User Experience and Behaviour Change

PhD Student Mark Spooner talks about his research which combines User Experience, Interface Design and Behaviour Change Theory in order to help parents form good habits when it comes to their toddlers’ health.

A couple of years ago I started a PhD in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Behaviour Change. I am looking at how we can use technology to reduce childhood obesity in pre-school children, with a particular focus on the HENRY programme. Previous to starting this PhD I had worked as a User Experience (UX) Designer for many years, which is very similar to HCI and much of the practical application of UX has come out of HCI research. When I decided to do a PhD I didn’t know a lot about behaviour change, but as my partner Claire Easthall did part of her PhD on behaviour change I had picked up a few things over time.

Dr Claire Easthall

As I researched Behaviour Change theory it became clear that there was a lot that UX and behaviour change had in common and that you could apply behaviour change techniques to designing interfaces. However, these were only observations and I had not thought to write these down until I was at a UX event (hosted by Northern UX and located at Simple Usability offices in Leeds) and was asked to do a talk on the subject.

Whilst I have good experience in UX I didn’t feel I was at a stage to be able to go into depth about behaviour change theory and how to apply it fully. Thankfully Claire, who continues to lecture on behaviour change theory at the University of Leeds, was happy to help.

Individual behaviour change is focused on the individual who has control over how they engage with it.

The presentation was delivered by myself and my partner Claire at Northern UX; the audience were predominantly people working in UX and the session was broken into 3 sections:

The first section was a background to technology-led behaviour change and the types of behaviour change we see around us on a daily basis, for example smiley and sad faces on road speed signs which encourage modification of driving behaviours.

The presentation introduced behaviour change by showing that it is already in effect around us and in fact dark behaviour change, such as the emotive and persuasive marketing used by cigarette manufacturers of past, has been with us for a very long time.

The second and third sections look at individual and population behaviour change respectively using a worked example. Claire discussed how we can target behaviour at an individual level and how technology can support this process, using medicine adherence as the example.

This section of the presentation focused on the use of theoretical models to identify the full range of behavioural determinants and how technology driven interventions such as apps, could be used to support practitioners in identifying these.  Claire introduced the audience to the theoretical models developed by Susan Michie and colleagues such as the Theoretical Domains Framework, COM-B Model and the Behaviour Change Wheel.


For the third section I demonstrated that interfaces to a certain extent equivalent to controlling the external environment and that you can effect population behaviour change in the design and experience of a website or application.  I applied the COM-B model and Theoretical Domains Framework to explore barriers to completion of a web-based form and highlighted that the application of this theory can support a robust and structured approach to understanding user experience with technology and thus inform interface design.

Models such as the COM -B and BCW help us to select evidence based techniques to target specific determinants of behaviour.

The presentation was given in the belief that it would benefit those that might be engaged in Behaviour change research as part of their role and help exposed the work or Susan Michie and the Theoretical Domains Framework, COM-B Model and the Behaviour Change Wheel to the UX community. The second purpose was to introduce the idea that we can take the systematic approach of behaviour change in how we design the interface environments for our users.