Integrating UX Design And Psychology To Change User Behavior

As UX practitioners, we try to create the best conditions for users to complete their tasks, and yet even the most usable interface is sometimes not enough to engage users. Why is that?

To understand the reasons behind what drives users to certain behaviors, we need to look at the psychology that underlies the process of initiating and performing a behavior. Only when we understand the broader mechanisms that guide actions will we be able to create usable interfaces and conduct user-specific research.

In this article, we’ll explain from a psychological perspective what drives behavior, and we’ll share three tips on how you can use these insights along with UX best practices to change your users’ behavior.

What Motivates Behavior Change?

Let’s say you want to create a website or app to help people exercise more, but you are not sure how to motivate users.

In psychology, we distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. This means that someone can be driven to do something either by external factors, like the prospect of receiving a reward, such as money, or by internal factors, like the enjoyment derived from doing an activity.

A website or app that encourages people to exercise more might offer a reward whenever a user exercises, thus creating extrinsic motivation for the person to show that behavior. The Pact app runs with this idea by allowing users to earn money by reaching their health goals.

Research has shown that this approach works well for people who do not enjoy the behavior (for example, people who don’t enjoy exercising). However, for people who do enjoy the behavior but would like to improve on it or are not doing it for another reason, giving a reward could actually have a negative effect.

Rewarding someone for an activity they already inherently enjoy might lead to a short-term increase in this behavior, but as soon as the reward is taken away, the activity is often pursued less than before the reward was given. This phenomenon is called the “over-justification effect”, because the existing reason for a person to do something, such as enjoyment of exercise, is suddenly joined by another reason, the external reward.

Because rewards are a powerful way to get people to change behavior in the short term, including them is tempting. The website Freeletics, which promotes high-intensity workouts to increase fitness levels, has a popular workaround for the problem of over-justification. The workouts require a basic level of fitness to be completed; therefore, we can assume that users already get some enjoyment out of exercising (otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have achieved a basic level of fitness).

The website still uses extrinsic rewards in the form of stars for completing workouts, but users receive a star only if they perform all exercises in a workout by exactly following a predefined series of actions. So, the reward in this case is linked to performance; the user has to not merely perform the activity but do it well in order to receive the reward. This type of reward has been shown to be very effective and not as prone to the over-justification effect.

Combining Motivation With Ability And Triggers

Unfortunately, motivation is not always enough to initiate a behavior. You might be highly motivated to go for a bike ride, but you will never convert this motivation into action if you do not have access to a bike.

A useful framework for looking at what enables behavior is BJ Fogg’s behavior model. The model states that, for a specific behavior to occur, three elements have to be present at the same time: motivation, ability and triggers. The model assumes that a behavior is most likely to happen when a person feels sufficiently motivated, is able to perform the behavior (for example, they want to go for a ride and they have access to a bike) and is reminded to perform it by a trigger.
A trigger can take various forms, such as a notification that reminds the person to go for a bike ride or a visual cue, like a bike helmet lying around. The model, as shown in the graph below, stipulates that triggers work effectively only if the person’s levels of motivation and ability are sufficiently high. Simply reminding someone to go for a bike ride, even if they know how to bike ride and have access to a bike (i.e. their ability is high), will not be effective if it is pouring rain outside and the person has no or very little motivation to do it.
BJ Fogg Behavior Model - Triggers & Motivation

Source: BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model

Tips On Changing User Behavior

While this sounds like a compelling model for a website or app, simply ensuring that the three components are present might not be enough to create a persuasive interface that encourages behavior change. As we have seen, a user can be motivated in several ways, and what motivates one group (for example, earning money for working out) could have a detrimental effect on another group.

Similarly, ability level likely varies between users, and some might prefer certain triggers to others. To design a successful product, you will need to tailor the three components of the model to your users and thoroughly understand your target audience. The following three tips describe how you can achieve this.

Map Your Users’ Motivations

A psychologist, like any health professional, will always learn about their client before giving any advice. Similarly, if we want to provide a solution for users to change their behavior, we first have to understand where they are coming from and what motivates them to change their behavior. This goes beyond asking about simple demographics like age, area code and gender. Why do they want to change their behavior now and not tomorrow? What have they tried before, and what has worked for them? Are they motivated by extrinsic or intrinsic factors? Only by gaining a deeper understanding of our users and how they will interact with our product will we be able to create an interface that is usable and delivers value.

Customer experience maps, personas and user journeys are useful tools for capturing these insights, and they serve as a great reference throughout the UX and design process. While these maps can help you to identify the motivational component in Fogg’s model, they could also give you hints about your users’ ability levels and effective triggers.

Assess Ability and Lower Barriers

Before launching or revamping a product, answer the following questions. Where will your users most likely be when they use your product? What tasks will they most commonly perform? What mistakes or frustrations might they encounter? How do they feel about their capacity and skills? The answers to these questions will point to the requirements that your interface and product will have to meet.

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About Maida
She is Zipsite's all around Zipsiter. Only clocks out when she can barely stand. She sings, bakes, and tries so hard to be fit. But don't judge, she can literally strong arm you no problem. She's currently involved with eCorp, Contrib and VNOC, besides being a Brazilian Jiu Jit Su practitioner.

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