Pile of Cheese curls

Progressive Extremism

Behavioral Design is a common technique used in human factors. Users develop behaviors for a variety of reasons. If we can design products, systems and environments to fit within the users’ natural behaviors, it is much more likely that they will use our design and use it effectively. We can also design our products, systems and environments to make it easy for users to create new behaviors around them – again increase usage and performance. There are many experts in human behavior and habit formation that have published oodles of good information on this (BJ Fogg for example).

Using my Behavior Model (FBM) as a guide, designers can identify what stops people from performing behaviors that designers seek. For example, if users are not performing a target behavior, such as rating hotels on a travel web site, the FBM helps designers see what psychological element is lacking.
-BJ Fogg

One challenge that is often overlooked is what to do when our design requires the user to break a habit. This is a lot harder than it sounds. We are habitual, routinized beings. It is the only way we can get through the day without overloading our brains and collapsing from mental fatigue by lunch. Some experts recommend replacing bad habits with a new one instead of trying to eliminate the habit in isolation. It is quite true that this the easier path.

But what do you do if you don’t want to add an alternative behavior? Is there an alternative? Nir Eyal comes to our rescue. He calls the process “Progressive Extremism.” Instead of what most behavior change programs recommend, which is to “take it slow”, he recommends making small steps but to extreme levels.

For example, to replace the yo-yo diets that never stick, he suggests taking individual food items that you want to cut out of your diet and removing them 100% all at one time. Tell yourself “Never ever again eat cheesecake.” Except with one key difference. He includes (correctly) that we need to attach this proscription to our self-identity so future self-denial will resonate with our identity (as I have written about before, such as here). Instead of telling yourself that you won’t eat cheesecake, or that you can’t eat cheesecake, you tell yourself that you are the kind of person who does not eat cheesecake. Eating cheesecake simply is not an attribute that you possess. So when you look at cheesecake, you don’t crave it. Instead it becomes something ritually violate.

He has some process recommendations that are necessary to make this work. First, start out with something small. Continuing our diet example, give up some kind of junk food you don’t eat much of anyway. You can practice changing your eating identity in easy steps.

He also recommends using some emotional self-monitoring to judge how big a step you are ready for. If giving something up seems too hard, perhaps it is too big a step and you need to find something smaller. Instead of giving up beef (to become a vegetarian in slow steps) you can give up hamburgers. Then later give up steak. Then . . .

But no matter what the change is that you make, you need to tie it tightly to your self-identity and commit to it 100%. If you “can’t” eat steak, it is easy to give yourself a treat day. But if you “are the kind of person who does not eat steak” then you can’t. Then when you are ready, add the next step.

If you are not doing this for yourself, but trying to introduce it into a design, you need to find out a little bit more about the user (another detail I have written about before, such as here). Gretchen Rubin’s archetypes are quite appropriate. This method is much more effective for “abstainers” than for “moderators.” You can find out which one you are at her web site here. If you are an abstainer, Progressive Extremism probably made sense to you immediately. If you are a moderator, it probably sounded foolish. We are all different. One of the things that makes humanity great, enduring, but a pain in the tuckus to design for.

Your Turn

I have a few for you today. Try this on yourself to see if it works. Add it to a design to see if it will work on the abstainers in your user population. Or just comment on what you think of Progressive Extremism in general.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures

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