Can a marketing agency function without behavioural design

What is behavioural design? What is persuasion design? And how does it work?

Behavioural design is, in essence, my job description. It’s a relatively new discipline in the business sector, but I’d go so far as to say it’s already indispensable.

Digital transformation has fundamentally changed 21st century consumer behaviour. Conventional advertising methods have lost their impact, and changes in consumer behaviour bring new challenges. Marketing agencies are well known for creative communication, but from now on there’s something else: influencing consumer choices and their buying behaviour. This new side of marketing means new skills are needed, and hiring a behavioural designer is certainly a good move.

Below I will explore the concept of behavioural design, and describe what it is exactly that a behavioural designer does. I also want to prove that behavioural design is a vital link for the success of creative ideas. The last subject of this blog will be the link between behavioural design and persuasion design.


When someone raises the topic of behavioural design, there are two kinds of reaction: recognition or confusion. Everyone understands the words “behaviour” and “design”, but it’s hard to figure out the meaning when they are combined. A normal designer is someone who creates things, clothes or buildings, but how do you ‘create’ behaviour?

The term behavioural design is extra confusing. They see design as visualising things or making them look beautiful. They think of graphic design.

But this visual interpretation is far too limited. Behavioural design takes the meaning of design in its broadest sense. Behavioural design is a question of employing resources that consciously and unconsciously stimulate people to make a certain choice. For example, when I see you and say “Hello!” you will be tempted to say it back. I have used your cultural and communicative habits to answer a greeting with a greeting. It can be that simple.

Behavioural design is a question of employing resources that consciously and unconsciously stimulate people to make a certain choice.

So basically everyone can be a behavioural designer, because you can use it in every situation. You just have to use your knowledge and habits to let people behave in a certain way. With that knowledge you can also manipulate them in ways both positive and negative.

But if you want to be worthy of the title behavioural designer, you need to know two things. First, you have to understand where behaviour comes from, and second, you have to know how and why people make decisions. So basically you’ll need to understand the mechanics of selection and buying behaviour, so you can consciously insert resources to create a certain behaviour.


Which resources might those be? Well, you name it. A graphic designer uses his design to let your eye catch a button. A copywriter writes a slogan that convinces you to buy a product. An interior designer decorates an office in such a way that employees are stimulated to work together, but at the same time can isolate themselves when needed.

All these instruments are implemented with one crucial condition: they contribute to stimulating the desired behaviour. The behavioural designer oversees all these resources and brings in other expertise where necessary.

In my sector, marketing and design, we often want a person to take action as quickly as possible. At SUE Amsterdam (the design agency I work for) this action might be signing a petition, signing up for a newsletter or watching a video. This action is the first micro conversion, the first touchpoint in our contact strategy. After a while, when the customer is further into the “user journey”, we can give them the ultimate offer to suit their needs.

My task as behavioural designer is to make this offer as appealing as possible. I also need to optimise all the previous conversion moments. This is necessary because you want as many people as possible to accomplish the goal. That is possible if you consciously and unconsciously convince your audience.

You can convince a person by making good arguments, clearly and concisely. Still, the big win for a behavioural designer can’t be achieved by convincing the unconscious. The designer needs to seduce the unconscious, because we make 95% of our choices unconsciously. So you can choose sweat, and influence only 5% of people, or use expertise in consumer selection and buying behaviour, and reach that 95%.

95% of our choices are made unconsciously.

There is much scientific research about the principles that affect our behaviour, forming the basis of behavioural psychology and behavioural economics. Some must-read books on the subjects include: Thinking Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman), Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion (Robert B. Cialdini), and Decoded (Phil Barden). These books will tell you all you need to know about ‘scarcity’ (dropping the offer in the most exclusive way), ‘ocial proof’ (activating the herd animal in all of us), ‘framing’ (creating a context in which your proposal is the only logical option) and much more.

Persuasion Design

Persuasion design is the implementation of behavioural design in (online) marketing. Frankwatching, an independent Dutch cross-media platform, defines persuasion design as follows: “The meaning of Persuasion Design lies in designing and applying certain principles which influence decision-making and purchasing behaviour of potential customers. This influence increases the ease of use and convinces the visitor to act in the desired way.”

My duty as a persuasion lead is to explore the reasons why someone exhibits a specific behaviour or not. When the reasons are clear, it’s my task to find out how we can stimulate the person to exhibit the desired behaviour. That’s why our approach goes further than briefing our customer. When a customer asks us to boost sales, the solution may be to facilitate the provision of services, or to introduce a different product, or to remove some doubts and insecurities. You can find the right solution by mapping out the “user journey” of the consumer. After that, you can determine how you can influence consumer behaviour. It’s the task of the behavioural designer and persuasion designer to show the expression as clearly as possible in every stage of the buyer’s journey.

It’s important that the focus isn’t entirely on influencing motivation, because a big factor in human behaviour is accessibility. When a specific behaviour is easy, a lot more people will do it. The big success of Amazon isn’t the great communication campaign or their clever proposition. It’s the fact that you can order anything you like with only one click and that Amazon has next day delivery. There are a lot of psychological principles which we can use to make a desired behaviour easier, or to make undesired behaviour more difficult. Creative communication is rarely the answer to our customers needs.

If you work according to behavioural design methods there is one rule: first make it easier to do something, and only then can you think about the motivations.

The key question

We must be able to steer human behaviour, but if we rely on creative communication alone, we’ll fall short. The challenges facing us can only be analysed in detail when we dissect existing behaviour. That’s why behaviour is the starting point for the solution. Sure, the solution can be creative communication, but more often it’s about a smart interface, better services, a simpler offer or a product that conquers the market. Once you’ve identified the problem and found a specific solution, you still need to seduce the unconscious. That’s when you create the right impact and that’s why behavioural design is a crucial part of your business.

Do you work in communications, marketing, innovation, fundraising, design or general business? Then you need to know that the ultimate question is: can you influence behaviour?


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