Blog about architectural and design psychology

It’s the intention that counts

From health psychology we know: Those, who want to change their behavior, need a strong intention to do so. This notion can be used to also make new products catch on with potential users better.

Every beginning is difficult. This holds especially if people’s day-to-day behavior is to be changed. Humans are creatures of habit and prefer to do things like they are used to, even if a different behavior might come with a number of benefits. But when a new product is supposed to find its place in its users life, it is exactly a behavioral change that needs to be achieved. It is thus worth trying to understand the user and their motivation in order to support them in the transition phase.

The user on the hook

Who would not like to hook users with their product like fish in the sea? At least this is the metaphor that Nir Eyal, the author of the book “Hooked – How to Build Habit-Forming Products”, uses. In the book, he describes how to sustainably attach people to your product. On his personal website, you can watch a video of about 30 minutes, in which he summarizes the core notion of his well marketed piece.

The idea is that, in the first place, users need to be motivated to perform a certain behavior by so-called triggers. Triggers can either be external or internal ones. An external trigger that is located outside of a person can, for instance, be a prompt that asks someone to do something. On the other hand, internal triggers lay within a person. According to Nir Eyal, these tend to be negative emotions such as boredom or loneliness that people like to overcome through a certain activity.

Once a person was motivated to perform an action, the action itself should be as easy as possible in Eyal’s model. Additionally, the person anticipates a reward that occurs as soon as the action is completed. This anticipation can serve as an additional motivator throughout the activity. For example, a reward could be that a person feels entertained and can overcome his or her boredom.

Lastly, an investment into the product can ensure that the person is willing to repeat the action and thereby becomes a regular user of the product. In case of a product that promises to entertain its users with funny content, an investment could have the effect that the user can find delighting content even more easily in future. Thus, an investment renders a product more useful or pleasant. Such mechanisms can be found in most of today’s large shopping and entertainment platforms.

Practically, the model contains many conducive reference points regarding how a user can be bound to a product. From a psychological perspective however the model appears to be a little bumpy, as a lot of different things seem to get jumbled up. Theories from behavioral psychology are blended with Pawlow’s classical conditioning and add up to new model. This may create a great overview of relevant aspects. But at the same time, it establishes relations between factors that have not been proven scientifically.

This is why we take a look at the psychology of behavior here, only. In doing so, we try to answer the question, which factors have an impact on whether a person performs an action or not. We focus on how users can be motivated to use a new product in the first place. In fact, people do not necessarily do something just because there is an internal or external trigger. A person does not always attempt to do something entertaining or distracting just because they are board – for example if they are in church or in a lecture at university. And not always does a person do something when they are asked to by an external instance.

Behavior is influenced by many factors

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. But many people find it difficult to sustain a healthy diet anyway. This is because if we perform an action depends on a range of different factors. Especially in the field of health psychology, researches have established many different behavioral models with the aim to predict whether someone will show a certain behavior or not. The Integrated Behavioral Model (starting on page 67, attention big file) condenses the most important aspects.

In health psychology, an important question is: How can people's behavior be influenced positively?

In health psychology, an important question is: How can people’s behavior be influenced positively?

First of all, the intention to do something naturally plays an important role when it comes to predicting behavior. For example, it is more likely that a person will eat an apple if they actually have the intention to eat an apple a day. However, such a purpose is not a necessary precondition for a behavior to occur. It can also be that someone eats an apple without planning to do so. For example, a person could just get hungry in a situation where an apple is the only edible thing around.


What is special about the Integrated Behavioral Model is that it also defines what exactly intentions depend on. To be more precise, it differentiates between three aspects. The first one is the personal attitude. It can be subdivided into emotional feelings and rational thoughts about an action. If a person feels that apples taste great and that eating an apple is a very pleasant thing to do, it will have a positive impact on their emotional attitude towards eating apple. In contrast, if they think that apples are disgusting because they only cause sticky fingers, it will influence their attitude in a negative way.

Likewise, also their rational thoughts can have an effect on their attitude. If a person believes that apples are good for their personal health, it will upgrade their attitude. In the case of rational thoughts, it is thus not so much about the emotions people have while performing an action, but rather about the consequences that may stem from it.


Another important aspect are social norms. Again, they can be separated into two different factors. On the one hand, social norms contain the expectations and opinions of other people. If someone believes that his or her friends find it very cool to eat an apple, their perceived norm is going to be rather positive.

On the other hand, norms are also influenced by what other people actually do. Imagine people would usually dump apples immediately if the find one of them lying around somewhere. This certainly would rather have negative effect on peoples norm. However, a negative or positive norm only affects people’s intention to do something if they actually want to comply with it. What is more, it can very well be that there does not really exist a strong norm regarding a certain behavior. In this case, norms do not play a significant role in shaping people’s intention either.


The third influencing factor is perceived control, which also consists of two parts. It depends on a persons estimation of its own ability to perform an action. In our example of eating an apple, most adults, who do not have any physical impairments, will estimate their ability as positive.

In addition to that, perceived control is also about which obstacles a person perceives in their environment that might detain them from performing the action. If there is a bowl with fruits in an office, which is quite far away from someone’s personal workspace, this might lead to the person not developing the intention to eat an apple. The effort to take an apple from the bowl might just be perceived as too high.

All of the before-mentioned factors can change profoundly already after the first time an action is performed. A person can develop unknown self-confidence and learn that her or she is in fact able to carry out the action. Or they can discover that an action is related to a positive feeling that they did not realize beforehand. This is why it can make sense to support people a little more when they are doing the action for the first time, so they can develop a more positive intention for the future.

The Integrated Behavioral Model makes clear, which factors influence a person's behavior.

The Integrated Behavioral Model makes clear, which factors influence a person’s behavior.

Good intentions are not enough

But even if a person has the best intentions to eat an apple a day, it does not mean that the person also does it. The model contains four additional factors that play an important role, too. Firstly, the right knowledge and tools might be missing to carry out the action. In the case of eating an apple, there is not much needed in particular, which is why the aspect will not have a big impact on a people’s behavior. In other situations though special knowledge or tools might indeed be necessary to do the action. If these things are not there, the best intention will come to nothing.

Also, a person needs to be aware of the action. In psychology, this is called salience. It means that the intention to perform an action must not be buried in someone’s brain in order to have an effect. For example, if a person is very concentrated on their work, they might forget that they actually intended to eat an apple a day. In this case, a simple reminder might be helpful.

As a third factor, the model contains the persons environment. Often times, there are quite simple reasons why a certain behavior will not occur, even if people do have the according intention. For instance, if a person works in a laboratory where eating is strictly forbidden, this person will most likely not eat an apple. Certainly, the environment can also positively affect the likelihood of a certain behavior. This might for example be the case if a bowl of fruits is carried to the employees desks every day so that they only have to grab an apple.

Habit is another important influence. As we discussed at the beginning, habits tend to be hard to change. However, they can have both a positive or a negative impact. If it can be achieved that a person passes by the bowl of fruits every morning to take an apple, it creates a regularity that would be hard to break.

From theory to practice

The Integrated Bahavioral Model with its different components is very suitable for analyzing the different behavioral aspects of a product and investigate properties that could answer the user’s needs more appropriately. To do so, interviews should be conducted with relevant user groups. The questions in such conversations can cover people’s personal attitudes, social norms and perceived control regarding the usage or interaction with the product.

Questions should always be phrased as concretely as possible. For example: “What do you like about eating an apple and what do you not like about it?”. Also, questions about the other factors within the model can be asked, such as: “What should not be missing in any case, so that you are able to eat an apple a day?”. This questions refers to environmental conditions that can facilitate the regular consumption of apples.

The Behavioral Change Canvas is a great tool to structure findings made in interviews.

The Behavioral Change Canvas is a great tool to structure findings made in interviews.

The results from such interviews can be collected and sorted using a canvas. For example this Behavioral Change Canvas allow to collect all results that relate to people’s individual intention. Using this canvas, it will quickly become clear which areas are mentioned very often and presumably play an important role. Yet, it might also make sense to directly address those areas of the canvas that people do not tend to talk about on their own.

When it comes to analyzing the results, you should note that in each field of the canvas there can be both aspects that have a positive effect on people’s intention as well as aspects that have a negative effect. They are like two sides of the same coin. Reversing them into their opposite can be an easy strategy to discover additional ranges of action.

Also, it is important to remember that the canvas contains people’s subjective perceptions. If there appear to be problems, one should try to investigate their causes first. For example, do colleagues really think that others should not take a break in order to eat an apple or is this rather the perception of single people?

Depending on how this question can be answered, it might either imply that the social norm in the office should be improved or that the existing positive norms should be made more transparent. The first option might be achieved by an internal campaign, which is supported by the management and conveys that it is okay to take breaks. the latter one might rather be targeted by improving the communication between employees. Thus, when analyzing the results, one often has to do proper investigation of causes and get to the bottom of the problems.

New products often get substantial benefits to their users: They are faster, more healthy, cheaper, more easy. After a lot of effort has been invested into the development of these products, it would be a shame not to pave the way to them for potential users. They, in turn, tend to be influenced by a complex interrelationship of habits, social norms, environmental conditions and personal attitudes. Seizing this complexity and finding an answer to it should be a integral component of every product.