What Is the Future of Design and Behavioral Science? A Conversation with Cliff Kuang

Like designers, those of us who apply behavioral science aim to design solutions with an understanding of humans, we improve user experiences, and we imagine new possibilities. Yet the two fields operate separately. There remains much confusion about the relationship between behavioral science and design, and I see much less collaboration and cross-pollination than there should be.

Over the past 25 years, I have been solving problems for a living. First, using strategy frameworks at a management consulting firm, and later adding behavioral science and design to my toolbox at ideas42. I have explored the intersection of behavioral science and design with many designers over the years. I think we still have more to learn from design, and we have more to contribute to design.

That led me to an inspiring conversation with Cliff Kuang, coauthor of User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play. He is currently a user-experience designer at Google, and was previously the design editor for Wired and Fast Company. Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows.

Piyush Tantia: You’ve just written a book on the history of design, so the first thing I want to understand is this—are UX design, product design, interaction design, service design, etc. all different fields?

Cliff Kuang: To some extent, I think these divisions are all a distinction without a difference. And designers love to debate nomenclature. But the point of the book is more that there’s a shared history of why those disciplines are the way they are. There’s a shared history in what those disciplines care about. There’s a shared history of what those disciplines assume about what it means to create a design for somebody other than yourself. That is the real question—How do you not become trapped in your own point of view?

How do you not become trapped in your own point of view? That’s a deeply human dilemma. Designers, more than anybody else, have created processes for breaking out of their own point of view.

That’s a deeply human dilemma. Designers, more than anybody else, have created processes for breaking out of their own point of view, and for empathizing with people other than themselves. If you assume that, then most of these design fields aren’t that different. What they really share is a worldview or a mindset, and that’s what I tried to write about.

I love what you said about not being trapped in our own point of view. In behavioral science, we do that by using scientific literature—we use what somebody found in a lab or in a field research study.

That is true. Design itself is not unrelated to the scientific method. You have a hypothesis, you put that hypothesis in front of users see how they react, and adjust accordingly. The only thing is that designers have this wherewithal to flex between quantitative versus qualitative, emotional, attitudinal, and cultural inputs that maybe the sciences don’t have.

Is that because some of design came from art and some of it came from engineering?

Well, I think what we call user experience design is a convergence of those two fields of inquiry. Even before the Bauhaus, design emerged from the work of artisans who made things according to tradition, and maybe tweaked that tradition based on changing aesthetics. On the other hand, you had engineering, which is about advancing and creating technology—ultimately technology that people should want, or that’s useful to them. The story of UX design is the story of those two disciplines converging into a single discipline that is meant to—in Steve Jobs’s formulation—integrate the humanities and the sciences. That’s actually so much of what the appeal of being a designer is, the fact that you have to see both sides of that coin.

Speaking of different ways of seeing, I wanted to talk about whether behavioral science might have something to add to design. You quoted Tim Brown in the book as saying, “People will usually tell you what they want, but not what they need.” That made me wonder if behavioral science research could shed some light on those latent needs. We have decades of research to draw on.

Yes, I think that’s right. If you think about behavioral science, it is about shedding light on the gap between who we are in our self-conception and who we are in actuality. I think that the most fundamental breakthrough that behavioral science has already shed light on was this idea that our biases never go away. Those assumptions that we naturally make, and the biases in our behavior, they’re endemic. They’re not something that’s wrong with you, they’re just there. I do think that more clarity around our inability to understand ourselves is sorely needed in design.

A lot of designers (and a lot of bad design) still tend to assume people operate as their best, most rational selves. We make assumptions about who people are and what’s good for them. Behavioral science in so many ways tells us that those assumptions are wrong. So I do think that there’s clearly a corrective role for behavioral science.

I think what we’re waiting for is a new generation of designers cognizant of all these things, not just because they read one book, but because they came up through this body of knowledge.

But that role has yet to be determined, because what you need to push the discipline forward are people so immersed in the practice that they can actually see the connective threads between those bodies of knowledge. That synthesis needs to happen inside of somebody’s brain. I think what we’re waiting for is a new generation of designers cognizant of all these things, not just because they read one book, but because they came up through this body of knowledge.

I was thinking exactly the same thing after a previous conversation we’ve had. Perhaps we made the mistake of reinventing the wheel in applied behavioral science where we also came up with a design process, but we probably didn’t need that. The design process is already there. What behavioral science adds is insights about people that are not always intuitive, and once you internalize those, you will have a different lens on qualitative insights from the field.

Right. I’ll give you an example from my own experience. I was a journalist for over a decade before I became a UX designer. That muscle memory of being a journalist still informs so much of what I do as a designer. It makes me able to synthesize a lot more inputs easily because I’m used to interviewing 30 people and trying to figure out how to tell a story about all of them. I have ended up specializing as a designer in large, gnarly, strategically complex projects. That’s the role I inhabit in my work at Google. So by analogy, I would imagine that somebody who came up through the behavioral sciences might have radically different habits of mind that they bring to bear on design.

Do you see those designers who came up through behavioral science appearing in the design teams?

I haven’t seen them, but I hope I will. I have seen a lot of people transition from behavioral science into UX research. But I haven’t necessarily seen a lot of behavioral scientists transition to UX design. But I think that will come. What’s super interesting about design right now is that you have tools like Sketch, which probably halved the amount of knowledge that is required to design something. For example, when I started as a designer, I started with Sketch. I didn’t start with Photoshop, Illustrator, and all those things. It paved that way for me to enter. Now you have other tools like Figma, which is basically Google Docs crossed with Sketch so that design can now be a collaborative thing. People who are not designers are now messing with wireframes. So as the tools get easier and more accessible, you will see more interesting types of people in the profession.

I have a hypothesis for why behavioral science may not be showing up in UX design directly. In behavioral science, we were so hung up on running experiments in the field, we always wanted to run an A/B test or randomized controlled trial. We would then get constrained to designing something very simple like tweaking an email or changing a letter. We may have sent the impression that we’re really marketing people or communications people. Once you already have a product and a user experience designed, we can optimize how to communicate with users, maybe change little details, but not really contribute to the design of the product. For the same reason, we also don’t have a ton of examples of applying behavioral science to designing products from scratch.

What’s interesting is that sometimes you just need that first person to show the path, and then there are lots of people that come after.

Right. So we need some behavioral science pioneers!

There was another thing that struck me in the book, and this may be a less obvious contribution of behavioral science. You say toward the end of the book that design progresses only when it can find new problems to solve, but that gets harder as we improve our quality of life. That’s so true. It made me realize that we usually talk about behavioral science as a way of finding solutions, but actually it’s pretty good at finding hidden problems. So much of our behaviors are unconscious that if you ask people, they’re not going to tell you, “I don’t want to have to fill out this form.” So it’s like that famous quote (dubiously) attributed to Henry Ford that if he’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. This could be something that we use behavioral science for, finding the problems we haven’t solved yet.

Absolutely. That may be a path that allows behavioral science to change design. A lot of designers will tell you that 90 percent of design is just finding the right problem. The solution is actually not necessarily the hardest part. Any other discipline that can bring new insight into what meaningful problems exist to solve, I think, has to play some role in the design process.

A lot of designers will tell you that 90 percent of design is just finding the right problem. The solution is actually not necessarily the hardest part.

So how do we get behavioral science into the design world more quickly?

I think the answer always starts with the talent pipeline. For example, what if behavioral scientists cocreated a design course about interesting problems to solve? What if they created the design challenges that students face? Some of this is actually about new ways of framing problems and new avenues for influence that maybe aren’t through industry. Maybe it’s about inculcating some of those lessons earlier in the process.

Yeah, I would love to see that happen. We could start by integrating behavioral science into design teams, but in parallel into design education as well. Do you know of good design programs that incorporate behavioral science?

You know, I don’t know of any, but then again, I’m not sure that I would know. Unfortunately, a lot of this stuff became a bad word in the wake of the manipulative behavior of a lot of digital products. The idea of behavior design came out of Stanford and became this sort of taboo subject. So much so that a lot of the people that started those conversations now are very much distancing themselves from them. You know, I can’t help but wonder if the conversation about addictive technology maybe cast a pall on what it meant to apply behavioral science to product design. I mean, that’s a clear way in which people used scientific insights to bad ends.

That’s really interesting. All of the discussion on ethics in your book becomes so important. This is definitely something I worry about. So many of these behavioral insights are so powerful that in the wrong hands, they could lead to some pretty bad stuff.

Well, this has been a great conversation. I think as a starting point toward integration, behavioral science enthusiasts should read your book to learn more about the design world.

I would love nothing more. Because I do think that user experience design, and design more broadly, is a young enough discipline that you can actually grasp a lot of it. That’s what the book is meant to do— give people an overview of what is at stake in the discipline and how it works.

Disclosure: Piyush Tantia serves on the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board, and ideas42 is a founding partner of the Behavioral Scientist.