shape User Behavior

Laura MacPherson May 24, 2018

Behavioral psychology tells us how to guide users’ behavior. UX design’s purpose is to increase users’ satisfaction by improving a product’s accessibility and usability. When designers combine behavioral psychology and UX design, the result is a compelling product that engages users’ attention and drives participation.

What Behavioral Psychology Teaches Us About Motivation

Motivation is essential to creating a behavior. Unless someone is motivated, either intrinsically or extrinsically, he or she won’t take action. Motivation can be generated through either positive or negative reinforcement. On the positive side, rewards are a tested, proven way to create motivation. Behavior that’s reinforced (rewarded), tends to be repeated. Behavioral psychology has also shown us that you can strengthen a behavior by varying the schedule of the rewards. (Dig into the details of how reinforcement and rewards work in this post.)

Not Just Any Motivation Will Work

While this knowledge about motivation is extremely valuable, it’s not enough on its own. Although Skinner’s rats and Pavlov’s dogs were all motivated by one thing (food), the reality is that humans are more complex than rats and dogs. We’re not all motivated by the same things. What motivates one of your product’s users may not motivate another user. If you rely on a form of reward that doesn’t resonate with your target audience, your product won’t experience success. To ensure your reinforcement is effective, add these three UX principles to the mix. 

1. Discover What Motivates Your Users

The only way to learn what rewards actually motivate your users is to talk with them. You’ll need to find out what they desire and what they fear. Learn which rewards have worked to motivate them in the past and which ones haven’t. Find out if they’re more driven by internal motivation or external. You can discover this information through phone interviews with users or potential users.

If you have a prototype or an MVP, you can conduct user testing to gain insight into how various rewards perform with your users. Testing is a valuable tool for analyzing any hypothesis about how users will interact with your product, but it’s especially helpful for determining which rewards are most effective.

After you’ve gathered this information, craft personas or journey maps to serve as a reference as you’re designing or iterating your product. If you find that your users have a few different motivators, you’ll want to work a variety of rewards into your app or software.

2. Identify Ideal Timing for Cues in the Neurological Loop

Repetitive behavior is formed via neurological loops: a cue triggers a routine (behavior) that delivers a reward. We can reverse engineer the loop to drive engagement. It’s possible to create a cue out of just about anything, but apps have a built-in function that serves as an ideal cue — the notification.

The key to using notifications effectively is to send them at just the right time. If a user receives a notification at a time when it’s not possible to complete the associated behavior, he or she will simply be annoyed, and no habit will be formed. The cue (notification) must occur immediately before the behavior should happen. Consider the activity flow of your app or software to determine when the product should deliver the various notifications.

3. Reduce Barriers to Engagement

Even if your product is using the right rewards as motivators and timing the cues properly, you’ll lose users if the app or software is difficult to operate in the environment where people will be using it. You’ll need to think through where your users will be interacting with the app (At home on the couch? While running? While driving?), what challenges they’ll face when in that environment(Continual movement? Limited focus? Noise?), and what limitations they’ll have in the environment. You should consider what tasks they’ll be performing most frequently and what frustrations they may encounter in the process.

You’ll need to go beyond phone interviews to gather this information. It’s ideal to meet users in person at the location where they would typically use your product. Ask users questions as they interact with your app or software. Yes, this is a time-consuming process, but the knowledge you gain will prevent costly development mistakes that would take up infinitely more time to correct down the road.

Designing a product strategically, using principles of both UX design and behavioral psychology, will dramatically increase your app or software’s chance of success.

Want to learn more about how we integrate UX design and behavioral psychology into app design? Get in touch.


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