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Design

Behavioural design: a new approach to tackling social issues

updated
February 22, 2021
Published on:
September 24, 2014
January 5, 2021

Behavioural design: a new approach to tackling social issues

By Edward Gardiner

Edwardgardiner

The leading causes of death in the world are non-communicable diseases. There is strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring. UK households are among the most in debt in the world.

All of these issues have one thing in common.

Us.

We smoke. We eat too much sugar. We drive everywhere. We leave the heating on and the windows open. We spend beyond our means. We drink to excess. The list goes on.

The biggest issues in society, from obesity to climate change, are due to behavioural and lifestyle risk factors we embrace on a daily basis.  

So if we know this, why do we not eat more fruit and veg? Why do we sign up to the gym but never go? Why do we eat out when we can’t pay the bills?

More importantly, how can we design ways to guide and support people in realising their intentions? How can we create a social movement for healthy eating or make a game of saving energy?

These questions are at the heart of the Behavioural Design Lab, an initiative from Warwick Business School and the Design Council uniting behavioural science with design-thinking.

We’re here to help all sectors transform a better understanding of behaviour into innovative ideas that improve society.

Behavioural science is broadly the study of human behaviour, seeking to understand human choices and wellbeing by drawing on insights and experimental methods from psychology and economics.

Design-thinking is a creative approach to problem solving, taking a people-centred approach to quickly develop ideas through an iterative process of testing and refinement.

Together, they are the building blocks of innovation.

Shaking things up

The common assumption is that people who make poor choices have made an active decision to do so. Intention is computed from action and the conclusion is people are either unable or unwilling to change. The default solutions focus on information, skills or incentives.

Each of these has their place, but for too long organisations have relied on the outdated view that people are governed by a rational self-interest, weighing up every decision like a High Court judge.

History is full of programmes with a firm rationale but minimal impact.

In reality, we often make decisions intuitively, effortlessly and with little conscious awareness, leading to behaviours that may sometimes appear self-defeating. Information alone is not enough to change behaviour.

To tackle issues such as obesity or climate change, not only do we need to research how and why people actually make decisions, but use the design of products, services and places to help us all make better decisions.

Our approach

Behavioural design combines creative problem-solving with scientific experiments to encourage wide exploration narrowed by rigorous testing. Our approach falls into four stages:

1. Discover the problem
Social issues are complex. Even when the goal is clear, the problem is often ill-defined and uncertain. We embrace this uncertainty by focusing on the people involved. Observational methods are used to describe the needs, wants and behaviours at the root of an issue.

2. Define the cause
Once we know ‘what’, we can understand ‘why’. Existing insights or novel experiments are used to isolate the crucial factors that influence the target behaviours. These basic principles form the brief from which new ideas can be better designed and tested in the field.

3. Develop ideas
The most creative ideas lie at the intersection of disciplines. We use our networks to bring together the right teams to tackle the brief and support them throughout development. The best ideas are incubated from seed thoughts to tangible products and services.

4. Deliver what works
As ideas become real we use prototyping and field trials to test and refine what works. The same experimental methods are used to determine if we are successfully influencing the outcomes of interest. Proof of concept is demonstrated before launch in lieu of longer-term measures.

A call to action

This approach can only happen collaboratively.

The complexity of the issues faced by society demands that industry, academia and the creative industries work in new ways together. We make it easy to build these crucial partnerships.

The lines between the public, private and voluntary sectors are blurring and social enterprise is now entwined with commercial, political and charitable goals.

This is a good thing.

By focusing on better outcomes for society, a strong evidence base and practical results, we can help organisations meet these core aims.

Behavioural design is capable of helping people think, feel and behave for the better.  

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Ed Gardiner is Behavioural Design Lead at Warwick Business School and the Design Council, responsible for running the Behavioural Design Lab. He is also part of the Create programme at WBS, exploring new teaching and research opportunities on the role of design and creativity in business.

You can contact him at edward.gardiner@wbs.ac.uk.

Or visit the website: www.behaviouraldesignlab.org

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