Building Products That Work With Human Limitations
Limited attention spans, limited time, limited willpower. Read on to find out how we, as product managers, can work with our inherent human limits to build good products
As product managers, understanding the intricate art and science of human behavior is hugely important, as it directly impacts how our products are adopted and used. We ultimately create new products to elicit change: to make an action easier to complete, automate an old system, or replace a bad habit. At its core, to bring about change is to bring about behavior change.
Read on as we delve into the fascinating world of user behaviour change, exploring the limitations of human cognition and a practical, ethical framework for creating products that encourage desired actions.
The Birth of Habits and Biases
It may sound harsh, but we as human beings are inherently limited in various ways: limited attention spans, limited time, and limited willpower, to name a few! Ironically, the emergence of newer, smarter products and technologies may have diminished this further.
In response to these limitations, we develop habits, heuristics and biases—subconscious mental shortcuts that help us navigate the complexity of the world. Here are some common biases and heuristics that humans are known to rely on to paint a better picture.
Status Quo Bias: People tend to stick with the status quo because it feels safe and requires less cognitive effort.
Confirmation Bias: We actively seek out information that aligns with our existing beliefs and disregard conflicting data.
Present Bias: The present moment holds disproportionate importance in our decision-making, often at the expense of long-term consequences.
Anchoring: We make judgments relative to a reference point, even when that point is arbitrary.
IKEA Effect: We place a higher value on things we've invested time and effort in creating.
Habits are another form of mental shortcut that are central to human behavior, freeing up mental space for us by outsourcing control to environmental cues. They’re formed through repetition: when we encounter a cue, we engage in a routine. If a reward is involved, our subconscious reinforces this connection.
Nir Eyal summarises this in his book “Hooked”, where he shares a method (the Hook model) that works with the limitations of the brain to create habit forming products.
This has been proven to increase engagement across numerous popular products. Take this example from Grammarly, a typing assistant that reviews spelling and grammar, prompting the user with a trigger to engage with the product.
The Role of Products in Behavior Change
More widely, this idea has led to the emergence of choice architecture, AKA behavioral design, as a central approach to building products that shape our choices and actions.
Choice architecture works with our human limitations to help us achieve our goals by bridging the gap between intention and action. Products play a pivotal role in encouraging users to take action and Product Managers can use the CREATE framework to help users bridge the gap between things their users might want to do, but don’t.
This framework can also be used by product managers in reverse, when working on a product that intends to replace a habit or stop a mental shortcut by avoiding the cue, replacing the reaction, rethinking the evaluation, or removing the ability.
With a cue, you want to prompt the user to think about the desired action. You might want to use reminders and make it easy for the user to engage with your product by removing distractions or making it clear where to act. Try to predict where their attention might be and place your cue in a way that catches the user’s attention
To elicit a positive reaction, you’ll want to convince your user of the action’s value by building positive associations or using peer comparisons and social proof. Be sure to build trust with the user by being personal, professional and authentic.
Make sure the user understands the benefits by using appropriate incentives. You’ll want to test out different types of motivations, but leveraging existing ones is usually a good place to start. From here, focus on increasing that motivation by using competition and pulling future motivations into the present. Above all, make it easy for them and avoid cognitive or choice overload.
You want the action to feel easy for the user. Avoid friction where you can by removing unnecessary decision points or physical barriers and increase the sense of achievability by helping them know they’ll succeed.
Create a sense of urgency and prompt your users to act now. Perhaps you’ll timebox their reward, encourage them to make a commitment to a friend, or remind them of prior commitments they’d made to act using a streak (think of Duolingo’s encouraging-yet-mildly-terrifying owl).
Be sure to listen to a user’s past experiences and feedback to keep the product relevant and exciting. Give the user the feeling of a fresh start as they build their new habit—make it intentionally unfamiliar yet straightforward. And of course, be sure to check back in with them to see how you can make their goals even easier to achieve in the future.
Is this ethical?
In the pursuit of influencing behavior, ethical considerations are hugely important. We could spend years unpicking what’s right and wrong, but here are some examples of what not to do:
Fake Urgency: Pressuring the user into completing an action by presenting them with a fake time limitation
Trick wording: Misleading the user into taking an action, by using confusing or misleading language.
Confirm shaming: Emotionally manipulating the user into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise have done.
Luckily there are some ethical checks you can perform for building products that might cause changes in behavior. Start by outlining the purpose of your product, what behaviour does it seek to change? How does this benefit the user? Is there any way this might cause notable harm in the short-term or long-term? How does this benefit our organisation? What financial or personal interests do we have in this product succeeding?
Then zone in on the transparency and freedom of choice provided by your product. Does your user actually want to change their behaviour to accomplish this outcome? Do they know you’re seeking to do that? Are they defaulted-in or out? Can they opt out in a straightforward and transparent way? What steps are you taking to minimise the possibility of coercion?
As you can see, understanding and influencing user behavior is both an art and a science! By recognising the limitations of human cognition, embracing the power of biases and heuristics, and applying the CREATE framework, product managers can build products that cater to user needs by guiding them towards desired actions ethically and effectively.
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