Get A Dog

Kristen Berman
Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab
Kelly Inglis
Behavioral Science Marketer

Editor’s Note: Thanks again to team at Irrational Labs for sharing more of their great ideas with us. It's a nice habit. 

Habits. Oooooh, they’re a hot topic in and around behavioral science. Many companies have used behavioral insights to create habits merely for habit’s sake. Others have tried to create habits that improve our financial and physical wellbeing. Still others have created habits and then told us habits are bad and then taught us how to break those habits with new habits that they just happen to have right here in their habit-creating back pocket. As my social media relationship status used to say, “It’s complicated.”

But maybe we’re thinking about habits the wrong way? Maybe we shouldn’t even be thinking about habits at all but rather the underlying behavior change and outcomes we want to achieve? Maybe habits are just one of many tools for doing getting there? That’s possible. Let’s keep learning – that’s the one habit I whole-heartedly endorse.

p.s. By reading on, you agree that you have good intentions and a strong ethical core. If you’re not sure, read about dark nudgers here.

 

Overweight since childhood, Kate Turner worked hard to shed weight, trying one diet after another. As long as she adhered to each diet’s stringent guidelines, she would lose weight. But she would eventually tire of its limitations, resume her old eating habits and regain the weight she had lost.

In her early 30s, Kate bought her first house, allowing her to finally get her own dog, a 3-year-old border collie. The previously sedentary Kate now had little choice but to take her dog on long walks, leading her to slowly lose weight. Heartened and motivated, she felt better physically and mentally, and she naturally began eating a healthier diet, eschewing sugar, fatty meats, and processed carbohydrates. This time, she kept the weight off.

Why did this work?

Nobody pushed Kate to go to the gym. Or tell her how risky her weight was to overall longevity. Kate just bought a dog. A dog. The dog pushed her to walk – every day! Getting a dog was a one-time behavior that drove radical behavior change. 

In the world of tech design, development and marketing, there’s an almost rabid focus on compelling consumers to adopt new habits as a way to get them hooked on a product … to make engagement KPIs soar and increase the bottom line. Sometimes that focus pays off. Case in point: App developers at Gmail built notifications that effectively created a habit among users to check their email.

But, like crash diets, products and apps that encourage consumers to form a new habit more often than not fail or backfire in the long run. Why? If you’re designing solely for habits, you’re competing for consumers’ attention, which is already in short supply, scattered and finite. Furthermore, triggering habits is a tricky thing to achieve, and mindlessly adopting yet another habit may not ultimately be in your customers’ best interests.

 

Like crash diets, products and apps that encourage consumers to form a new habit more often than not fail or backfire in the long run.

Habits aren’t a bad thing, per se, and are a normal and necessary part of our lives. Most of the things we do, such as brushing our teeth and switching off unused lights, are so ingrained that we do them without thinking. This frees our minds to focus on bigger things that demand our complete attention, such as running a business, keeping children healthy and making family budget decisions. On the other hand, creating habits among users is likely not the best route for product developers to take.

Creating a new habit is a resource-intensive process with no guarantee of success. It typically takes about seven weeks on average to develop a new habit, assuming the behavior is consistently repeated over the course of those seven weeks. Think about the times you have planned to exercise daily or vowed to water your plants: Were you able to succeed the first time you committed to changing your behavior, or did it take multiple attempts? Habits take time, commitment, motivation and mental energy.

 

 

Creating a new habit is a resource-intensive process with no guarantee of success.

Additionally, habits can be incredibly intrusive. A recent study found that Internet users spend an average of 2 hours and 20 minutes on social media and messaging platforms every day! Not exactly the best use of time, our most precious resource. Think about how engagement with your application looks in a user’s life and whether it’s merely adding screen time without increasing productivity, health, happiness or financial well-being.

What if there were a different, better way to get consumers to commit to a product, one that involved not simply adopting a new habit but doing something that would produce a natural domino effect for the user’s benefit? That alternative is designing for a one-time behavior that could achieve the same result as designing for a habit. Instead of trying to trigger a behavior change by trying to create a habit among your users, create an environment where a one-time action might result in the same behavior change. Ask your product team, “Can you design a one-time intervention that compels the user to take one big action that delivers the same benefit as a habit?” i.e. “Can you get them a dog?”

 

Instead of trying to trigger a behavior change by trying to create a habit among your users, create an environment where a one-time action might result in the same behavior change.

Here are some examples of one-time behaviors that have far-reaching, organic results.

  • Buy a dog in order to walk more (as Kate did).
  • Buy a Roomba (robotic vacuum cleaner) to inspire you to keep your home clean.
  • Sign up for a fruit or vegetable box subscription so you’ll plan for and eat healthy meals.
  • Prep the coming week’s meals on Sundays (i.e., cook all of your food for the week at once) so you’re less likely to waste money and calories on unhealthy takeout food.
  • Set up auto-pay on your banking app so you pay your bills on time every month. 
  • Set up an automatic payment from your paycheck to your savings account so you don’t have to remember to save money. 
  • Pre-schedule regular workout meetings with friends to use social pressure as a motivator to exercise.
  • Delete your social media accounts so you stop spending so much time on them (and maybe give your password to your Mom so you can't log back in). 
  • Get rid of the TV in your bedroom (or even all of the TVs in your home) so you can free up time to spend more purposefully. 

Product developers need to be intentional about the behaviors and metrics they design for and how those behaviors impact users’ lives in the long run. Think about your application, product or website. What’s the behavior you want your users to adopt, and is there a one-time intervention you can use to get them to adhere to that behavior?

By focusing on behavior, rather than obsessing over the buzzword of “habits,” we can let some of our behavioral biases – like default bias (auto-pay), social pressure and precommitment (workout meetings) and the snuggle effect (getting a dog [not a real scientific thing but c’mon]) – to overcome others and create better outcomes.

 

Kristen Berman
Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab
Kelly Inglis
Behavioral Science Marketer

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