It's the behavior, silly: Using Behavior Design to evaluate technologies

It’s 2003. Right before the commercial break, the camera cuts to Ryan Seacrest, who is sporting radiant frosted tips and is sitting by a girl, one of the final 10. She frantically waves to the camera and grins like a maniac. On Seacrest’s hand a cell phone. He energetically explains to the audience how to vote for their favorite using texting. The camera shows a close-up on the phone’s greenish screen as he clicks three times on the “8” button to get to “v”, for “VOTE”.


In 2003 American Idol collaborated with AT&T (then Cingulair) to create a voting system that used text messages. At the time texting had not been adopted except by the younger crowd. The “cut-to-Seacrest” routine described above repeated itself many times. Seacrest taught America to text. This is not an overstatement. A 2008 poll by AT&T shows 22% of respondents cited wanting to vote on American Idol as the reason they learned to text.

How was American Idol able to have such impact? What can we learn from this case study that is applicable to other technologies? This becomes clear if we see this story through the Fogg Behavior Model(FBM). The FBM is a three-part model. For a behavior to occur three elements must be at play: Motivation, Ability and Trigger. Motivation is self- explanatory: what do I expect to gain or avoid by engaging in the behavior? Ability are the aspects of the current context or design that enable –or not– a behavior. Lastly, triggers are reminders, something in the environment that indicates that a behavior should happen now.

The American Idol “vote-by-texting” behavior example can be charted on top of the three elements of the FBM. First, think about the fervor many viewers felt for their favorites. Teenagers, grandmas and tough-looking males would organize viewing parties, get t-shirts and scream like they were possessed if Justin or Kelly advanced to the next round. This is clearly a high-motivation situation: they really (really) want their favorite to win and know that they can influence the result by texting. Next, the six ability factors that the FBM presents are all either intrinsically simple or are made simple by the show. This is a behavior that does not take a long time or cost a lot of money or require great physical effort and one that is socially accepted. The two factors working against it are that –at the moment –the behavior is non-routine and a there is a learning curve to consider. Enter Seacrest. He’ll explain it to the audience enough times so texting becomes a routine task. The last element, triggers or reminder– is more than covered by the show being on multiple times a week for many weeks.

The title of this post presents my biggest aha moment since I graduated from SCAD as a Service Designer and did my thesis on Behavior Design. Which, admittedly, is not too long ago. What surprises me that is that as much as I lived and breathed the idea of Behavior Design during the writing of my thesis, it was thinking about the adoption of new technologies within services that made the FBM model come vibrantly alive.

A more current example of designing for a behavior that involves technology are behaviors that require the adoption of VR. Some experts have started to doubt whether customers will ever care at all about VR because -contrary to its next-big-thing promise– it hasn’t been immediately and widely adopted. They focus on the technology. However, if we run the behavior through the FBM we can see large problem areas on the behavioral side. Let's focus on the social aspect of motivation. The FBM drills down into three kinds of motivation. One of them is a combination of social rejection and social acceptance. People will be more likely to adopt a behavior that avoids the first and increases the later. It is clear that there’s an anti-social aspect of sporting a mask in public. Also, depending on the virtual world the user is stepping into, he might be alone in there too.

Does the finding of hurdles for its adoption mean that VR is a tragically flawed technology and should be put aside? Should we decide that it can only be used by gamers and never by, say, users at a museum, an airport or a supermarket? Not really. Behavior Design can step in and test iterations that intend to make VR more social.

Here’s a funny meme on QR codes, titled “Helpful flow chart”. At the top the flowchart starts: “Should we use a QR code?” The arrow points only to “No”. The next arrow points to a “But what if..?” Yet another arrow bluntly closes the subject. “OMG, no!!” I’ve joined in the snickering about QR Codes. I’ve rolled my eyes and enjoyed being a skeptic. But the fact remains that QR codes have been widely used in much of Asia. And that QR Codes are happily used thousand of times every day in American airports. Could it be that QR codes are a perfectly viable technology that was misused and abysmally implemented by designers in the US? It’s likely. This is one of the thoughts that halted my snickering and changed my attitude.

The attitude designers should adopt is a measured agnosticism about technology and, at the same time, a belief in their own ability to design for behavior involving a new technology. This is not to say that any technology will work. Or that the technology won't need to be adapted. What I'm saying is that it's necessary to be skeptical about it and hold it up against the elements of the behavior needed to use it.

Let’s go back to our texting example. In 2003 a smart behavior designer would have recognized that the public didn’t know of a strong reason (motivation) to abandon phone calls, which it knew how to do, in favor of texting, which it didn’t know how to do. Until, of course, it became the only way you could vote for your favorite American Idol. Our designer would have looked at the ability factors. Is texting really that difficult? No. Does it work as advertised virtually every time? Yes. Is it less time consuming than calling someone up? Potentially. Therefore at that time it would have been smart to assume that texting was neither a failed nor a perfect technology, but that it needed to be designed into a behavior and that an appropriate level of effort had to be invested into motivating, enabling and triggering consumers. Which is what the show, together with AT&T, did.

Behavior Designers and Service Designers need to be agnostic when evaluating using a technology to promote a desired behavior. Three questions are crucial: First, does this technology benefit the user? Second, does it generally perform as promised (it doesn’t fail, doesn’t have a major bug)? And third, is the enterprise willing and able to support the effort behind creating the context in which the behavior is likely to happen? A behavior that uses a technology can require such an investment in communicating how to use it, for example, that implementing it without said investment makes no sense. In that case a designer is justified in discarding it for that behavior.

In a world of such breath-taking technological advances is easy to be dazzled and join the crowd ready to pass judgement and declare winners and losers. My biggest lesson, as of now, is to always remember: “it’s the behavior, silly.”