Lately I’ve been receiving some questions about the ethics of behavioral design. “If you understand how the mind works, isn’t it a bit manipulative to use that in your design? Is it wrong?”

Yeah, well, sort of. Sometimes. It’s not that black and white. As a behavioral design and gamification consultant, I’m constantly updating my views on what’s appropriate, so as a disclaimer, this article just represents where I stand currently. I’m not trying to present the end-all-be-all behavioral design ethics manifesto here. Instead, I hope that this article is a stepping stone for an important conversation that needs to be had, so please let me and other readers know any thoughts that you may have on the issue. I’ll likely do a follow-up based on some of the comments that I receive.

Behavioral design is about a product to encourage its users to act in a certain way. Though I generally approach it through the lens of behavioral science research, it doesn’t necessarily need to be so scientific. Creating a path of least resistance, for example, is a great way to affect behavior, and traditional UX designers just call it usability. It doesn’t always intentionally use behavioral science, but it always comes with the designer thinking that what they do will affect behavior in some way.

And before I go too far into the ethics of it all, I want to touch on its efficacy. Humans are not machines, and no sane behavioral scientist would say they could just program the advanced wetware we have between our ears. If we could, we’d be way richer, and possibly in jail. We can and guide behavior in a general direction, but we can’t do mind control.

It’s still scary though

Despite the limitations of behavioral design, it can still make you act significantly differently and it has some worrisome possibilities. Most of the field, regrettably, is focused on how to create habitual use, and if that’s the direction that app design in general goes, then it’s only a matter of time before we’re a society of technical zombies. Some would argue that we’re already there.

The freakier thing is that it’s not even that hard to design for habitual use. It’s just a matter of setting up a loop for a cue, routine, and reward. If you want to get a little fancier with it, you can add in a little bit of investment at the end that requires future attention, like posting a Facebook status and coming back to check the notifications later. Of course, there is some nuance to doing this right, but the general framework is straightforward.

The user’s wellbeing is the priority here

The rule of thumb that I use is that if I’m going to recommend or implement a feature meant to influence users, it should be for the benefit of the user’s wellbeing. Not the user’s experience, but the user’s wellbeing. Now, there’s some ambiguity there, and that’s intentional. This is not a black and white issue, so I want to leave ample room for discussion. You can’t just make a list of behavioral design techniques to never be used because you need to also consider the goals of the company and the user.

Most social media companies (Facebook, Instagram, Youtube…) design their services to be extremely engaging, and their UX is, by all means, successful. They do this because their primary business concern is making money through advertising, and the more they can get you to use social media, the better. However, the majority of people who overuse Facebook wouldn’t say that it’s because they want to, it’s just become a habit. On top of that, social media overuse, when it comes in the form of passive content consumption rather than active connection promotion, can lead to all sorts of problems for your mental wellbeing. In light of this, you could reasonably call their UX ethically questionable, even if it is successful.

On the flip side, let’s say that there is a financial savings app that the user pays for, so both the company and the user’s highest priority is to have a great app for increasing your savings. For the sake of the example, let’s imagine that the same engagement techniques used on Facebook work on this, and it encourages you to think critically a few times per day about how you spend your money. As far as I’m concerned, something like that is fair game.

But why do we need to use behavioral design at all? Well, there’s this pesky thing called the intention-behavior gap, which is just a fancy way of saying that we don’t always have the self-control to go on diets, be more productive, work out, etc. like we want to. If an app is trying to enable you to close that gap like in the savings example, then behavioral design is necessary.

And to be clear, I’m not saying that anything that makes money on advertising instead of the user is going to have inherently unethical design. However, if their goal is to increase engagement to increase advertising revenue, then the question becomes whether that increased engagement is good for the user.

So what can you do?

Good behavioral design practice, in my humble opinion, should come with two questions attached: If this technique successfully accomplishes its goal, is the user made better off for it, and is it improving the value of the product for the user?

This is why I’m not a fan of how behavioral design as it’s commonly practiced is mainly about creating habitual use. Unless people explicitly want to be using an app habitually, then that sort of design leads to more use while skipping the process of adding real value to the user.

Behavioral design can be better. A designer can look at Self-Determination Theory as I’ve done in my articles on Kindle and Headspace to understand more clearly what sorts of features would satisfy inherent needs for users, influencing them to increase app usage organically. A designer can recognize that the best user experience comes from users acting a certain way and then set up the design to create a UX centered around encouraging those behaviors, like The League does. Most importantly, a designer can and should prioritize the user’s wellbeing.

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