Designing for Behavior Change: UX and Psychological Perspectives

Envisioning New Horizons

A critical look at UX design practice

A column by Silvia Podesta
November 6, 2023

The surge of enthusiasm for behavioral design in recent years should come as no surprise. In recent years, as most nations struggle with disproportionate societal and environmental vulnerabilities, the focus of governments and policymakers has turned to how to encourage people to adopt new habits, for both the individual and the collective good.

This matter implies a questioning of entrenched lifestyles and modes of existence that have come to define our identity—as citizens, consumers, and digital users. It’s a prickly issue for the discipline of User Experience as well.

User experience and human behavior are, by necessity, intertwined. Historically, the job of designing for the digital realm has been one of prodding users to take desired actions. Arguably, the best conduit for achieving that is a great user experience!

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What is staggering, though, is that the human behaviors that good UX design is supposed to facilitate or encourage are, in many cases, actually contributing to unsustainable, unhealthy, or unfair practices.

Take online shopping, for example, with its huge material, environmental, and social implications. Or how about other seemingly innocuous user-experience enhancers in the products and services we use every day—from virtually trying on of a flaming new lipstick to the photo-editing tools on social media? It’s so easy to forget that all these popular digital tools require significant computing power, energy, and resources to function, with significant costs in terms of carbon emissions. On another front, the tragedy of online gambling forces a specific reckoning on how the well-designed user experiences of popular gaming platforms feed their users’ addiction.

This concern is not new. In a 2010 article for HBR, “User-Centered Innovation Is Not Sustainable,” Professor Roberto Verganti, author of the best-selling book Design-Driven Innovation, decried the perils of the user-centered innovation mantra, which was coming into prominence in business and design back then. He argued that, if we were to look at our world today, few would agree that sustainability, equality, and mental well-being are, in his words “embedded in the anthropology of our existing culture, society, and economy.”

It seems, in fact, that the last two decades of digital innovation have unwittingly sleepwalked us into systems whose premises are inherently at odds with contemporary manifestos for a better society and a cleaner planet.

So UX design—and business, at large—may have a fresh dilemma to endure and solve.

The questions and problems that we have been addressing so far still hold true: What can technology afford? How can technology enable human action and help people enhance their capabilities? How can we use technology to meet human needs and ends? It has now become very important to reconsider and reprioritize the nature of the human needs that we must satisfy.

Of course, this is not a job for UX designers alone. It also calls for policymakers, businesses, and public institutions to make a concerted effort to rethink a big portion of the way in which we live. What designers specifically need to figure out is this: how can we navigate the dilemma of balancing our duty to provide great experiences with the mandate to act ethically—and coax our audiences to adopt more responsible, positive habits?

Common Design Patterns for Behavioral Change: Do They Work?

Not surprisingly, the aforementioned dilemma has already been explored online. We have already seen common UX design tropes for behavior change be incorporated into digital experiences. Let’s consider a few of these now.

Limitation of Agency

One interesting example is the Web site for the School of Critical Design, which unceremoniously shuts off its content at night. The site encourages users to abide by their circadian cycles and check back during the daytime.

“It’s late… Nothing we can offer you is more important than your sleep. Sleep well, sweet dreams, and we will catch you in the morning.”

The patronizing tone aside, this is an example of a user experience in which the digital user interface limits the agentive power of the user. In the same vein, a feature of Android 14 automatically lowers headphone volume to prevent ear damage after some time of sustained listening. In both situations, the desired behavior is forced upon the user, who is left to deal with the consequences of the designers’ user-interface decisions. Although, in the latter example, users can at least choose whether to accept the system’s change or adjust the volume back to the desired level, in the first case there is nothing the user can do but wait until the content becomes available again in the morning.

These are definitely strong ways of eliciting desired behaviors that might not go down well with all users—some of whom might resent the limitation of their personal choice.

Awareness Generation

Another approach to behavioral change that is common online is awareness generation, usually through content design. The eco-conscious Web trend definitely goes in this direction. Many Web sites are being very explicit about the sustainability rationale underpinning their Web design and development choices. As shown in Figure 1, Formafantasma’s home page provides an example.

Figure 1—Formafantasma’s home page
Formafantasma's home page

Sustainably designed Web sites and CO2 calculators for Web sites are becoming endemic and offer the indisputable merit of kicking off an important conversation with their audience.

When sites confront users with the ecological footprint of their online activities, they can become more conscious of the impacts of their behaviors and opt for behaviors that are less taxing on the environment. For instance, Organic Basics eshop chooses to make product photos available only on request to minimize any unnecessary data processing. The site definitely providing an unusual ecommerce experience.

Because these initiatives have an impact on the final user experience, they can be effective means of communication and definitely could cause a stir. However, whether they are really able to persuade users to curtail the time they spend online remains to be seen.

Social Proof

Although, in a sense, the social-proof approach also falls under the awareness-generation pattern, I think it deserves a place of its own. Social proof is, indeed, one of the most powerful drivers of action in human beings, stemming from the ancestral need to be accepted as part of the group. The deinfluencers trend is a great example of social-proofing that some have applied to the big theme of sustainability. For example, platforms are rife with personalities who teach us how to buy fewer clothes by “maximizing our wardrobe” or to shop for sustainability-conscious products.

A problem here is: because Web sites deliver these messages through the usual, addictive patterns of social media—such as scarcity or visual appeal—their real effect is to cause us to emulate their wardrobes and lifestyles and, thus, buy even more clothes and products than we would if we simply decided not to follow them. (Not by coincidence, these creators make a living off sales.) There are better ways of using social proof, which I’ll explain later.

Psychological Elements to Consider When Designing for Change

What other levers are at our disposal for designing experiences that prompt people to reflect on important themes and, at the same, time enable positive change?


My first advice would be to foster user participation in the definition of new, desired habits. For example, cocreative approaches have had promising results in designing experiences to combat the harmful behaviors of online gamblers. Research in the field of public health suggests that, when people are more involved in developing a particular change scenario, the acceptance and uptake of the related interventions increase.

Giving Users Time to Think

It is very important to understand users’ perspectives on change scenarios and how these perspectives can evolve when we give users the time to explore topics and deepen their thinking about them. In a project by design-research agency STBY, participants had the chance to discuss new mobility services over multiple interviews. This helped them form a better understanding of their own hopes and fears around this subject, which in turn led to more substantial insights for the research team.

The takeaway is that, while understanding users’ needs is crucial when designing for behavior change, users may need more time to structure their thinking around a particular topic—particularly when it comes to devising future scenarios.

Helping Users See the Future

Connecting the idea of visually rendering change to the previous point makes it more understandable. Speculative design studio Superflux has made a name for itself by doing just this: using design to help citizens come to terms with and accept plausible futures, which is particularly necessary when these futures are potentially negative. The visual artifacts and mesmerizing installations for which Superflux has become famous for are just one way of getting people to take in the implications of their actions on the environment and our society. Humans are visual animals, so having a tangible sense of what our future life could be, if we were we to embrace something new, could massively influence our decision to accept them and create change.

Making Change Feel Cool and Be Socially Enjoyable

My final point is about acknowledging the cost of embracing change. Human beings are reluctant to change their existing habits—unless there’s a reward for doing so or the existing behavior stops being enjoyable or socially acceptable.

This argument is particularly hot among climate experts. In his newsletter, author Spencer Scott argues, “If the climate emergency framework only brings you unhappiness or social isolation, it will wither.”

There’s also a huge psychological block in connection with the fear of being the first mover when one’s social circle is not ready to follow. For example, if someone wants to reject excessive consumerism and starts buying fewer clothes, but the rest of their community doesn’t follow suit, chances are that this person is going to face some social consequences. Others might question or judge this person’s decision because they look less cool or are not enjoying life enough.

Better persuasion strategies could hinge upon our ability to create the following:

  • new mental frameworks that positively reinforce calls to action for change
  • a sense of connection between the individual and an ample community of peers in which the new behavior is rewarded

The key to making users heed any plea for change lies in making new behaviors aspirational. 

Innovation Designer at IBM

Copenhagen, Denmark

Silvia PodestaAs a strategic designer and UX specialist at IBM, Silvia helps enterprises pursue human-centered innovation by leveraging new technologis and creating compelling user experiences. Silvia facilitates research, synthesizes product insights, and designs minimum-viable products (MVPs) that capture the potential of our technologies in addressing both user and business needs. Silvia is a passionate, independent UX researcher who focuses on the topics of digital humanism, change management, and service design.  Read More

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