Effective Design for Behavior Change is Designing for the Resistant User

One of the climate actions I’ve prioritized in my life is incorporating more vegetarian dishes in my diet. I eat dinner every night with family and some are more resistant to change, which makes meal planning a little more challenging — a challenge I’m excited to take on. This particular scenario has made me think more about how to design for behavior change, specifically in the context of environmental sustainability.

When it comes to designing for or making behavior change towards a social good, it is essential to design for the person that does not care about the mission or cause, or what I am calling the “resistant user.”  That will be the most effective. Some people, myself included, care about the climate crisis and make decisions based on those values, but the fact of the matter is not everybody does. We cannot expect or induce people to take up those values. Values are extraordinarily difficult to change in someone, but we can work with those constraints by appealing to people in different ways in order to get them to adopt certain actions or behaviors that are good for the environment, even if they are fulfilling other self-interests, goals, or motivations. 

In the case of someone who is resistant to a vegetarian diet, they are most likely fulfilling their goal of eating what tastes good (at least that is what I’ve observed in people around me, there are probably many other reasons as well). And if you’ve grown up eating meat in most dishes, you’re going find that meat just tastes better, plain and simple. The best vegetarian options that will win over the vegetarian-averse are dishes that taste just as good as meat, if not better. This is the best foot-in-the-door technique when it comes to trying and accepting vegetarian food.

(I’ve been experimenting lately with various plant-based foods, some that mimic the taste of meat and some that stand on their own. I’ve tried veggie burgers, variations of tofu, jackfruit, and soy curls to name a few. I’ll share what has worked and hasn’t worked in a future post.)

Convenience is another powerful motivator and driver of decisions. Convenience can make a product or service more usable or functional. It might also trump other desires or needs (see: Amazon Prime). As much as I prefer to take public transportation, the car is just so convenient, especially in a place without a robust transit system like Los Angeles. And if there’s ever a policy that bans single-use plastics in the future, I can imagine how remembering to bring your own utensils or produce bags might pose as an inconvenience for people. 

Environmentally friendly services or products need to be designed as so convenient and easy to use that they become the preferred or default choice. Again, we’re designing for the person that prioritizes other goals, motivations, or interests over environmental issues.

Another powerful motivator that I can’t leave out is accessibility. Accessibility includes financial access and, for lack of a better term, physical access. Financial access is probably the number one factor people seek out when making purchasing decisions and overrides all other factors for most people. Is the product affordable or cheap? Do I have the ability to purchase the item or service? Those with more financial accessibility are able to consider other factors outside of cost, such as quality, aesthetics, ethical production, health benefits, and so on. I wonder about the ways we can produce environmentally friendly goods or services that are as affordable as the non-ethical alternative. 

I’ve only really focused on the individual consumer here and without systemic change, individual behavior alone is not going move the needle. But as we start to build towards more ethical and sustainable systems, we will have to contend with the individual, human-centered aspects as well, particularly the resistant user.

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