Designers, It’s time to Lean-in to Science

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How can science safeguard our designs against the illusion of tempting ideas and biases?


Visiting several art, design and creative exhibitions for inspiration is not uncommon among students of design. And what essentially differentiates works of artists from works of designers really comes down to an artist exploring an idea with the intention of pure experimentation versus a designer deliberately creating to have a tangible impact on a user.

But what happens when we designers get carried away by the adrenalin rush that comes with feeling the urge to explore an idea? I know, we’ve all been there! The outcome is a passion project that is of course marvellous to look at, just as an artist’s work, but also one that has higher chances of failure amongst users because our designs were backed by a whim, rather than by scientific research on what the users truly want and need. 


That is when our work falters to being more art than science.


Our personal beliefs, preconceptions, and  prejudices are further obstacles in creating designs that work, i.e. that fulfil the purpose that we set out to fulfil. For a majority of us, for example, it’s normal to create assumptions about how others will react to and engage with our designs based on our own experiences, no matter how empathetic we are.

So how do we create designs that are safeguarded against the illusion of prejudices—ours and the users—and of course against the temptation of following certain ideas that may not have any relevance to the target user group, but instead guarantee a higher success rate with our clients? 

The design community is increasingly embracing scientific analysis, evidence-based research, and data-driven conclusions as a part of their design process to maintain focus on creating designs that have a desirable outcome amongst the users. 


Science and Design: The intersection

Well, we can go way back to Leonardo DaVinci’s life to see the evidence of how amalgamating scientific thinking with creative exploration can lead to real innovation, and designs that are spoken about well after the death of the creator.  

Evidently, the benefits, and in fact, the need for this intersection, has not been missed by some of the leading design schools of the world, such as Stanford’s D-school which says that human-centred design (HCD) is not enough for tackling complex challenges. Instead, they talk about an integrative approach that takes into account the qualitative aspect of HCD but also includes scientific and strategic thinking to help achieve favourable results. 

Or, the Master of Science in Human-Centred Design & Engineering (HCDE) program at the University of Washington specifically teaches ‘Experimental Research Methods’ and ‘Designing for Behaviour Change’. They focus on extrapolating meaningful and actionable information from data and leaning into research papers in the field of human behavioural psychology as a means to test and quantitatively support our insights from the qualitative HCD studies. 

This integrative approach is meant to eliminate biases that may come with a typical HCD brainstorming session where often, ideas are noted on sticky notes and organised on a whiteboard, following which, the idea around which the best narrative is created is often proceeded within the solution phase. 

This process is useful for ideation but it leaves room for error by choosing an idea that is more appealing than one that would be supported by data. 

Instead, by combining design thinking with science, scientific findings are used to produce new ideas, which we can then test and iterate to narrow down on one that works—the keyword being works—something we can see in Project Florence, a product that helps you talk to plants, and created with the intention of changing human behaviour towards our natural world. This product draws on human psychology that shows that we tend to value objects that are personified, or that we see ourselves in and thus, can evoke positive behavioural change to protect our environment. 


Behavioural design methodology

For design agencies, the torch-bearer of this fast-increasing collaboration between science and design is the field of behavioural psychology. Years of scientific research help remove any shred of doubt as to why a segment of users is not adopting a certain design solution or why users behave in a particular way when intuition suggests otherwise.

Our design community is devouring books like Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things by Norman that reveals the reasoning behind intrinsic human behaviour such as why cheap wine tastes better in fancy glasses or why the sales of the Apple Macintosh soared when it released the colour version. The book Hooked by Eyal goes a step further and shows us exactly how to nudge customers into a certain behaviour and how to bring users back again and again without aggressive messaging. 

Behavioural design is thus, a scientific approach to designing to achieve behaviour change using data from behavioural sciences—cognitive neuroscience, behavioural economics and proven experiments conducted by thousands of behavioural scientists—that leads to a higher success rate of your products, programmes, and services.

It shows us exactly why people do what they do, and how we can guide and nudge their behaviour.


Behavioural Design helps reduce assumptions and bias in the design process.

Backed by the methodological rigour of research to understand behavioural psychology, this analytical approach will eliminate assumptions and tell you once and for all why your users click on a particular button on your screen while completely ignoring the important Call To Action button! It also makes transparent the reasoning behind what consumers say they’ll do and what they actually do. This knowledge is critical for making targeted design decisions.


Behavioural Design is a strategic framework. 

It provides a framework for identifying pain points that may be preventing the user from converting. It shows us how certain barriers stop a customer from staying longer on your meditation app and also highlights those benefits that are not valuable enough for the customer to choose your product over a competitor’s. 


Behavioural Design helps create the most conducive environment for the user.

If your product is a mobile application, then that app interface is the environment in which the user is interacting with your product. Through strategic testing, Behavioural Design shows what would make a conducive environment to achieve the desired behaviour, which could be anything from staying longer on the app to making a quick purchase. 


Behavioural Design helps achieve desired user behaviour.

Behavioural design leans heavily into the study of human decision-making and using that knowledge, it helps bridge the gap between current behaviour and desired behaviour. It also draws on studies such as Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational study which shows us how too much choice can create buyer’s remorse.


Behavioural design: The adoption

Designers have been practising the Human-Centred Design model since 1978. So how do we adopt this data and academic research-driven behavioural design methodology while we are so used to the qualitative approach of HCD? 

That’s the thing. There is no either, or. Designers will not be divided into data-driven designers and qualitative-research designers. Instead, we are moving towards a more collaborative approach where the scientific research of behavioural psychology gives us a framework for:

  1. Brainstorming solutions targeted to the specific behavioural opportunity 
  2. Testing our solutions with a very clear end goal—is our solution giving the desired behaviour?
  3. Measuring business growth due to the behaviour change over a period of time 

You see? The behavioural design gives us very specific measurable metrics within which to ideate and test our designs and tangibly measure results. 

Behavioral Design can be included in your design process in multiple ways. We at Palette69 never fail to bring our Behavioral Design toolbox to our brainstorming sessions. Here’s a peek into the Behavioural Design toolbox:

  1. What’s the job to be done?  – To answer this, we look at everything from pinning goals that matter to the consumer to behaviour closely associated with that goal. We look at barriers to achieving those goals and behaviours and potential benefits that can augment those behaviours. Barriers need not be external, they could be something intrinsic like old habits. 
  1. Ideating and Prototype – Once the key opportunity and problem areas are identified, we ideate solutions that are in line with scientific behavioural research. 
  2. Test – Finally, it is time to test in a controlled environment with potential users to see which solution leads to the best behavioural outcome. That’s our winner!



Relying on in-depth scientific research for insights and through its data-driven approach, Behavioural Design has opened the doorways for measuring the impact of creative solutions. One just has to be mindful that we are always on this side of the line of ethics—always watch out for that grey line. Otherwise, the canvas to program (yes, pun intended) human behaviour is all yours.


Writing Credit – Vishanka


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