Something B.I.G. is coming

To build game-changing ventures that create long-term impact, designers need to know more than just users’ latent needs. They need to know how to help them change their behavior.


By Alice Wilson and Grace Davey, BCG Digital Ventures

The core principles of human-centered design are built on the needs and wants of users, but to create truly impactful design we also need to deeply understand the why behind these elements. Ethnography, a core design practice at BCG Digital Ventures, is a powerful way to understand this crucial element. However, this level of understanding is not always enough, particularly if changing user behavior is at the core of a venture proposition. When this is the case we need to apply behavioral science by understanding the choices of our users — many of which seem irrational — and influence their behavior to help them achieve their end goal if we want our ventures to be truly game-changing and become part of people’s everyday lives.

In 2008, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein propelled the application of behavioral science into the spotlight with Nudge. Since then, both public and private sector companies have recognized the value of incorporating behavioral science into product and service design. More recently, we have seen the emergence of a new field called behavior design. Behavior design brings scientific creativity to the human-centered design process, enabling teams to better design products and services that will have longer-term impacts on their users through behavior change.

This powerful opportunity for designers to use behavioral science insights was spotted several years ago by Nick Chater, Professor at Warwick University. He argued that designers have the skills and experience to turn insights from behavioral scientists in the fields of psychology and economics into products and services that make our lives happier and safer.

Why is behavior design needed now more than ever?

At BCGDV, we recognize that bringing long-lasting impact requires big shifts in user behavior, particularly in the context of healthcare, social impact, accident prevention and even climate change. For example, on some of our previous ventures, we combined behavioral science with the right design to make a difference, by encouraging people to:

  • Become volunteers for the small business community (Digital Boost)
  • Adhere to safety protocols (FYLD)
  • Support patients through their care journeys (Gilead)

We recently launched BCG Green Ventures to help progress to a net-zero economy, and it will be key for any climate-focussed ventures to develop long-term habits in their users. Nudges alone cannot solve the climate crisis but, as Richard Thaler recently argued, making behaviors easy to do will be crucial.

This idea of making everything as easy as possible is a core principle of B.I.G., the Behavioral Insights Group we recently launched at DV. Think of B.I.G. as a collective of designers who are actively bringing together the fields of behavioral science and human-centered design to implement behavior design on ventures and accelerate impact. We’re looking for ways to facilitate behavior change, not necessarily motivate, as this is a much harder and uniquely individual task which falls further outside a traditional designer’s sphere of influence.

How does DV apply behavioral design to build habit-forming ventures?

Putting behavioral design into practice can be a lot easier said than done, particularly when we are designing something from scratch. By thinking about behaviors and habit creation from the beginning, we aspire to design our products to integrate completely into people’s everyday lives.

At BCGDV during the venture conception phase, we bear in mind three key things.

1. Start Early and Define User Outcomes.

We start thinking about behavior design from the outset, but before we focus on certain behaviors we dive deep into ethnographic research to truly understand our users and the outcome they are trying to achieve.

2. Prioritize Key Behaviors.

We know that we won’t be able to facilitate behavior change overnight. We prioritize key behaviors that will have the greatest impact on driving the user towards their outcome, and focus on those first.

3. Bring Together Using the “Hooked Model.”

To ensure that the product features we’re designing help our users create sticky habits, we run Hooked workshops based on Nir Eyal’s Hook Model. This enables us to bring the user journey together and look at it through a behavioral lens.

Applying behavioral science to help humans change or adopt new behaviors isn’t novel practice. At BCG, we have extensive experience in facilitating the change of whole organisations. But, what excites us about B.I.G. is pushing the boundaries of human-centered design by refocusing on behaviors, whether existing or new, and applying behavioral science in a more tangible way to create products that stick and have real impact.

This is the first in a series of articles that will be published by BCGDV’s Behavioral Insights Group

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BCG Digital Ventures, part of BCG X, builds and scales innovative businesses with the world’s most influential companies.