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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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