If you’ve ever been around a toddler, you know that changing behavior is challenging. Perhaps you haven’t been around many moments of, “No, little Timmy, please don’t put those keys in your eyes/mouth/unmentionables,” but as a human being who (and failed fantastically), you know that the best-laid plans can fail and fall through. The concept of behavioral design tries to nudge us in the direction of goals. These goals can be ones we seek out personally or ones set out by businesses and societies. Let’s take a close look at what precisely behavioral design is, how it can help us in edTech and whether it is quite as sinister as much of Hollywood would lead us to believe. 

What is Behavioral Design?

Behavioral design aims to persuade an audience. Importantly, it is about persuasion and not coercion, meaning the designer must respect people’s rights to freedom of choice, autonomy, and dignity. Every living person has a habit system. These habits are learned unconscious behaviors. Since a habit is nothing but a learned behavior, behavioral designers can use the CAR model to influence behavior. 

The CAR Model 

MIT researchers discovered a neurological loop at the base of the habits that make up our lives. 

  • Cue “I wake up.”
  • Action “I shower, brush my teeth, make breakfast, etc.” 
  • Reward “I smell nice, and my appetite has been sated.”

And repeat. Together this creates a habit or routine. Behavioral designers intentionally construct cues to induce actions. The possible rewards are:

  • Rewards of Self: such as a desire for mastering a skill
  • Rewards of the Hunt: such as a conquering of finding something 
  • Rewards of the Tribe: finding a sense of belonging 

Behavioral Design Approaches

  • Persuasive Technology: uses technology, including edTech, to influence people’s behavior.
  • Behavioral Economics: looks at how economists can use behavioral design to promote sustainable behavior for worldwide markets. 
  • Trans-Theoretical Model: strategies for healthy behavior 
  • Mindful Design: seeks to encourage responsible choice, often by making the user aware that there are choices to be made beyond the obvious one.
  • Socially-Responsible Design: calls awareness to four different forms of influence: decisive, coercive, persuasive, or seductive.
  • Community-Based Social Marketing: seeks to reduce barriers between community members and make benefits more accessible. 
  • Transition Framework: studies the psychology behind human changes 

What are the Stages of Behavioral Design?

  1. Attention Grab: This is the moment to make an idea or product look engaging. You want to go for exciting storytelling and eye-catching design. 
  2. Influencer: Time to show them why they paid attention in the first place. This is the place for clear (jargon-free) messaging. Simplicity is key. Describe what the benefits are. 
  3. Facilitate Action: what are the little steps you’d like the learner to take? Chunk information together for ease of use and understanding. Guide their experience through walkthroughs. Create a personalized plan for them. 
  4. Keep Them Going: Celebrate every progress, gamify the experience to keep them coming back for more. You want to make your message become the long-term friend they impulsively text every day, rather than that one acquaintance you chat with over coffee every two years before promising to “not let it be that long next time.” 

How does Behavioral Design Relate to Educational Technology?

Believe it or not, but edTech is all about behavioral design at its core. Understanding human behavior can aid in solving learning and development challenges such as:

  • low learner engagement
  • low adoption rates
  • lack of diversity and equality 

Learning itself is an attempt to obtain knowledge to achieve something. This idea leads us back to the types of rewards mentioned earlier. edTech technology makes us of:

  • communication
  • collaboration
  • gamification 

as ways of creating further rewards. Using their social aspects of learning constructs relationships between individual learners and teachers, which becomes a powerful persuasion tool. 

Advantages of Behavioral Design

  • Highly effective.
  • Grounded in science: as the neurological loop behavioral design bases its techniques on has been widely researched, it is highly effective.
  • Ethics Conscious: behavioral design is grounded in understanding propaganda and persuasion. 
  • Change the world: much of online discourse on behavioral design is centered around controlling people. However, there is a vast opportunity to solve health problems such as smoking via effective behavioral strategies. 

Disadvantages of Behavioral Design

  • Human behavior takes a long time to change.
  • Some users perceive behavioral design technology as intrusive. This can backfire and create oppositional defiance. 
  • The more subtle behavioral design becomes, the more worries about ethics come up. 
  • There are no long-term studies that show whether or not we continue to be motivated once behavioral design cues are removed. 
  • Steep Learning Curve: behavioral design theory is not super easy. This article has only touched on its surface, and it can rebound when not fully understood. 

Thinking Bigger on Behavioral Design 

We are still in the early stages of behavioral design, but it could solve more significant problems in society and social living. Can we create libraries that further knowledge and reduce loneliness and thus positively impact mental health? How can we make up-skilling and re-skilling part of everyday behaviors to solve gaps in the work market and lower unemployment rates? It is a massive opportunity for design and science to meet in the middle and shape human behavior to be more sustainable and kinder. At its core, behavioral design is the search for something that can change the world. 


Sometimes studying a framework of design can help take your learning technology work to the next level. It isn’t always as easy as 1,2,3, but I have every hope that this newfound knowledge of behavioral can positively impact your learners’ engagement and the way you design edTech.