How I used behavioural design to save myself from me

Hi, I’m a product designer and I had a problem — my cholesterol was too high. It was so high my doctor wanted to put me on medication. But I was young(ish) and I managed to convince him that I could change my lifestyle and reduce my cholesterol level on my own. He believed in me.

“You’re fat on the inside” — my wife, Jo

I was in a good position. Yes I had a major health concern, but it’s my job to design experiences that change people’s behaviour. I had access to research, experimentation and a backlog of ideas. I also knew me. And, apart from comments like the one above, I had good support at home.

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved since then and, given my professional calling, how I achieved it. Here are 4 key research insights (from the research team at Tictrac) and the intervention I designed using them to save myself from me.

Insight #1: Restricting your diet makes you feel down but doing exercise makes you feel good

A lot of research suggests that helping someone make diet changes can have the biggest impact on their health.

But when you consider the human at the centre of your intervention it becomes clear that doing exercise is far more emotionally rewarding than starting a restrictive diet. I needed small and fun diet changes to keep me on track but I would rely on a new exercise routine to build my confidence in the first few months.

My core design hypothesis was born: If I focus on exercise rather than diet changes then the reward of feeling good after exercise will make me more likely to stick with the changes than the punishment of feeling like I’m restricting myself.

No matter how small, I did still need to make some diet changes though.

Insight #2: It’s easier to change existing habits than add new ones

This is behaviour change 101. Adding new behaviours to your routine takes a lot of effort and is very fragile. A better approach is to start with an existing habit and change an aspect of it or associate a new behaviour with it. For example, I always buy lunch from somewhere near the office so it’s likely I will be more successful if I restrict where I go rather than start trying to bring lunch in from home.

For inspiration, I scoured blog posts and forums and built up a plan of specific food and behaviour swaps that were relevant to my lifestyle. I turned each of them into a promise I made to myself.

Ok, now it’s time to find that new exercise routine.

Insight #3: Reward yourself for both short term effort and long term outcomes

After thinking about this for a while I realised that the ultimate long term reward could be achieving a dream. So what did I dream of wanting to be good at? Lifting weights? Running marathons? Ha, no.

I started racing BMX bikes when I was five years old

Cycling — of course, cycling. Why hadn’t I realised this sooner? I’ve always loved cycling. All those wasted gym memberships and MacBook size running backpacks. It all fell into place: I would find a spin class, near my office, that I could do at lunch time.

Ok, achieving my dream of being a decent amateur cyclist would keep me motivated over the long term but our research told me that I also needed smaller frequent rewards for regular effort.

I learnt how to measure progress as I went and rewarded myself each time I achieved my target:

But was it all making a difference?

Insight #4: Self-monitoring needs to be zero effort

Research tells us that self-monitoring with regular feedback can be a successful behaviour change technique. But I know me. I stopped using my Fitbit because I forgot to charge it. I needed a way of monitoring my progress that was ultra low effort. Like non-existent effort. Zero effort.

Monitoring my cholesterol would be too invasive, and not regular enough to be motivating. Weight would be a good indicator, plus I already had some magic wifi bathroom scales (for work, obviously). But weight is also a mid- to long-term outcome. I believed I could find a metric that would help me monitor progress and that would be regular enough to keep me accountable for my behaviour.

I arranged an ideation session. And the Zero prototype was born.

All I had to do was stand on the scales every morning (adding a behaviour to my existing daily teeth brushing habit — see insight #2) and I would receive an email with my calorie excess/deficit for the previous day.

No logging food, no tracking exercise — just stand on the scales and get my calorie difference. If it’s zero or below then it means I’ve burned more calories that day than I’ve consumed — I will lose weight if I keep up this behaviour.

And if it’s zero or below at the end of each week then I get a 🙌 — I’ve lost weight!

In 1 year and 9 months I lost 14 kg. My cholesterol is under control. I still use Zero every day. And I’m still motivated by the reward of achieving my dream.

I saved myself from me.

If you’re a designer and find this inspiring then I’m looking for someone just like you to join the design team at Tictrac. Check out our open design roles at

As me, I need was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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