How Might We Design for Behavior Change?

November 1, 2012

If you talk to people at the Santa Fe Institute, or read any of their books, you'll learn that a key characteristic of a complex system is that the more complex a system is, the more information flows through it. If this is true, then we ought to be thinking more about these information flows when we are designing for behavior change in complex systems.

Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis has studied the relationships between people with respect to their health, and one of the conclusions he has come to is that if you are in a network of obese people, you are three times more likely to be obese yourself. Conversely, if you are in a network of non-obese people, you are three times more likely to not be obese. This is a very important insight for design: that the behavior of those around us significantly affects our behavior. Intuitively we might know this, but we don’t necessarily always think about it when we’re designing systems.

One way to exploit this insight is to put the tools of design themselves into the hands of people in the networks who may be delivering services. For example, at IDEO we've been working for several years with Kaiser Permanente, teaching nurses and doctors and technicians how to use design thinking to improve patient care. Kaiser now has its own consulting group made up of nurses who have become experts at this. They go around to hospitals working on different problems, creating wards and hospitals of the future, and evolving the designs over time as needed.

Another way of thinking about design for information flow in behavior change is to focus on increasing the quality of the information that flows through the network. In other words, if we can increase the amount and quality of information, might we make improved behaviors a more likely outcome? The ‘quantified self movement’ seems to point in this direction. For the moment, much of the attention is on the individual rather than the network. I suspect that as we respond to a more accurate picture of the state of our bodies it will have an effect on those around us. For example, there are weighing scales now that do something very simple: each time you weigh yourself, they send the data to your iPhone. Over time, you can build up a clear picture of the relationship between your behavior and your weight, because you get to see it on a graph. As individuals respond so, Christakis’ work suggests they will affect the behaviors of those immediately around them, increasing the impact. It might be even more interesting if it were easier to see group behavior through some of these new appliances.

For more on behavior change, New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit is well worth a read.

What's inspiring you these days in the world of behavior change?

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)