Breaking Bads

The new digital world has given us lots of amazing opportunities to change the way we live and change the way we behave. A quiet revolution has upended our concept of the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organisations powered by algorithms and machine learning. Imagine a world where those smart little algorithms know so much about us that they can start to use little pushes and pulls of digital information to help you break some of your worst habits.

It’s in breaking bad habits where all the good opportunities reside and not in fact within the the new wave of ‘habit making‘ strategies that supposedly get people ‘hooked’. Those strategies fundamentally miss one crucial point – to create something new, you have to break something old.

Feed the pony carrots

The convergence of technology and new understanding of the psychology of habit formation is about to totally transform how we design products and services.

Behavioural change algorithms are great, but you have to teach them what the status quo is in order for them to do their magic. Thats the tough part. However, once they know what ‘normal‘ looks like they can help automate, intelligently, the adjustments that we want to create on the person at the other end of the experience.

Let’s look at the shape of a habit. A habit has three key components;

  1. cue or a trigger for an automatic behavior to start,
  2. routine – the behavior itself
  3. and a reward which is how our brain learns to remember this pattern for the future

It’s what we call “The Habit Loop“.

Awareness Training

The most effective way to shift a habit is to diagnose and retain the existing cue and reward, and try to change only the routine. This is where the pop-habit stuff around at the moment fails. It sells you on the notion that you can go straight from a framework and bunch of features, into creating a new reward. Totally wrong.

Learning the cue and reward takes quite a lot of really clever UX thinking. There is always passive data collection like telematics, which gets you so far, but ultimately the creation of some clever, quick, engaging psychometric profiling experiences laden with things like socratic questioning is really the key to unpacking what triggers someone to fall from grace.

You also have to remember, most people’s habits have occurred for so long they don’t pay attention to what causes them anymore. That’s the point of a habit. It’s usually unconscious. The person just knows something is wrong and needs to be changed.

Save save save

Let’s say, you are building a tool for a bank that aims to help people stop over-spending and save money instead – always start by asking the person to describewhy they over-spend. The thintelligent design community usually just start by hitting the user with a tools that show them what they over-spend on or that they have a problem that needs to be fixed – Well, duh, people know that! People really have trouble coming up with reasons why they have a bad habit. But once you get them starting to think through the reasons they’ll feel a brief sense of completeness. Asking people to talk through the problem tricks the brain into releasing the ‘reward‘ – a physical stimulation people have come to crave.

Task 1 – The Groundwork

Once you’ve helped people identify what triggers the reward you need to set Task 1. For a period of time it’s imperative that people start to log the cues that cause the bad habit. What you want to do is set out to make a record of the time, place and situation that causes the person to feel the cue — for example; the desire to buy something unessential — each time they feel the urge, ask them to make a mark against their profile so we can start to build up a picture of when the habit occurs. It allows a system to start to see what’s occurring.

By the end of a set period of time logging cues, the algorithm and the person will start to be acutely aware of the triggers that proceed the habit itself. They’ll know how many times it occurs and when and where it occurs – at work or while watching television or while they travel etc… time of the week… it’s all Lewin. There are no random coincidences in bad behaviour.

Competing Response

Now onto the tough part of habit breaking. Your product will need to teach people what is known as a “competing response.” Whenever they feel the cue to buy something or do something, you have to trick the person to immediately do something else that makes it impossible to go ahead and do the thing they have the urge to do. Here’s the really important bit – You have to get people to search for something that can provide a quick alternative stimulation — such as rubbing an arm or rapping knuckles on a desk — anything that can produce a physicalresponse.

This is crux of the whole change model: The cues and rewards needs to stay the same. Only the routine changes.

Task 2 – Keep on recording

You can start to gamify (hate that word) the next bit of the behavioural change.

The person involved in the experience, after a week or two, should continue with the cue logging, but now you need to ask them (or automatically via the system), to log when they not only feel the cue, but also make a second record when they successfully override the habit with the new physical response.

When the overrides start to out-pace the failures you can start to reward the person with say, a money off voucher, or some kind of kudos badge. Encourage them to also keep using the recording technique and you’ll find it incredible how quickly the override will become more addictive than the original habit.

After a month the bad habit should be all but gone. The competing routines will become automatic and one new habit has replaced another.

“We’ll help you get thinner (not)”

Here’s another example – Diet apps like MyFitness Pal have got it so wrong. It helps people log the reward (the weight loss / calorie race) but it doesn’t help them understand the cue that makes them over eat in the first place. So say you want to stop someone snacking – Is the reward they’re seeking to satisfy hunger? Or is it to interrupt boredom? People probably snack at work for a brief release, in which case you can easily find another routine, such as taking a quick walk, or giving yourself three minutes on the Internet, that provides the same interruption without adding to the waistline.

Or – If you want to stop people smoking, get them to ask themselves: “Do you do it because you love nicotine, or because it provides a burst of stimulation, a structure to your day, or a way to socialise?“. If you smoke because you need stimulation, studies indicate that some caffeine in the afternoon can increase the odds you’ll quit. More than three dozen studies of former smokers have found that identifying the cues and rewards they associate with cigarettes, and then choosing new routines that provide similar payoffs— a piece of Nicorette, a quick series of pushups, or simply taking a few minutes to stretch and relax — makes it more likely they will quit. It’s the same cue > routine > reward technique that you can create using human centred digital design.

Teach the machines the Cues. Don’t focus on the suggestions of how to be a better person – those are pointless if you don’t know what causes the habit in the first place.


It seems ridiculously simple, but once your system is aware of how a habit works, once it recognises the cues and rewards, it’s halfway there to helping people change it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.

These techniques lay bare one of the fundamental principles of habits: Often, we don’t really understand the cravings driving our behaviors until we look for them. Most people don’t realise that a craving for physical stimulation causes the habit, but once they dissect the habit, it becomes easy to find a new routine that provides the same reward.

If you identify the cues and rewards, you can change the routine.

Comments are closed.

Choose post category