How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design

The path to doing this work can be quite ambiguous.

The path to doing this work can be quite ambiguous. NirandFar.com

Six years ago, I was in a position that many people early in their careers find themselves in: I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My first job out of college took good care of me and was interesting enough, but I knew it wasn’t the career I wanted in the long term. I needed something else, so I started reading and exploring what was out there. One day, as I was reading a blog post on psychology, I discovered a book called Nudge that caught my eye. I bought it immediately and devoured it. The book opened a whole new realm of psychology and economic thinking that I had no idea existed me in a way nothing else had. This was what I was looking for in my search.

Fast forward to the present day and I’ve fully made the transition. I found my dream job in the field working on Morningstar’s Behavioral Insights Team, where we apply behavioral science research and methods to help people with their finances. It’s amazing and I’m constantly energized by not only the work we do, but also the greater potential in this field.

Whether called behavioral design, product psychology, or behavioral science, there’s never been this level of interest, excitement, or opportunities to understand the quirks of the human mind and use this knowledge to change how people live. From the highest levels of government to the C-suite, behavioral science is being applied in the real world and tackling big problems.

Despite this level of interest, the path to doing this work can be quite ambiguous. For those who read books like Nudge and are inspired to put Choice Architecture into practice much like I was, it’s unclear what they should do next.

It took me more than five years to discover that path and successfully navigate it. It was a winding road with more than a few dead ends along the way and if I was starting over, I would do much of it differently. Being in the incredibly fortunate position to do this work now, I regularly receive questions from others with this passion that find themselves in the same place I was. After thinking through their questions and providing my input, I’ve come up with some advice.

In this post, I’ll outline what I wish I could have told myself six years ago when I decided to make a career as a behavior designer. If you’re interested in doing behavioral work, I hope this will eliminate much of the guess work in your path to a career in the field. There is certainly much more to know and explore, so I wouldn’t consider my advice definitive, but this is what I’ve found to be the most useful. I’ll detail that path in two main sections:

1. Core competencies:

  • Cognitive and Social Psychology
  • Research and Experimental Methods
  • Technology

2. Career paths:

  • Academia
  • User Experience
  • Marketing
  • Consulting
  • Government
  • Your current job

I’ve found multiple paths to working as a behavior designer. It’s important to understand, however, that most of these paths won’t necessarily lead you to a job with the title, “Behavior Designer.” The field is still too new and the private sector hasn’t established the role just yet. However, these paths lead to doing important work, changing lives by changing people’s daily behavior.

No matter which of these roles you choose, you’ll need some common core competencies between them. Behavioral design is an interdisciplinary field, so you’ll need grounding in a few different areas.

The Core Competencies

Cognitive and Social Psychology

It should go without saying, but you need to understand cognitive and social psychology to do this work. In particular, you should understand the emerging view among behavioral scientists on how the mind makes decisions. To paraphrase, it goes something like this: we’re not perfectly rational, calculating beings all of the time. Instead, we have limited cognitive abilities and our minds use shortcuts (or heuristics) to help stretch our limited mental resources. Because of these limitations, and our shortcuts, our decisions are remarkably susceptible to our environment and social cues. Changing our environment or social cues can radically alter behavior.

You do not necessarily need a formal degree for this, though it’s certainly very valuable. Whether you study it formally or independently, you absolutely need to master the material.

To do this, start with the seminal works in the field. The following were my favorite starting points:

There are many, many more books to read, so I encourage you to find other works. Start with the best sellers for an easier starting point and work your way to the more academic and technical works.

The next step is to go beyond the books. Read the academic papers they cite. Follow the leaders in the field and consume the new papers, articles, and books they share or publish. Attend great behavioral design events like Nir Eyal’s annual Habit Summit. Join organizations like the Behavioral Science & Policy Association, the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, and Action Design to stay up to date on the latest research and content. By reading the defining papers and books of behavioral economics, you’ll have the knowledge base you can build upon.

If you are interested in this work and have yet to start digging into the literature on your own or know you are not self-directed enough to master this material without structure, then take a formal study program. You can find a comprehensive list of programs graduate programs here from BehavioralEconomics.com.

Research and Experimental Methods

You probably already knew you would need to know psychology to be a behavior designer. What most people do not realize is that the concepts are secondary to the method. I know I didn’t in the beginning. What is that method? Research and experimentation.

The fundamental skill set of a behavior designer is research. Whenever possible, this means experiment design and execution. Much of what we know in this field is the result of research from randomized controlled trials (RCT) or other methods like observational studies, surveys, and regression analyses. When you read any of the hallmark books, you’ll find the concepts presented are backed by RCTs or other forms of research from academia (and, increasingly, the private sector). The scientific method is the key to separating what’s real and what isn’t.

Why is this so important? The mind is a fickle thing and the smallest changes in population, environment, and the like affect how it operates. Because of that, you can’t just take something from a book, apply it to whatever you are doing, and assume it will work. The actions people take vary wildly in different contexts and populations, so many great behavioral ideas don’t end up working. You can try using the widely-held concepts of classic behavioral economics, but you have put them to the test in your own world. You must validate them with experiments. This is the true work of a behavior designer.

The most powerful method is the randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of research. In an RCT, you’ll take something, make another version of it with a change you think may affect the outcome, randomly select participants into which version they receive to remove bias, and measure the results. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but technology has made it relatively easy to do this. Point and click web tools like Optimizely and Visual Website Optimizer or email software like MailChimp or Aweber automate the process. While the execution has become easier and made A/B testing common, realizing the true benefits of experiments requires basic understanding of statistical significance, effect sizes, sampling, power calculations, and the like. Without that knowledge base, it’s difficult to obtain meaningful insights and results from testing.

To start learning, I recommend Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society. For a much deeper dive from the academic side, try Field Experiments: Design, Analysis, and Interpretation. You’ll also need to know the fundamentals of statistics, so I recommend Naked Statistics for beginners. Online education platforms like Coursera and Khan Academy also offer many options for learning these subjects. Many university research labs need volunteers, as well, so look into those opportunities if you have the opportunity.

To design and analyze the results of all those experiments, you’ll need to work with a lot of data. Thus, being proficient in data skills is also necessary.

You’ll need to learn a data programming language to do this. R, STATA, SAS, and Python are the most common. Which one will depend on the career path you choose for being a behavior designer, as detailed in the next section. I generally recommend R, but you’ll have to see what your industry uses most often.

Once you’ve chosen a language to learn, you’ll find plenty of options for education. There are free programs like Swirl, free academic courses on the aforementioned online education sites like Coursera and Khan Academy, paid workshops and boot camps, and even graduate programs. The key data tasks will be gathering, linking, and cleaning data and running regressions and experimental analyses, so focus on that subject matter. Start small and let your work and interests dictate how far you go. You’ll learn best on the job doing real data projects.

Technology

Behavioral design is increasingly a technology discipline. You don’t need to be a full-time coder, but some programming skills and technical savvy will be necessary in most roles.

As mentioned in the previous section, it’s important to know at least basic data programming for research. Proficiency in testing tools is also important and can be learned quickly. Analytics software like Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics allow you to collect the data you’ll need, too.

Other technology skills will depend on the path you take, but some basic programming will be valuable in most opportunities. Most behavioralists would find value from some skill in coding for front-end websites (examples: CSS, HTML, and Java), mobile apps (examples: Objective C (iOS) and Java (Android)), and desktop apps (examples: Visual Basic 6, .NET and Java). Python is emerging as a common language for both applications and data analysis, as well.

The key is to develop hard skills for whatever field you pursue so you can provide more value in your role, communicate effectively with technology teams, and not always rely on others for technical work. After reviewing the paths below, get input from those already in the field to know what skills are necessary.

The Jobs

As mentioned above, being a behavior designer doesn’t usually mean you have a job title that says so. Most opportunities require somewhat of a Trojan Horse technique. There aren’t many true opportunities designated as purely behavioral work (and the ones that do exist are hyper competitive), but the work in the fields and positions listed below directly involves measuring, predicting, and motivating human behavior.

Below are five common career paths to being a behavioral designer (plus a bonus suggestion).

Academia

This is the traditional route and still where you find most of the leaders in the field. To build your career here, you’ll climb the academic ladder, studying your way through Masters and PhD programs in the social or behavioral sciences, and eventually teach and conduct research at a university. Sometimes this will be supplemented with work writing books and consulting. Behavioral employment opportunities will be in cognitive or social psychology and MBA programs (often focused on marketing).

To be clear, I’m specifically referring to being employed in academia. Simply studying the relevant fields and pursuing their advanced degrees can also lead to jobs in the fields specified below.

Do this is if you like writing, especially the academic and technical variety, and prefer focused learning and research in one area.

User Experience

In this field, you can incorporate behavioral methods as you design products that engage people and drive them to take action. Think about how many different products you engage with in a given day. The apps on your phone, your phone itself, your computer, your email client, your car, your Fitbit…the list is endless. Every one of those products motivates our behavior in some way and its usage is dependent on how our brain interprets the value and ease of its use.

UXers with a behavioral background know the psychology of how people interact and engage with products. They can use that to build upon the particular skills of the UX field. Qualitative research techniques are key to understanding the needs of users and gaining valuable feedback. Design concepts are critical, including product, interaction, and interface design. Understanding information architecture and programming (especially front end) can be quite valuable.

I recommend reading Designing for Behavior Change and Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products to learn how to use behavioral design principles to shape the user experience.

Do this if you enjoy the intersection of creative work and problem solving, desire to actually create tangible products people can use, and are comfortable doing technical work.

Marketing

Good marketers have always been well attuned to psychology and data driven practices. Well before the explosion of interest in behavioral design, advertisers and direct response copywriters were iterating their way to finding what drives people to take action or change their perception through tests of direct mail ads and consumer research. In the new digital marketing world, it’s more important than ever to understand how to cut through the noise and engage people with good messaging.

Behavioral designers in the marketing realm are keen to understand what drives people to be engaged with communications and take action. They know how to conduct good consumer research. They know how to parse big data sets and find patterns and correlations of consumer behavior. They know how to leverage what they’ve learned and researched to optimize every piece of a marketing funnel strategically using experiments.

Start with marketing classes, especially those taught within MBA programs, so you can understand the basics of marketing and consumer behavior. Then, learn the tools you’ll need to run and analyze marketing campaigns like point and click A/B testing tools, analytics software, and programming languages for data analysis and front end coding. With these skills under your belt, you’ll be ready to start doing the work, either in firms like Ogilvy that have directly embraced the role of behavioral design in effective marketing, or by expanding the value of traditional marketing positions.

Do this if you’re fascinated with communications and technical enough to be adept with software.

Consulting

Several behaviorally focused consulting firms exist and directly apply this work for clients. While this type of organization is not prolific, and thus has limited opportunities for jobs, they offer some of the most direct application in the field and provide innovative opportunities.

The behavioral consulting industry includes:

The skills necessary to work at such organizations are dependent on the specific roles in a project, so they may encompass many of the ones described in other roles here. Any firm will require the skill sets of a consultant, including project management, communication, and client relationship management.

Do this if you enjoy variety in your work, a fast paced culture, and managing relationships with different stakeholders.

Government

The public sector is putting behavioral design to work. The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (aka, the Nudge Unit) paved the way years ago and now similar teams exist in the US, India, Australia, and other countries. Some of the work in this space is done by the consulting firms listed above, too.

The core behavioral skill sets are important here and the particular role in a team will have different requirements. There is overlap with consulting, as well, as such teams work on many different projects.

Do this if you like the consulting type of environment but are passionate about government service and making an impact at that level.

Your current job

While the careers paths listed above offer the best opportunities for extensive application of behavioral methods, I want to stress that anyone can get started. The great thing about behavioral design is that it’s relevant in anything that involves humans, so there’s no reason not to begin in whatever you’re doing now. You don’t have to run experiments to do some form of behavioral work. Read the pop-sci books (Predictably Irrational, Hooked, Influence, Blink, Switch, Drive, etc.) and start applying what you learn to your day job and life. Whether using independent assessments to run meetings, modifying how you write your emails, or adjusting your desk space for a more productive environment, there are plenty of ways to apply behavioral design without going deep into the weeds. You may even create a new field of application while doing it.

The path forward

The paths to being a behavioral designer may seem obtuse, but choosing the destination that best matches your interests and strengths and building the skills you need to get there provides some clarity.

If you’re unsure of which route to take, try more than one. Talk with people who work in different areas. The field is still small and behavioral designers are generally very accessible. Take online courses and do projects with real organizations. A central part of this dynamic field is continuous learning, so embrace it.

The last 6 years have been an exciting journey to find my place in this field. The more I learn about behavioral design and meet new people applying it, the more excited I become for the next 6 years and beyond. We’ve only scratched the surface of applying these principles to change the world and have a long way to go to reach the field’s promise. To achieve that, I hope more people will explore doing this important work.

This post originally appeared at NirAndFar.com and is written by Erik Johnson. For more insights and a free behavior design workbook, subscribe at NirAndFar.com

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