The A-B-C of Behaviour

Changing behaviour through good design, one step at a time.

ABC of Behaviour

We all seem to be talking about changing behaviour through good design…but changing behaviour is actually really hard.  Working as a psychologist in a detox unit at the start of my career has admittedly shaped my view of what it takes to change someone’s behaviour; and whilst I learnt it certainly isn’t impossible, it often takes time. Combine this with the fact that most human behaviour is not considered to be overly planned, with ‘conscious thought’ playing, at best, a small role in shaping our choices…things start to become a little tricky for us as designers.  So how do we start to make sense of what influences someone to change their behaviour, given we are often charged with creating designs that are ultimately intended to encourage, if not drive, some form of behaviour change?

Behaviour Change, One Step at a Time(r)

An egg timer – the catalyst of change

An egg timer – the catalyst of change

Can you recall when you last changed your behaviour and maintained that change for an extended period of time?  The last time I can recall was triggered a few years ago when I received a four minute egg timer in the post.  Our state was then in the height of a drought, and a local government agency (Melbourne Water) had sent the egg-timer out to encourage sustainable water use.

When I first opened the envelope I promptly put it next to our bathroom sink in the hope it would make my young children brush their teeth longer than their current ten second swill.  Not surprisingly, it didn’t.  So it sat near the sink for several months until one day I looked at it and thought, how about I actually put this in the shower…”.

Almost immediately some things happened.  Firstly I had to learn to shower within the four minutes it allowed.  This took a surprising amount of time and effort.  However, once I had mastered that, I felt incredibly guilty if I stayed in the shower for any longer than the time it allowed, and so was compelled to the timer. (Now, for the few rare times I am under the shower for longer than four minutes, I have a mental bank of time in credit so I can justify the extravagance.)

What’s fascinating is that while it took a while for the device to find its way to the intended context, once it was there the initiative to change was almost immediate, and the result easy to maintain.  The presence of such a small thing, positioned in the right context, made such a huge impact on my behaviour.

Why It Matters to Designers

Design has always facilitated change in behaviour, especially in the area of technology, but it seems lately that design for behaviour change is in the forefront of people’s awareness.  Part of the challenge is understanding what actually influences someone to change their behaviour in the first place.

As experience design researchers we quite often focus on what people do, and why they do it, so we can incrementally design better products, services and systems to ultimately improve the customer perception of a client’s brand.  However, one of the most important things we need to be mindful of when designing for behaviour change is that we must also focus on the ‘future’ view of how we want people to behave with what we create.  We need to consider the end-state behaviour ideals that we are aiming for when we are designing.

As Henry Ford says, “if I had have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”: people can’t project beyond their current experience to meet a future need.  That’s the designer’s job.  The following models of behaviour change are useful to consider when working on projects.

The A B C of behaviour

The most basic tenet of behavioural analysis is to view behaviours as a function of a person and their environment.  That is, something happens to precede behaviour (the antecedent) which in effect causes or influences the behaviour, resulting in a consequence.  We can’t change a person, but we can influence the way they behave by shaping the environment they function within.

The ABC of Behaviour – Anticedent, Behaviour, Consequences


What this model shows us is we can shape behaviour, and generally the easiest way to do this is through some form of positive reinforcement or removal of a negative.

As designers, the important part of this basic model when applied to behavioural observations is that your design is the positive reinforcer, or the negative affect; meaning the behaviour you are observing is quite often a direct result of your design.

This shows us through good design we have the ability to shape and influence someone’s behaviour. (Unfortunately this is true for bad design too!)

We can’t change a person, but we can influence the way they behave by shaping the environment they function within … through good design we have the ability to shape and influence someone’s behaviour.

The Theory of Planned Behaviour

The Theory of Planned Behaviour, proposed by Icek Ajzen, (and a modification of Ajzen & Fishbern’s earlier model called the Theory of Reasoned Action) explains the link between attitudes and behaviours; it essentially proposes a model for how human action is guided.  Today, it is thought to be one of the most predictive persuasion theories.

The Theory of Planned Behaviour by Icek Ajzen

The Theory of Planned Behaviour by Icek Ajzen

The model highlights what influences a persons decisions, and attempts to reveal why we might make certain choices. The model suggests that in order to predict whether a person intends to do something, we need to know:

  • Whether the person is in favour of doing it (attitude);
  • How much the person feels social pressure to do it (subjective norm);
  • Whether the person feels in control of the action in question (perceived behavioural control).

Without going too deeply into the cognitive side of things, it’s important to keep in mind that behaviour is often not intentional or controlled at all.   With conscious thought believed to play a small role in the decision making process.

Nevertheless, we need to keep this model in mind, because if we can understand the attitudes of customers and what influences the choices they make, we are better able to use this information to design solutions that will resonate with their belief system, and ultimately, have a greater chance of influencing them to change their behaviours.

The Stages of Change Model

Another useful model is the Stages of Change Model proposed by Prochaska & DiClemente, which is arguably one of the most dominant models of health behaviour change.  This model outlines several steps in the behavioural change process, and assists to gauge an individual’s readiness to act on a new healthier behavior, and provides strategies or processes of change to assist someone move through the stages of change toward action and long-term maintenance (i.e., sustained change).

The model broadly suggests that people can cycle in and out, and around several times before sustained change is realised, then maintained for the long term.

Stages of Change Model by Prochaska & DiClemente

Stages of Change Model by Prochaska & DiClemente

The stages in the change cycle are broadly noted to be:

  • Pre-contemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation or determination
  • Action
  • Maintenance
  • Termination (100% self efficacy)
  • Relapse (cycle back to an earlier stage).

Taken together, the models can help us as designers understand how people might make certain choices (Theory of Planned Behaviour), and consider ‘where’ in the cycle of change an individual may be (Stages of Change Model), in order to assist them move through these stages toward a new behaviour.

The Models in Real Life

The Models can be tied back to my egg timer experience. An environmental trigger (the water crisis) was accompanied by social norms of the time around saving water in Melbourne, so my senses were highly attuned to this and my motivation to comply was high.  I thought I was incredibly conscious of the amount of water I was using, however, the real game changer was the arrival of the egg timer in the post; this tool forced me to see how long I actually took when I was in the shower.

Applying the models to my situation of behaviour change

Applying the models to my situation of behaviour change

Once this tool was placed in the correct context I observed a dramatic change in my water conserving habits, so clearly I was ready for ‘action’, according to the Stages of Change model.  What is more, internalisation of this behaviour has resulted, and behaviour change has been maintained across a substantial period of time.

So looking at basic behavioural analysis – or the ABC of my behaviour – the tool was the Antecedent, and the Consequence was that I felt better about having a shorter shower and saving water…less guilt if you like.  So the result was that I adjusted my behaviour to shower in less time, and quite rapidly too.

What else can influence behaviour change?


Don’t Forget Rules …

Melbourne Bike Service

Melbourne Bike Service

Rules undoubtedly affect mass behaviour change.  However, the change they make may not always be what is expected.


One example comes from Melbourne’s new bike share service – and the problems caused by the government’s laws requiring users to have and wear a helmet while using it. From a behavioural perspective, how about considering the behaviour the government were hoping to change with the introduction of helmet laws in the 1990’s, and how it’s fared?

Helmets laws were first introduced as a way to assist lower the level of head injuries sustained by cyclists.  And as with many behaviour change initiatives, we are now – some time down the track – in a position to assess if the laws assisted, by comparing injury rates before and after the laws were introduced.

Graphs of cyclist hospital injuries in Victoria with and without head injuries (1995) show that while head injuries were reduced, so were non-head injuries – so perhaps all they did is reduce the number of cyclists?  If anything, the peaks and troughs show that seasonal variation (i.e., winter), appears to have had the greatest impact of all, and that helmet laws have done little, if anything, to improve safety.

Cyclists hospital admissions in Victoria with and without head injuries

Cyclists hospital admissions in Victoria with and without head injuries

Today we want to design services and provide infrastructure that encourages use of bikes, and unfortunately, when we reflect on it from a behaviour change perspective, having to wear helmets appears to have caused a decline in the number of cyclists.

The assumption that all cyclists would adopt helmets because it was the law appears to have caused behaviours within the wider population that were very different from those initially expected.

… Or Fun!

Children understand fun

Fun – children understand it!

But what if there are no rules (the world most of us work within)?

It is possible to change someone’s behaviour, particularly through fun.


Ralph Koster’s book A Theory of Fun for Game Design (2004) looks into the meaning and significance of fun. He suggests that fun is the element of life that is enjoyable and frees us from the normal stresses of the everyday – and also the means by which we retrain our brain to learn new patterns of behaviour.

Fun is the means by which we retrain our brain to learn new patterns of behaviour.

The explosion of games and apps on mobile phones show that games present a real opportunity to change people’s behaviours and habits. Examples include Frog’s Tempt’d (resisting the temptation of unhealthy eating through leaning on your social network as DesignMind explains), and Runkeeper (a way to track, measure and improve your workouts).  I’ve also heard of great ideas for encouraging people to save money, water and energy  through a game-like applications.  Watch this space! The game explosion and their application for driving positive behaviour change is going to intensify.

Design for Behaviour Change? Yes We Can.

So, we can change behaviour through design of products, services and systems, and the best way to do this is to first consider the customers culture and context, before we even start on ideas.

However, if we hope to design behavioural change, we’ll need to focus beyond what is happening right now.  One way to ensure we are looking ahead is to be mindful of the behaviour we want to observe in the future. Set behavioural goals, just as you would set design goals, and let this guide your strategy and design process.

Here are a few takeaways to consider when you are designing solutions that need to drive behaviour change.

  1. Define the desired behaviour change you want to observe;
  2. Feed this into the business strategy and design process, let it guide these processes;
  3. Define your target audience, then go a bit outside the norm.  You often learn more from those who don’t meet your assumed or expected specifications;
  4. Conduct research and understand the behavioural predictors of the population (attitudes, norms, control, stages of change).  Qualitative and quantitative data is needed here;
  5. Monitor, measure and modify.  Remember, changing a behaviour can take time, so let’s be patient!



Image Credits:

  • Egg timer in shower –  Source: Jannygirl on Flickr.
  • ABC blocks, Change Model and Theory of Planned Behaviour Model courtesy of Symplicit.
  • Melbourne Bike Share System – Source: Mikael Colville-Andersen on Flickr.
  • Head injuries [graph] – Source: D. Carr, M. Skalova & M.H. Cameron (1995).
  • Girl – Source: Crackpotstudio on Flickr. © Royalty-Free/Corbis.

Jodie Moule

Jodie Moule is Co-founder & Director of Symplicit, an experience design consultancy based in Australia, that focuses on research, strategy and design services. Her background as a Psychologist means understanding human behaviour is a core philosophy; and she has a passion for helping clients to see their brands through the eyes of their customers. She is also interested in how to combine this understanding of human behaviour with good design thinking, to influence the way businesses approach the design of their products, systems and processes. You can check out Symplicit at, find Jodie on Twitter as @jodiemoule or follow the team @symplicit.

25 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention » The A-B-C of Behaviour Johnny Holland – It's all about interaction » Blog Archive --

  2. Vicky Teinaki on

    Some great notes! A few other people I know of doing interesting stuff in this area are Dan Lockton with his Design for Intent and Jane McGonigal

    In terms of apps, I’m a huge fan of – a site that encourages you to write everyday with the trigger of a daily email, badges, and stat to the eyeballs on what you’ve written.

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  5. Jodie – a really interesting article, thanks. It got me thinking.

    Your final part on games promoting behavioral change made me think of cognitive artifacts and how successful they are at changing behaviors. Games can change the nature of the task, allowing you to complete your goal as a consequence of another behavior. For example, getting fit is difficult and cognitively intense – the stress, the guilt, the effort. However, change getting fit into keeping track of your distances, sharing with friends and beating your best — it become less cognitively intense and enjoyable. You use Runkeeper (the cognitive artifact) and become fit as a consequence.

    Another example, is a shopping list. This presents people with the much simpler task of writing down items to buy and bringing the list to the store. This is much easier than remembering all the items you need to buy. Now, the wanted behavior is not the main aim, it’s superseeded by something more achievable (just bringing the list), and becomes a consequence.

    I think your egg timer in the shower acted as a cognitive artifact as well. Instead of timing yourself each time you went into the shower, you simply stayed in until the timer ran out. This was no doubt a lot easier. Your behavior changed as a result.

    Thanks for getting my brain ticking,


  6. Pingback: Understanding and influencing behavioural change « Jen's UX blog

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  8. Hi all

    Firstly, thank you all for reading and contributing to some great discussions around this topic, it was nice to see that the topic struck such a chord. It is certainly something that I am very passionate about.

    *Vicky* thanks for the links and comments, and since I wrote this article I found a few more game / apps that might be of interest…

    ‘Chore wars’, a way to compete for ‘experience points’ by doing household chores – so even the the mundane becomes fun ( see

    And this – – a game that focuses on teaching children how to be kind to others (by Jane McGonigal). I love the reference of “…benevolent assassin.” Fantastic!

    I guess we already know that games have the ability to engage players with immense strength, so translating this focus into the real-world for the greater good is not only logical, it’s a great idea.

    *Fraser* ‘Chore wars’ made me think of your shopping list example, and was interested how you interpreted this in light of your ‘cognitive artifacts’ comment. Be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks again everyone!


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  11. HI Jodie
    Loved your article. One of the other models I particularly like is BJ Fogg’s, behaviour change matrix I find it really useful for identifying stages and types of behaviour to change, i.e. whether it’s a persistent behaviour, new behaviour or a change required for a limited period of time…

  12. Hi Harriet – pleased you enjoyed it!

    I have seen B J Fogg’s model and I really like it, he does some great work. I also think his model fits very well to Azjen’s model (Theory of Planned Behaviour). The model is reinforced even by my humble egg timer example. In that example, my ‘motivation’ and ‘ability’ to save water were high; however, the real ‘trigger’ for change was getting the egg timer in the post.

    The only thing I feel the ‘Stages of Change’ model offers that Fogg’s model doesn’t showcase in great detail, is understanding ‘where in the cycle of change’ a person might be located. This is useful as it provides an understanding for how ‘ready’ someone is to initiate, action and then maintain change.

    Great link and resource though – nice quick way to sense-check ‘what could be missing’ – helping to identify factors preventing a change from occurring.

    Any other models people have stumbled upon?

    Be interested in reviewing what others are looking at, and referring to, in this space.


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  14. Re your data on helmets.
    This has probably been looked at in detail by somebody, but I don’t know why you would infer that wearing helmets reduced the number of cyclists. Maybe wearing a helmet makes everyone safety-conscious to a greater extent, and thus reduces the number of all injuries.

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  18. hi all,

    Craig – thanks for your comment and so sorry for delay in response – just getting back to you on it now.

    The issue of whether helmets have in-fact reduced the number of injuries since their introduction, or just reduced the number of cyclists, is a pretty hot topic at the moment in Australia; especially with the introduction of the bike share systems that are in place in Melbourne (…and I think planned for Sydney too).

    I personally believe that the need to wear a helmet for casual biking has turned people off riding a bike. This is my personal opinion mind you – but the data I showcased appears to support that hypothesis.

    My thoughts are that the need to use helmets for casual biking is turning many people off using the bike-share system in Melbourne – one of the main issues is that no one carries a helmet around, so it is a real barrier to use. There are other issues I see around wearing helmets that are largely superficial, but I think they also impact.

    Why do think this way?

    I look to several places in Europe that don’t have these type of laws around helmets, yet have high use of bikes in urban spaces, and low incidence of injury.

    The case for reconsideration of helmet laws in Australia for specific types of bike use is a a strong one I believe.

    Interested in others thoughts out there…


  19. Via Amy Jo Kim I came across this fascinating article. Reminds me of the Quantified Self group to which i belong. It is a fast-growing movement that might interest you… was covered in On the Media on NPR this past weekend.

    Also related books that seem to complement the ideas here are Nudge, Sway, Tell to Win (on purposeful narrative) and Paradox of Choice. As a former WSJ journalist who’s had a long-time passionate interest in why we do what we do and how places affect us – including storyboarding a place or event to alter behavior I am delighted to find this nugget of a community.

  20. Hi Kare

    So pleased you enjoyed the article, have to say, I am thrilled that it is still getting people thinking and encouraging discussion.

    I will look for the Quantified Self Group you mention, it sounds interesting; any links are most welcome too. And funny you mention ‘nudge’, I got it recently and am reading it at the moment; very much the same ball-park.

    Thanks again for your comments.


  21. Really great article, thanks Johnny.

  22. frank on

    A wonderfully insightful article. This is giving me more reason to complete a Grad Dip in Psychology this year.

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