Habits are a tricky thing. On the one hand, we can train ourselves to respond to a recurring stimulus (like the dogs in Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment). On the other hand, we don’t think of ourselves as easily trainable, mainly because we have a hard time forming “good” habits on our own. The reality (and that elusive user habit formation) lies somewhere in between.
There are many habit-forming frameworks out there. One that comes to mind is Nir Eyal’s Hooked Model; another is Atomic Habits by James Clear. These (and many others) work because all of them are rooted in basic human psychological drives. They access our natural curiosity, need for reward, learning through repetition, sunk cost, and other human factors. Sometimes this is used for good (quit smoking!). Other times, the line can get blurry (hello, social media rabbit holes).
Using human psychology to influence users sounds manipulative, but it doesn’t have to be. When “the line” gets blurry, cycling through the Human-Centered Design process can help.
Awareness of user needs is a significant part of each step. In the investigative stages (Look – Ask – Learn), focus on identifying user needs through primary research techniques. This ensures your product or service is solving an actual problem. You’re not designing to form a habit you’re aiming to meet a human need.
Later in the human-centered design process (Create–Test), we’re focused on validating our designed solutions. Again, the intention here is to ensure we are solving a real need for users. “The line” becomes especially important in the “Create” stage where you’re constructing solutions to validate. Designing a habit-forming solution that solves a real need holds a firmer ethical line than designing a product or a service to add to the already noisy marketplace of products and services that add no real value to people’s lives.
Let’s take a real-life example. We worked with an Australian company that helped its users become their healthiest version through scientifically-backed nutritional and fitness protocols. The many years of health research were distilled into a habit-forming mobile app and desktop service that solved a real-life challenge for many people (and their families). HCD was instrumental in identifying what motivated people to stick to their plans; designing a habit-forming solution around those helped thousands of people reach their health goals.
Deploying HCD will not solve all ethical problems regarding the habit-forming debate. However, using HCD will help you identify and design solutions around real user needs.
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