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Five Behaviour Design Principles You Never Suspected Would Work

A while ago, I was invited by friend-of-the-studio Iskander Smit to speak at a Behavior Design Amsterdam meetup. Much of our work is related to behaviour change, but we try to steer clear of the reductionist thinking that is quite prevalent in the field. So I decided to use the opportunity of presenting to a room full of professional “behaviour designers” to try and destabilise some of those ideas. What follows is a summary of what I talked about, plus a section I had to skip due to time constraints.


As a first provocation I showed this joyful image of a girl throwing an aerobie. It is considered the best frisbee ever. Its inventor is Alan Adler who would later go on to create the awesome aeropress coffee maker. To me, this is a superb example of the kind of behaviour design I think we should aspire to. Something that makes us more human, not less so.

Girl throwing aerobie

COM-B system

Around the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 we were involved with a project in the healthcare field. We created concepts for products that would help people lead healthier lives. Sadly that work is all under NDA so we can’t get into specifics. But I can share some useful theory we were introduced to, and a playful design tactic we employed.

The COM-B system which is described in an open-access journal article offers a coherent and comprehensive way of thinking about how to affect behaviour through various kinds of interventions.

In this project we used the system to help us evaluate our designs for potential effectiveness. It can also be super useful for constraining your design space beforehand.

Article describing COM-B system

However, it did not help us with inventing interventions that would be interesting to engage in from an individual person’s perspective. To be fair, this isn’t the goal of the COM-B system. But it was something we ran into in this “behaviour design” project. The tendency to create a system that goes about driving behaviour in a purely instrumental way is hard to fight.

We designed our way out of this by using a tactic that I think might be of use to others as well. For a while, we found ourselves painstakingly trying to remove all sources of friction from the product. In doing so we also removed many opportunities for surprise, delight and expression.

So in the end we went back and actually made those sources of friction things for users to deal with, in a playful way. We used this playfulness to frame the activities we would like people to engage in. As a result they became fun to do, in stead of a chore.

“Fun is only fun when it is stupid”

So there is a tension in designing for behaviour change between instrumental rationality and playfulness. It is captured in a wonderful way in a story that Dave Eggers tells about a visit to the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. He goes there to see 70s revival band Starship play live. A friend of his has joined the band for the occasion and they’re being very snobby and ironic about it.

But at the end of the night to his own surprise Eggers finds himself singing and dancing to the music along with the rest of the audience. “Fun is only fun when it is stupid,” he writes and I think this is almost always true. There might be certain kinds of fun which aren’t completely stupid, but I think we have to acknowledge that there is something deeply irrational about all sources of human enjoyment. As designers we ignore this irrationality at our own peril.

Starship performing

Yellow Claw

As a further example of this tension I contrasted an Apple ad that I spotted in the New Yorker with a video by Dutch trap music production outfit Yellow Claw.

The ad, which is part of the Your Verse campaign, shows sumo wrestlers using an ipad to analyse their movements. So technology is used to make a very messy human pursuit legible, measurable and quantifiable. This is how Apple markets their tools.

Apple Your Verse sumo wrestlers ad in New Yorker

The music video is for a song titled Krokobil which is a weird pun on the Dutch words for crocodile and buttocks. A krokobil is a crocobutt. I’ll leave the lyrics of the rest of the song to your imagination. In short, this is stupid fun in the Eggers sense of the word. But here’s the rub: Krokobil is made with the same kind of tools Apple markets as machines for making the immeasurable measurable, the very opposite of stupid fun.

“If you can measure it, then it’s not the change I want to see”

It’s not just a matter of acknowledging the human desire for irrational pleasure. Contemporary capitalism is in love, or perhaps more accurately in lust, with gamification. Measuring the immeasurable as gamification does is the first step towards commodification. Today’s tech industry privileges instrumental rationality over other modes of human thinking and doing. This approach favours propagating existing institutions over (re)inventing new ones.

So in the cases when we want to transform things connected to the status quo, we should also transform the practice of how we determine change. All of this and more is passionately argued for by Paolo Pedercini at Indiecade East 2014.

Tweet by Bogost quoting Pedercini at Indiecade East 2014

Communities of play

As Pedercini points out, computing technology is great at counting things. This is fine and useful in many cases. But this does not mean we should always count things, or try to make everything countable. The question is: How do we allow for less rational and arguably more human ways of acting within the context of technological or computational systems?


One way suggested by Pedercini is to push parts of a system’s rules outside of the software and into the social physical space of people using it. This is a tactic we have employed ourselves as well.

A great example would be the “no-graphics digitally-enabled playground game” Johann Sebastian Joust. It uses technology, but a large part of the game is socially negotiated. Douglas Wilson, the game’s designer, calls this “deputising players“.

Johann Sebastian Joust

Our game Beestenbende has similar characteristics. We use an app as a game master of sorts, but it is the players who we depend on for upholding the rules.


These kinds of games, and products that share their dependence on social negotiation, are more malleable by the groups of people using them. This is similar to what Bernie DeKoven describes in The Well-Played Game. He talks about communities of play and how the ability to jointly change the rules of any game they are playing is super important for its continued existence. From this perspective players are always more important than any particular game. Extending this to the subject of this talk: People are always more important than any particular persuasive product.

People playing with earth ball at New Games event

Adding degrees of freedom

Another tactic is suggested by David Kanaga in a response to Eric Zimmerman’s ludic century manifesto. At one point Kanaga proposes an alternative to traditional gamification, which he calls “soft gamification”. It is aimed at increasing possibility spaces as a opposed to making things measurable and decreasing uncertainty.

“Soft gamification solves no quantifiable problems; instead, it poses questions. It merely takes an activity/situation, and ADDS DEGREES OF FREEDOM such that it is more malleable (more PLAYED, more of a game).”

Kanaga discusses the same idea in a different way in a talk at GDC 2014 which is every bit as brilliant as the aforementioned ludic century post. Using music theory as a lens for understanding games, at one point he introduces flux dogma: “allow all constants to become variables”.

Tweet by Heather Kelley quoting David Kanaga at GDC 2014

Flux dogma is best explained through examples. Kanaga himself is fond of using Infinite Sketchpad. In this case, the constant that is the traditional drawing canvas is made variable.

Playing with Infinite Sketchpad

A less obvious example is Proteus, for which Kanaga created all the sound and music. In this “wildlife simulator” the player roams a procedurally generated island. Every piece of scenery she encounters has sound attached to it, in a non-binary way. Meanwhile with the passage of time the island continuously changes. There is a day/night cycle and a passing of seasons. Kanaga offers “shifting possibility space” as a definition of what a game is. Proteus fully embodies this.


This idea of adding degrees of freedom connects to Pedercini’s resistance to measurable change as a way of institutional reform. Behaviour design often happens at the individual level. But true change also requires intervention at higher levels of abstraction. It is here that adding degrees of freedom is of most importance.

Two further examples of shifting possibility spaces, before I conclude with a note on ethics.


When we made Victory Boogie Woogie, we took on the challenge of connecting literature with playfulness and ended up with something like a playground for writing.

For this we were hugely inspired by the practice of tabletop roleplaying games and storytelling games. A great example would be Fiasco, which enables a group of players within the timespan of one evening to tell a Coen brothers-esque tale of small-time criminals meeting unfortunate fates.

Storygames like Fiasco support a generous form of play. Play that is non-instrumental. The rules are there to support the players and not the other way around.

Shifting possibility spaces like Fiasco, Victory Boogie Woogie, Proteus, Infinite Sketchpad, Beestenbende and Joust enable a different kind of change. One that is not easily measured by virtue of being socially negotiated. One that adds degrees of freedom in stead of reducing uncertainty. These qualities support a more ethical way of using technology for behaviour change. Finally, they start from an understanding that many sources of enjoyment are fundamentally irrational.


Ethics is a major concern of mine when it comes to what I see going on in the behaviour design field. Most often, the question of ethics is reduced to this: Behaviour designers should use their awesome powers for good. The issue I have with this is that it presupposes perfect translation of a designer’s intent into a product, and from the product into a user’s behaviour. It should be obvious that this is a wholly unrealistic depiction of how tech culture actually is constructed, deployed and used.

In stead of limiting ethics to a question of designer intent, behaviour designers who are concerned with ethics should take their audience seriously and allow for them to be full participants in the shaping of a system’s workings. I would argue that a product that does not allow for the kind of user appropriation that I have been describing so far is inherently unethical.

This position is hugely inspired by Miguel Sicart’s article Against Procedurality which questions the fetishisation of systems in the games industry. It is about games, but I would argue it equally applies to any technological product. By way of explanation I’ll offer two short quotes:

“Without the player there are no ethics or politics, no values and no messages. Objects can have embedded values, technology can be political, but only inasmuch as there is a human who makes the politics.”

“Against procedurality an army of players stand and play, breaking the rules, misunderstanding the processes, appropriating the spaces of play and taking them somewhere else, where not even the designer can reach.”

Pig Chase

As an example of how this could work, I will point to the game Pig Chase, which we designed and developed together with the Utrecht School of the Arts and Wageningen University. It is a game people play together with pigs. Humans get an iPad app, pigs get a custom display which responds to their touch in their pen. They are invited to coordinate their movements and “dance” along a sequence of goals which triggers colourful fireworks.

Pig Chase is about how we as humans relate to these animals, but there is a lot of ambiguity built into the design. There is no clear message we are pushing. In stead, we allow humans and pigs to play together and in the process come to their own conclusions about the topics such as pig farming, meat consumption and animal intelligence. It is a great example of adding degrees of freedom, and it is also a good example of allowing for socially negotiated play (in this case across species).

Pig Chase

The scientist and the mouse

One of my favourite takes on how games work their special kind of magic is from Frank Lantz:

“Games are Skinner boxes in which you are both the scientist and the mouse. You pretend to care, and then you get to experience what it means to care, only at one remove, like, with a clipboard.”

It is this double loop of action and reflection happening at the same time which I think is also vital for a kind of product for behaviour change which does not just propagate existing states of affairs, but also invents new ones and transforms existing ones.

To do this, we need to always remind ourselves of the irrational side of human behaviour. To strive to make room for it, in stead of reducing it. So I’ll end similar to how I started. Like the aerobie, the game Animal Upon Animal is an example of the kind of behaviour design that inspires me. I would invite you to play it and study it. And the next time when you sit down to design a behaviour change product, think back to it. Can you create an experience that is equally social, dynamic and open to change?

Girl playing Animal Upon Animal

I collected links to most of the articles and projects referenced in this talk at my blog.

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