I was recently in Northern California by way of an invitation from Dr. BJ Fogg, head of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, to study and learn his new behavior design methodology. In addition to his landmark successes at Stanford and in industry (like groundbreaking research and several patents), BJ travels the globe training innovators at large, consumer-facing companies on how to build products and experiences that create new behaviors.

Admittedly, behavior design can sound a bit “heady.” Don’t let it throw you. BJ’s students have sited his instruction in persuasive technology and behavior design as key tenets in the success of their ventures. I’m talking about things like sitting atop the New York Times Best Seller list and founding companies like Instagram, 4INFO, Pulse,, and LikeALittle, among others. From what I already know about BJ and his thought leadership in psychology, technology, and innovation, I’m positive that my observations and notes from the behavior design bootcamp experience will yield a tremendous amount of application whether you’re an entrepreneur, designer, developer, VC, technologist, communicator, marketer, or any combination thereof.

As an experience designer operating at the four-way intersection of design thinking, human behavior, technology, and systems thinking, I jumped at the chance to join nine others from around the world to be one of the first to participate in BJ’s behavior design bootcamp of sorts. Over the course of a few days, nestled along the shore of the Russian River in Sonoma wine country (sounds rough, I know), I studied BJ’s research and insights into human psychology that have shaped a new discipline called Captology (Computers As Persuasive Technology), as well as his methodology for evaluating opportunities and creating solutions faster.

BJ promised to teach us “to see what others don’t,” and to think systematically about behavior change. We studied his methods for creating new products that influence people, along with the three elements that must converge to cause behavior: motivation, ability, and triggers. Using start-ups, Fortune 500 companies, and products alike as case fodder, BJ shared his approach to mapping target behaviors, the key to prioritizing them, and his step-by-step process for designing and testing solutions that until now has been reserved only for students enrolled at Stanford.

Before I left for San Francisco, my four-year-old daughter, Ellie, instructed, “Dad, as soon as you’re back from your conference I want to know all the names of your new friends.” That’s her new thing- she always wants to know the names of my new friends. My obligation to Ellie notwithstanding, I’m thrilled to be able to share my learnings with the Technori community and look forward to serving up insights with real-time application relevant for engineers, designers, and founders alike. So, here we go!

Behavior Design Bootcamp: Day One

Ten of us and BJ settled in around a large table in the dining room of BJ’s guest home. After short introductions (more in-depth explanations would come later), we dove right into the first exercise. The entire day was spent becoming familiar with BJ’s Behavior Theory – his understanding of behavior and human nature, and learning how we too can be successful in designing for impact. BJ made it clear at the outset that the point of Day One was to learn, understand, and apply how behavior works. We would be required to deliver a diagrammed explanation of his model to the group in exactly two minutes. To make this happen, we spent the day working on individual exercises, partner activities, group projects, and delivery of the model.

This is Not Design Thinking

I think it makes sense now to call attention to the distinction between Dr. Fogg’s Behavior Theory – the emerging discipline of behavior design – and the widening concept of design thinking. In my mind, both occupy some similar space but are not mutually exclusive or competing thought architectures. BJ and I briefly discussed how design thinking and behavior design relate to one another, and he admittedly has not arrived at a definitive relationship, though he believes they are complimentary. I’m hopeful Dr. Fogg is willing to have an ongoing conversation with me about their relationship, and work with the design community to develop a framework in which behavior design and design thinking can be successfully leveraged together. Held in comparison, behavior design fits quite nicely into the larger DesignThinking or Human Centered Design process, and can be employed with great effect as part of a design thinker’s arsenal.

Yes, behavior design is like a lot of other great theories and equations: its simple mechanics are capable of quickly exploding beyond linear explanation once considered in practice and explored in application. First, I’ll tackle the behavior model and unpack each of the three elements of behavior. I’ll follow-up that explanation with the basics of BJ’s Fogg Behavior Theory, which envelopes the model quite nicely. And finally, I will leave you with a handful of soundbites as food for thought.

The Behavior Model

BJ says behavior happens when three things converge in the same moment. If a behavior does not happen, at least one element is missing. The key, he says, is to put “hot triggers” in the path of motivated people.


Let’s unpack the formula in reverse:


A “trigger” is simply what many of us label a “call to action.” We can also call triggers prompts or cues. A trigger is the mechanism that precipitates an act. Easy enough.


Here’s where we go astray. By and large, we spend altogether too much time attempting to influence and move motivation levels. Efforts meant to appeal and elicit spikes in someones motivation are otherwise known as marketing, advertising, or promotions. We work tirelessly to appeal to our customer’s points of pleasure or pain, to inspire hope or spike fear, and to intimate social acceptance or rejection.


Motivation is a slippery construct, and Dr. Fogg proposes our time is better spent designing with more attention to ability. In other words, simplifying—making things easier to do—yields more desired outcomes (results) than attempting to convince your audience that they care or should care. When it comes to the behavior design equation, ability > motivation.

Above, you’ll see “motivation” and “ability” on x-y axes. Behaviors dynamically fall along an ability continuum extending from “hard to do” to “easy to do.” Here’s an example: it’s easier for me to make a donation to President Obama’s re-election campaign online than it is to drive it up to his house on Pennsylvania Avenue. The motivation affecting behavior can also be visualized along a spectrum, dynamically ranging from low to high. If I’m an Obama fan boy, you know my motivation is sky high. If I’m the leader of my local tea party, I’m likely not motivated to be as benevolent to Obama’s 2012 campaign.

When we consider motivation and ability together, triggering a behavior that someone cares about- and is easy to do- will likely produce the desired outcome. If I’ve signed up for emails from Barack Obama, I’ve given an indication of my motivation level- it’s pretty high, right? So, when I get an email following President Obama’s weekly address and his campaign team recaps the address with key points and weaves in a $50 donation request that’s easy for me to act on, the likelihood of me engaging in that act goes up. In contrast, if I received an email following the President’s address and instead asks me for $10,000, I’m exponentially less likely to make a donation because I don’t have the ability to make a $10,000 gift.

As you’ve probably noticed through my Obama campaign example, there’s a tradeoff between motivation and ability that’s visualized as a near 90 degree slope on the x-y axes. Dr. Fogg calls this slope the activation threshold, and the area above it indicates the “place” where triggers succeed. Put another way, that’s your market. As marketers, we’re looking for people who have the motivation and ability to do what we’re asking them to do. If you haven’t thought about your market along these dimensions or in the context of the behavior design equation, it can be pretty helpful.

Consider again the email I received from the Barack Obama campaign. Instead of underscoring the salient points of the weekly address (tying them to the need for my donation), let’s say the email promoted the video of the address and subsequently saved the solicitation for $50 until after the video. In this case, the likelihood of the behavior occurring is much lower. Why? Even though I may have the motivation and fiscal ability to make the gift, perhaps I’m not able to play video on my device, or I am riding on the quiet Metra car, or maybe I just didn’t have the time to watch the video. This example demonstrates the possibility that a trigger can be too ambiguous, too broad, or unable to adequately drive to the desired end result.

Fogg Behavior Theory

It’s certainly a simple equation, but it becomes much more complex in practice. It was interesting to experience the waves of understanding come and go throughout the first day of bootcamp. There were definitely points when I felt I had a handle on the approach, and other times when I thought it was too obtuse or exclusive. Dr. Fogg breaks the equation out into these three precepts as part of his behavior theory:

  1. The easier the behavior is to do, the more likely a person is to do it.
  2. The more motivated someone is, the more likely a desired behavior is to happen.
  3. No behavior happens without a trigger.

Closing Soundbites (For Now)

In closing, here are a few “soundbites” to help reframe the core principles I wrote about above with some fresh precepts:

  • Simplicity changes behavior.
  • Break it down. Make it tiny. “Crispify,” as BJ likes to say.
  • Behaviors achieve outcomes.
  • Contrary to popular belief, attitudes do not.
  • Geography (context) is a huge predictor of a particular behavior’s success.
  • Focus on ability/simplicity, not motivation.
  • Focus on gateway activities that trigger domino effect behaviors.

Stay tuned for Behavior Design Bootcamp Day 2 learnings tomorrow!