Harnessing behavioral psychology to improve user experience

In recent years, behavioral psychology has generated great interest outside academic circles. With one of its main sub-fields, behavioral economics, now influencing the strategies of large companies around the world, it’s no surprise that more and more people are paying close attention to its supporters. Indeed, books like that of Dan Ariely Predictable irrational have led to redesigns of all business operations, changed retail models and reshaped financial strategies.


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In the rapidly evolving world of online games, digital products, and application development, behavioral psychology and its various ramifications are having a similar transformative effect. For those who understand the concept and learn to apply its many ideas to development in the digital realm, behavioral psychology can dramatically improve the user experience and, in turn, drive user engagement to new heights.

Simply put, behavioral psychology postulates that all behaviors are learned through conditioning and that conditioning occurs through daily interactions with our environment. An important and highly influential subfield, behavioral economics, examines psychological knowledge of human behavior to explain economic decision making and predict economic models.

Unbeknownst to most people, big brands and companies have been applying this information for many years to influence consumer behavior and establish favorable spending habits.

Positive influence, positive returns

In South Africa, insurance giant Discovery Health has teamed up with Dan Ariely himself to develop an insurance plan that encourages members to adopt healthy behavior (like exercise, eating healthy, etc. .). The end goal was to create a “voluntary pre-engagement program” whereby members of Discovery Vitality could put their 25% discount on groceries “at stake” by agreeing to increase their purchases of healthy foods. 5 percentage points above their household baseline. Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University in the United States, documented the findings on his website:

“We found that 36% of members who had this option agreed to participate, and those members maintained a 3.5% increase, on average, in healthy groceries purchased in each of the six months. These results suggest that a portion of consumers are taking the opportunity to create restrictive choice environments for themselves in order to purchase healthier items, even with some risk of financial loss. “

In other words, by creating the right conditions – and setting up a certain “environment”, so to speak – Discovery was able to positively influence the behaviors of its members.

For brands, the end goal is naturally to link positive changes in behavior to increased brand loyalty and ultimately profitability.

Make room for creative freedom

In the digital realm, and more specifically in online game and application development, we are starting to see the effective application of behavioral insights to design better and more compelling user experiences. As developers we have tended to assume that people are inherently rational and that they will react based on our (deeply ingrained) assumptions. These assumptions have led to the release of many flawed products, games and applications that have failed to engage and delight the end user – often at great cost to the developer, company, or brand behind them. .

However, by applying scientifically proven knowledge of human behavior to product design, developers can dramatically reduce the chances of missing the mark. Armed with the knowledge and insights provided by researchers like Ariely and other leading thinkers, we can begin to rely less on assumptions in product design and more on a solid scientific approach.

Most importantly, it allows brands and developers to create and design interactions that (almost) guarantee certain reactions. In the process, freed from the burden of wondering if interactions and triggers will ultimately work, developers are duly empowered to be more daring and creative in the way they present the interactions and create the key elements. This scenario typically leads to a more compelling and creative product design, and a much more engaging and rewarding experience for the end user and / or consumer.

Be relentless

It is true that the application of knowledge from behavioral psychology and its subfields is both art and science. As developers and designers, it has taken us many years to understand exactly how this information can shape and improve product design – and to master the art of weaving that information into the user experience in games and applications in line. For us, the key to success has been to constantly question our own assumptions and relentlessly question the underlying logic that has shaped the design of products, applications and games in the past.

It’s important to remember that as the products and experiences of the digital sphere evolve and transform, so do the users and consumers of these products. This evolution requires the constant study of human behavior and the efficient and rigorous application of the resulting knowledge in design and development. In our opinion, such insights already create a clear distinction between digital experiences that compel and engage users for extended periods of time, and those that repel them.


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