Successful technology startups influence and change human behaviour deeply. This may seem contradictory: when people think about technology, they rarely think about human behaviour in the same breath. But they should. Because, above all else, technology gets users to ‘do’ things differently.
Technologies, at the end of the day, are about ‘doing’. They make life actionable and livable by giving their users agency. And this is where behavioural design comes in, as behaviour is at its core about human action. Behavioural design moves people to action.
Think about it. Any successful product you use, whether as a consumer or as an enterprise, has extended or changed your behaviour. Spotify and Netflix drove us from owning to renting content. Slack changed how we collaborate at work. Dropbox moved us away from buying yet another hard drive. Using Lime means you walk less and can be more spontaneous with commuting. The list of behavioural changes enabled by successful startups is endless.
Despite this deep link between behaviour and technology, too few startups are explicitly focused on behaviour. This is perhaps because of how we frame what startups do in the first place. As Steve Blank so famously said, startups essentially try to ‘search for a scalable and repeatable business model’. While this is true, this definition makes it seem like the business dimension of the startup is the most important one. However, hidden within lies the critical search for a ‘usage model’.
Which ‘usage model’ are you solving for?
A product’s usage model is the simplest description of why and how the product is used. The clearer the usage model, the deeper the understanding of the human behaviours tied to such usage. The usage model can reveal the purely tactical, such as what the user does with the product: for example, Lime scooters can be abandoned anywhere. Or then, the usage model can capture the emotional or experiential state of the user during usage: Klarna is used spontaneously, whileDropbox is used with care and concern and YouTube is used with anticipation. You can get even more detailed. Klarna is used spontaneously, and supports transactions. Dropbox is used with care, periodically. YouTube is used with anticipation for on-the-go entertainment. However you frame it, the usage model can provide a nuanced understanding of the behaviours that are extended by a product.
The traditional way to think about startups involves three things: 1. What is the problem?, 2. What is the insight? and 3. What is the solution? Add to this: How is the solution used? – and the team can go deeper into coming up with something compelling. When you start thinking about usage, you will see that a single product actually amplifies multiple behaviours of its user. Even a simple kitchen knife has multiple usage attributes: it needs to look attractive, handle right, cut well, store well, and last long, for instance.
Slack’s usage model, for example, is about getting users to constantly extend their workflow within Slack, thus never leaving the app. Thus, a big focus of Slack’s design evolution is embedding other services within it, such as below.
Robinhood’s usage model, on the other hand, is all about establishing trust in the service so users can transact spontaneously and frequently. Robinhood focuses on design details towards this end right from the signup, as seen below.
Why is defining your ‘usage model’ critical
We, the people with access to digital services on broadband networks, have a unique problem today. Each day the amount of time we have is shrinking. This does not mean that the actual time available to us is shrinking. It means we experience the available time as lesser each day – due to the exploding options and opportunities made possible by digital technologies. Digital media provide more possibilities for activities, interests, content and connections. But the time and the mental bandwidth we have to engage with all of this new stuff is limited. You cannot add hours to your day or multiply your layers of attention. The most we are able to do is multitask on simple stuff. We can’t play a game and write a thesis at the same time (although I am sure someone is working on making that possible!)
All this means the only digital products and services that become successful are the ones that are used. A relevant and useful product will be pulled up time and again in a specific context and used. This is true at work and this is true at home, at school and on the metro. Say your metro ride lasts 20 minutes. You can either watch YouTube or play a game or shop for a backpack. If you are playing game A, you cannot also play game B or shop at the same time. If you order lunch from Foodora, Wolt loses out. So, the competition between digital services – both within a category and sometimes across categories – is effectively zero sum. This is because all services are vying for the same prize – usage.
A startup may invest all it likes into marketing and promotion. It may develop a pretty user interface. It may advertise relentlessly to potential users. It may even succeed in getting the user to download its app, or buy its product. But if they don’t use it, the product won’t survive for long.
Further, defining its usage model tightly will help the startup define its core business metrics as it races to find product/market-fit and acquire scale. The usage model can be translated into cost of customer acquisition, engagement, customer lifetime value, and more. Finally, usage also defines what data the startup intends to capture and how to create value from it.
Startups are a race to connect with and extend human behaviours
In his definition of startups Steve Blank said another thing that is priceless but that most startups tend to forget. He said a startup is a ‘temporary organization’. And this is critical. The key goal of a startup is to not be a startup for long. It is to move past starting up and into scaling up. So startups need to find a fit between their offer and a market that has a potential to scale – quickly!
Since products are about their usage and usage is an extension of human behaviour, startups effectively have a temporary lifeline to find the right drivers of behaviour. This is especially true if you are working on an impact startup, where the outcome of your product or service depends on directly impacting people’s lives. And yet I see too few startups who explicitly understand the behavioural dimension of their work.
How do you get to understand why people use the products they do? Why are some abandoned quickly? Why are others loved, and other seemingly addictive? Are addiction and habit formation around a product a good thing for the user? What are the motivations that drive a user’s adoption of a product? All these and more are questions that lie in the domain of behavioural design.
So, if you are working on or at a startup, consider how many times the word behaviour comes up in conversations within your team. If it less than ten times a week, you are probably missing out on something critical.
To learn how to work with human behavioural change with your team, attend the author’s workshops during the School of Startups at The Shortcut and check out https://www.behaviourdesigncanvas.info/ – a method developed by the author.
By Ashwin Rajan – October 01, 2019