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What is a “behavior” (and what is not) in Behavioral Design?

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

Ok, here's a practical approach to the matter.

Designing products and services with a "behavior-centered" approach is crucial. There's no doubt about that. However, there will come a point where the line answering "what is a behavior and what is not" will become completely blurry. The need, to pause and evaluate if you are heading in the right direction, will become evident.

That's why, to fully understand in a simple and clear way what we are talking about when we refer to a behavior, we need to consider its counterpart: barriers.

Behaviors and barriers will be the main elements in mapping the design of your product or service. You will have to find ways to promote a behavior by reducing a barrier, or maybe you will need to inhibit a behavior by increasing a barrier.

Let's start by defining what a "behavior" is in the simplest and clearest way possible.

Behavior: An action, conduct, or response at an individual or collective level. That's the main part you need to remember.

There are different types of behaviors that can be easily recognized. Some will be more prominent in this type of design, others not so much (such as instincts and adaptive behaviors, for example):

  • Learned behaviors, acquired through experience.

  • Social behaviors (communication, cooperation, organization, aggression, altruism, etc.).

  • Cognitive behaviors, involving higher mental processes (perception, memory, problem-solving, decision-making, etc.).

These are the most relevant in our field and the ones you should consider, keeping in mind that they can be influenced by culture or context.

What is NOT a behavior?

  • States or conditions, like being tired or hungry. They describe a particular state or characteristic of an individual but do not imply observable actions or responses.

  • Internal mental processes: Thoughts, beliefs, or emotions are not behaviors themselves.

Now, let's talk about barriers, which we will group into 3 categories:

  • Ability barriers: these are the ones that prevent me from being able to do something. For example, not having money, not knowing how to do something, or it being too difficult.

  • Motivation barriers: they occur when the "reward" for doing something is not worthwhile. Simply put, I don't feel like doing it because the reward is not attractive enough to drive me towards it.

  • Trigger barriers: they occur when the triggering message that is supposed to present the proposal is not timely. If I don't even notice that I can do something, I won't be aware of it and won't connect with the objective behavior.

Therefore, for a behavior to occur, it will be necessary to have a sufficient amount of motivation, as well as sufficient ability to overcome the difficulties, and triggers that push us and focus our attention on this situation, appropriately and at the right moment.

  • If the motivation is not sufficient, no matter how much attention we are paying (having timely triggers) and the ability is adequate, we won't engage with the proposal.

  • If the motivation is high, and the skill barriers are surmountable, but the proposal (trigger) doesn't reach us on time, we simply won't engage.

  • If the motivation is high, and the triggers are timely, but the difficulty (skill barriers) is too high, we won't achieve our objective behavior.


When designing to encourage or discourage a behavior, it is advisable to have a clear understanding of what is a behavior and what is not, as well as the types of barriers that users will encounter along the way. But the most important thing is to understand that our goal is not to design a solution to a barrier but to design a 'situation' in which the user can connect or disconnect (depending on the case) with a behavior.

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