How to design for behaviour: 6 design principles

Remember the last time you were delighted by something you bought? What did you do? Good chance you told your friends about it. If you had a bad experience, you probably told even more people about it. Good design understands, adapts to and enables what people want to do. Good design is good for people and good for business.

The following six design principles describe how people interact with the things around them and how to design better for people.

Behaviour design principle 1: Noticeable

Firstly, good design makes things noticeable. This seems pretty obvious, but how often do you see signs that have been added later to help people? Or worse, people putting up signs themselves?

So how can you get people to notice you?

Most importantly, understand the context of your users; when, where and how do they interact with your product or service? What do they want in that situation? Where do they focus their attention? Which of the 11 different senses are they using? Because noticeable does not only have to mean visible….

design principles: too many buttons on a car stereoConsider my car stereo: It has many little, nicely labelled and similar buttons neatly placed in a row. It looks pretty and organised. But…I tend use my stereo when I’m driving and as I like to pay attention to the road, I will operate my stereo by touch. That means I use 3 buttons max. Needless to say that there will be some occasional cursing in my car.

This street sign is another example that is not always noticeable.

Behaviour design principle 2: Relevance

Secondly, good design tells people what is possible  Can I open it, sit on it, click on it? In behaviour design these are called ‘affordances’.

In the case of my car stereo, the slot at the top tells me that there is a cd-player inside. The first CD-players would have a slide pop out of the machine, and you would carefully place your disk on top of it. Usually the slide would be hidden behind a nice cover and people had trouble finding it (until it suddenly slid out and knocked things over).

What was that button again?

It should be easy and immediate to see what is possible. If people have to rely on memory, basically you failed. Try to minimize the cognitive load of your users. Strive for consistency and follow industry and or cultural standards. Relevant design invites people to use it.

Behaviour design principle 3: Logic

Good design should not only tell what’s possible, but also how to do things. Good design is logical and intuitive. It follows people’s mental model, the idea or understanding of your design in people’s mind, as closely as possible. Design principles: IKEA wayfinding sign not logicalFor example, this sign at an IKEA store represents the route through the store as one long line, but is that the same as the ‘map’ shoppers have in their head? With my car stereo, to me it has too many buttons and more options than I need. When I am in my car, I have other goals than understanding how my stereo works. Stupid? Maybe… When people easily understand your design, they are more likely to engage and explore.

Behaviour design principle 4: Interaction

Good design is interactive. This allows people to take initiative and Design principles: consequences of bad behaviourgives the user a sense of control. This doesn’t mean that users should be able to do everything possible. Feedback on what has been done and what the next possible steps are, can reassure and encourage people to continue with the activity. Again, feedback should also apply to the relevant senses like in principle 2. Read more about feedback.

Behaviour design principle 5: Flexibility

Good design is flexible. This means that it’s accessible and adaptable to different users. This goes beyond designing for different physical abilities. All users, first timers, beginners and experienced users should be able to understand and work with your design. Good design also takes in different motivations and intentions of people. Some people will want to get things over with quickly, others would want to fully engage. Good design has the flexibility to appeal to all.

Behaviour design principle 6: Forgiving

Finally, good design is forgiving. It acknowledges that people make mistakes. Donald A. Norman states: “If a mistake can be made, someone will make it.”
Design that is forgiving minimizes the things that can go wrong, and when thing go wrong minimizes the damage that can be done. Design constraints can help restrict unwanted user interaction at a given moment. Believe it or not, it is possible to put a CD in my stereo upside down.
At the same time, allow room for error. Critical steps can be undone. Support ‘undo’ and ‘redo’. For example, I wish my car stereo had a mute button. My options now are to press the volume button 20 times or finding the ‘off’ button, in which case I will have to find the different button that turns it ‘on’ again, which takes 5 or so seconds.


It isn’t always straightforward or easy to address these design principles.

That’s why it is important to include User research and prototyping into your design process. Talk to people to understand their context, their motivations and what their understanding of your design is. Test how well people notice and where they f*ck up. Allow them space and time to play, explore and re-imagine. If you want people to engage with your design, you have to engage with them.

See examples of behaviour design.

We would like to hear from you: could you share your examples of good (or bad) design?

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