The Challenge of Changing People’s Behavior

pavlov's dog
Building a product is easy. Getting people to use your product consistently is hard.

The real challenge is changing people’s behavior. In most cases, people already have a solution to the problem you’re trying to solve, and now you’re coming along and claiming that you’re better. Often founders believe it’s a no-brainer to be able to improve on the existing solutions, and they’ll publicly and purposefully position themselves against the incumbents. Just think of all the startups claiming they can kill off email once and for all…

Let me share a personal example: todo lists.

There are a ton of todo list apps out there. We’ve seen some beautiful examples, they’re sexy, simple and mobile-focused. A good example is Clear, which I thought looked really nice, and then quickly deleted off my phone.

How do I manage todos?

Google Calendar and email. Yup, I’ll admit it. I’m old school, but these tools work. When I want to get things done on a specific day I’ll put a 30-minute todo item (b/c 30-minutes is the default I have in Google, no reason to change it) very early in the morning, usually starting around 4am or so. On some days I’ll have todos from 4am to 9am, and then a bunch of todos that I want to do at night (usually I list these starting at 9pm). Putting todos in the calendar like this doesn’t mean I start working at 4am and do these things in order, but Google sends me a reminder in the morning about those actions, and those reminders sit in my inbox, filling it up and reminding me constantly of what I need to do (since I, like many of you, live in email).

If I decide I need to schedule time for a specific todo, I just move the calendar item to the appropriate time–and I’ll get another reminder.

If I don’t get something done, I move the todo to the next day (or some day in the future). If I find myself doing that a few times, it’s pretty obvious the todo isn’t important. But I like this forced behavior of having to move it and clearing my inbox each day of the reminders, because it keeps the todos front and center. My calendar is open in my browser all the time, and so is my email, so it’s hard to ignore todo items.

I also use Evernote. On Fridays I’ll make a list of action items I want to accomplish for the next week, which may become calendar todo items.

This is a fairly manual system. But it works for me. Admittedly, adding calendar items on a mobile device isn’t a great experience, so I usually just send myself a quick email and then add it later.

I’ve tried a lot of todo systems. None of them have ever stuck. None of them have ever surpassed the power of good enough for me; they haven’t provided me with enough value to switch my habits.

Most products don’t hook people because they don’t provide enough value–they’re missing that unique thing that solves people’s problems 10x more effectively than the alternatives. Every startup claims to have a unique differentiator, but the question is whether that unique differentiator actually matters.

A good example of this is the move towards simplifying user experiences. A lot of software is bloated and overly complex, so simplification (at a high level) is a good thing, particularly for the mobile experience. But simplification isn’t necessarily a powerful enough differentiator. Too many startups cling to simplification as the answer. Two things to consider: (1) you need to validate that users genuinely have a hard time using the alternatives, and actually want something simpler; (2) you have to be careful about stripping out so much that you’ve actually eliminated stuff that’s necessary.

Startups attack tools like email or calendars or other incumbents without really understanding people’s problems and how to solve them. Focusing on something simple might work, but there’s no guarantee it’s enough. Focusing on a more appealing design might attract some early adopters, but is that really a significant enough differentiator to change people’s behavior?

Social isn’t a guaranteed win either. A lot of startups try and take a single person experience (say todos) and make it social or collaborative. They look at incumbents or older technology, most of which was built for a single person to use, and assume that if they add collaboration or social into the experience, it will go viral and be more valuable to everyone. That might be true, but I wouldn’t lead with social as a unique differentiator unless you really understand that the lack of social/collaboration in an application is the core problem.

Leading with social/collaboration can make it harder to get early adoption. Start by focusing on the single user experience and make sure that each person gets significant value independent of everyone else. If you can figure that out, you can layer social on top of that core experience to drive virality and further entrenchment into an organization or user group. (Of course, if you’re building a marketplace or social application, you’ve got to focus on the social experience out-of-the-box, but remember that even in these cases, each person uses the product on his or her own, so that experience has to be the driving factor towards changing his or her behavior.)

It’s also important to understand whose behavior you’re trying to change. Do you have an actual market or are you boiling the ocean and going after “everyone”? Your solution might have a unique differentiator that matters–but only to a particular group of people. In that case you can point your product at a different market versus trying to “fix” the product. But finding that market is key.

Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover recently published a book: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which is all about building products that change people’s behavior (in your favor). I’m waiting for the print copy to arrive, but I know it’ll be well worth it.

Here’s how I’d go about the process of focusing on changing people’s behavior:

  1. Find a painful enough problem: First, try really hard to ignore your biases, although you can use them to form hypotheses around the problems you think are worth solving. Then get out there and interview users/customers/prospects and validate whether or not you’ve identified a painful problem. You need to dig deep. If I use my todo example, someone might complain about being overloaded with email, and your thought might be to pull todos right out of email completely, only to find out that they don’t want to use another system (they’re also overloaded with too many products to log into), and the emails they’re overloaded with are actually from something else. So pick away at obvious, macro problems until you get to the heart of the pain.
  2. Test the solution: You’re going to build an MVP and put it into people’s hands. What you’re looking for is whether or not your MVP starts to break into people’s daily routines. Inside of the MVP you should have a unique differentiator that you believe (and have validated, at least to some degree) really matters, and you’ve gotta figure out if that’s the case. Feedback like, “This is easy to use,” is nice, but might not be enough. Engagement is key, even if you haven’t perfected the habit forming aspects of the product yet.
  3. Build habit-forming functionality: The MVP should demonstrate an inkling towards changing people’s behavior; you need some core functionality in there that’s addictive and useful. And as you’re collecting feedback on the MVP and broadening your user base, you want to really hone in on usage, engagement and retention. You want to look at each feature in your app and understand if it’s moving people towards the behavior change that you want.

Really, this is the Lean Startup process. But I think a lot of folks use Lean Startup at too high a level; they don’t dig into the nitty gritty of what they really have to do. And ultimately, it’s all about changing people’s behaviors. You need to have that mindset in place from day one, to make sure that you’re focused on how to do that successfully.

Photo courtesy of gearys.

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  • Mark Wall

    I enjoy reading your blog and share them when I think people can get value from them (which is often). thanks for writing and for your willingness to share insights and tips. keep up the great work!

  • Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Thanks Mark – appreciate the feedback.

  • jonathan hegranes

    tl;dr, i think changing behavior is getting easier…

    this is spot on… i know first hand having tried an idea (@workables) that relied on changing behavior.

    workables is now part of zaarly, but even zaarly pivoted pretty hard as they couldn’t find significant traction — in my opinion because the marketplace concept required too much change in user behavior.

    what’s particularly interesting (to me at least) is the number of companies popping up that a replicas of workables or the old zaarly… so what has changed.

    the answer is technology has made changing behavior easier. mobile apps in particular have made changing behavior easier as they can take advantage of idle time like never before.

  • Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Hey Jonathan – thanks commenting. Mobile definitely helps with giving you a better chance to change behavior, but it’s -so- easy to just delete a mobile app, so I’m not sure it’s a huge advantage. Push notifications are great, but overused too.

    Mobile devices do open up different / new opportunities that might not have existed or were too hard to pull off in a desktop-only world, but “mobile-first” isn’t a huge advantage when almost everyone is heading in that direction as well.

  • jonathan hegranes

    great point… i’m sure we’ve all seen those drop off charts where only a small fraction of people who downloaded your app continue to use it a month later.

  • Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Even a day later — 1 day churn in mobile gaming is significant and an important metric. People try mobile apps and then kill ’em fast if they don’t hook you.

  • Jannatul

    Totally exceptional concept you have presented here. And changing people behavior is most common but complex in factor in this earth. I really enjoy your writing.

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