Emerging disciplines often follow a predictable arc en route to becoming established practice. The shiny object becomes a silver bullet, followed by disenchantment when its limitations are revealed, and, eventually, redemption when its strong suits are recognized despite its flaws. Behavioral design is not exempt; recent concerns about nudges’ effectiveness were both unsurprising and right on schedule.
As someone who entered behavioral design after a career in design strategy, I’ve lived through this challenge before. Design’s ascent in the early twenty-first century as a buzzy hotshot was, predictably, followed by skepticism and frustration. Since then, design has become a respected practice in many leading companies. Yet one legacy of “design thinking” is of smooth talk taking precedence over substance, which has unfortunately contributed to a proliferation of design-on-the-quick offerings that cheapen the value of true expertise.
One growing pain that maturing disciplines face is figuring out how maintain their disciplinary strengths while scaling their impact within organizations. Behavioral design’s scientifically derived insight into human behavior and commitment to rigorous testing—bringing science to the squishy—is arguably the special sauce that has fed its differentiation and success. This prompts realistic fears that integrating behavioral design will dilute the very things that make it valuable. But if behavioral design remains too specialized or isolated then it poses a risk of being perceived as optional.
There are realistic fears that integrating behavioral design will dilute the very things that make it valuable. But if it remains too specialized or isolated then it poses a risk of being perceived as optional.
Some behavioral designers see upsides in democratizing access to tools and creating behaviorally informed organizations, but the widespread adoption of nudging has also prompted concerns about losing control over the message. This is all too familiar to design practitioners, who lament how design thinking’s appeal can position jargon and shallow thought as a proxy for expertise.
Design is also familiar with how commercial pressures can deem its approach a “nice-to-have” when budgets and timelines grow thin. Something behavioral design has faced recently.
While no disciplines are identical, these challenges are largely characterized by three tensions: between specialization and integration; between democratizing and credentialing expertise; and between specific projects and broader principles of practice.
1. Specialization vs. integration: Where is behavioral design practice housed?
The biggest question may be integration: Do the benefits of keeping behavioral design separate outweigh those of encouraging broader access to behavioral tools and know-how? Positioning behavioral design as a discrete function in-house or by external consultants maintains purity of practice. Specialists may benefit from a position of heightened authority, affording them leverage to propose or push back on approaches.
However, siloing behavioral design can also contribute to it being seen as a special occasion or optional add-on rather than a core competency. This trades control over the practice of behavioral design for a lack of control over when behavioral design is seen as relevant. As a result, nonspecialists may end up deciding when—or whether—behavioral design gets a seat at the table. This ultimately narrows opportunities for behavioral design. In addition, being seen as an occasional participant can relegate behavioral design to a nonessential function, putting teams in a precarious position when organizations cut budgets and personnel.
Making methodology accessible while maintaining a professional level of rigor is a delicate balancing act.
However, democratizing has its own risks. Design presents a cautionary tale: while design thinking’s “double diamond” process and tools like personas are simple to explain, they vastly oversimplify design practice. Behavioral design has its own equivalent in attractive but lightweight visualizations of clustered biases or tendencies to see gamification as a fix-it. Even go-to methods like COM-B can, in the wrong hands, be seen as check-the-box exercises.
Making methodology accessible while maintaining a professional level of rigor is a delicate balancing act. Doing it well requires practitioners to become comfortable providing access to tools while also protecting against the temptation to equate process-following with methodology.
Besides, rigor is a double-edged sword. Not every institution has the capacity, money, or appetite for randomized controlled trials. For behavioral design, insisting on a narrow frame for what counts as rigorous can backfire when “do an RCT or not at all” results in the latter.
2. Democratization vs. credentialing: Who qualifies as a behavioral designer?
A second tension comes in the form of entry into the club, weighing trade-offs between “anyone can be a behavioral designer” with more formal definitions or certifications of expertise.
The Applied Behavioral Science Association’s ongoing effort to codify beginner and advanced competencies is one useful and concrete way to define disciplinary skills and knowledge. Alternatively, the Global Association of Applied Behavioral Scientists requires potential members to submit proof of expertise in the form of published papers or other scholarship to gain entry. While these efforts to classify or credential practitioners can help instill confidence in individuals’ expertise, they can also result in equating quality with people rather than ideas or results. Maintaining academic norms may be one way to confirm work is top-notch, but it tends to reward traditional approaches and forms of knowledge over new ideas, limiting disciplinary growth.
One tension comes in the form of entry into the club, weighing trade-offs between “anyone can be a behavioral designer” with more formal definitions or certifications of expertise.
This is also an equity issue. Requiring advanced degrees or traditional scholarly output reinforces the overrepresentation of already privileged groups and perspectives. The call for a heterogeneity revolution should not be limited to behavioral solutions, but also extend to those who practice. Representation matters: any form of design that doesn’t employ expertise from the full range of those who design products can lead to unacceptable results. In design, mentoring and advocating for younger talent from underrepresented groups is increasingly recognized as a vital first step, but there’s a long way to go. Failing to invest in new voices in behavioral design similarly risks tamping down diverse perspectives that make the field stronger.
3. Projects vs. principles: How does behavioral design demonstrate its value?
Finally, a function’s position within an organization influences its impact. When behavioral design is employed on projects, behavioral insights are usually less the headline than a component of solutions. This means that senior leadership may struggle to connect these contributions to the bottom line or measure the value of taking a behavioral approach. Design has likewise struggled to build this case.
One way to demonstrate behavioral design’s value is focusing on projects suited to clear and easy wins. However, this can reinforce the idea that behavioral design is best—perhaps only—appropriate for small-scale challenges, and lead to behavioral design being left out of projects that would benefit from behavioral inquiry. Over time, this can lead to behavioral design being hemmed in by its own success. It also can reinforce tendencies to consider behavioral design as an extra rather than a critical component of solutions.
The answer most likely lies in seeing these challenges less as an “either/or” and more as a “yes and.”
Becoming integrated more broadly into organizations, by contrast, may increase chances to insert behavioral findings and mindsets in a wider set of contexts and challenges. This can make insights feel more strategically relevant, which makes it easier to communicate their value to senior leadership. While not every organization needs a chief behavioral officer—just as not every company needs a chief design officer—developing principles for when to employ a behavioral lens can set new standards for how behavioral design is used. Incorporating key performance indicators (KPIs) for success can instill new norms for how it is measured and valued. And advocating for behavioral literacy can increase nonpractitioner know-how, making it easier to communicate across functions or in teams.
These are all difficult tensions, with no obvious answers. In fact, the answer most likely lies less in seeing these challenges as an “either/or” and more as a “yes and.” Building a tent that welcomes a wide range of practitioners—specialists and generalists, academically trained and accidental behavioral designers—can produce a body of project-based successes while also building institutional capacity that benefits the discipline more broadly. There’s also tremendous potential in transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries to partner with other fields, as design has done with public policy and health care. These approaches could help behavioral design balance trade-offs between targeted impact (at the potential expense of scale) and wider applicability (at the potential expense of precision). They could also lead to finding new applications for behavioral design and proof points for the value of a behavioral approach.