Designing for behaviour change: Tip 2 - Identify Barriers and Motivations - RSA

Designing for behaviour change: Tip 2

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  • Picture of Tori Flower
    Tori Flower
    Guest blogger
  • Design
  • Manufacturing
  • Higher education
  • Behaviour change

Tori Flower is Creative Director of Shift (formerly We Are What We Do), a behaviour change organisation that designs products for social change. She also set the RSA Student Design Awards 'Everyday Well-being' brief in 2013-14 and 'The Daily Diet' brief this year. In a series of seven short blogs aimed at student designers released each day this week, she shares her insights into how to approach designing for behaviour change.


Tip 2 - Identify Barriers and Motivations

In the previous blog, I talked about identifying the Outcome (what you want to achieve, based on the problem you are tackling), the Actor (the person who will cause the change) and the Action (what the Actor will do to cause the change).

In this blog I am going to talk about how to generate a really clear understanding of the Actor’s barriers to undertaking the Action, and what might motivate them to undertake it.

To do this you have to undertake research with real people who are representative of the Actor you defined. This might be via interviews, surveys or observational sessions (where you watch but don’t ask questions). There are lots of existing design tools to help you with this. I have found these resources useful:

It’s worth practicing these techniques (such as interviews) before you go out into the world and use up the precious time of real people.

An exercise

One practice exercise I often do with students is the following:

  • Work with a partner

  • Ask your partner to name something they ought to do (because it’s good for them or society or the planet) but don’t do enough. Write this down - it’s the Action

  • Interview them and write down a bulleted list of all the things that stop them from doing it (these are the barriers)

  • Interview them and write down a bulleted list of all the things that might help them to do this more (these are the motivations)

  • Think of a way of overcoming each barrier in turn.

  • Think of a way of incorporating each motivation in turn.

  • Finally, together, think of a product, service or intervention that might encourage them to do the Action, based on the insights you surfaced.

This should be a quick exercise - do the whole thing in 20-30 mins.


Here’s an example from students at a workshop Shift ran with the RSA:


  • Drink more water during the day whilst working in the studio


  • It’s boring

  • I never remember to do it

  • I resent spending money on bottled water

  • Taps are in the next room so I can’t be bothered to go there several times a day


  • If it was easier/more convenient

  • If it was free


  • Having a jug of water on your desk and setting an alarm on your phone to beep every hour to remind you to drink it

How Shift researches Motivations and Barriers

Understanding what your target audience (Actor) really wants and needs is central to our work at Shift. For example, in the research phase of our healthy fast food work, which aimed to get young people in low income areas to replace a meal at a unhealthy fast food outlet with healthy meal, we undertook interviews, ran group workshops with young people, carried out anonymous online surveys and sat in lots of chicken shops recording people’s behaviour. We also interviewed people close to the Actors - including youth workers, teachers, chicken shop managers, nutritionists, and public health officials.

We discovered that the main appeal of the incredibly popular, but unhealthy, chicken shops were that they served food that was cheap (under £2), quick (you could get there, order and be back in school in 20mins), close (ideally less than 200m of the school gate) and tasty. We used these insights to design our intervention - healthy fast food pitches which serve food that ticks these four boxes - cheap, quick, close and tasty – but that is also healthy.

See more

I expand on the importance of seeing the world from the point of view of your users and designing something people actually want in this TEDx talk.

In my next blog

I am going to write about designing interventions that effectively facilitate the Action rather than advertise it.


>> Find out more about the RSA Student Design Awards

>> Find out more about Shift

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  • Hi Tori - I thought I would follow through to your Part 2 because it shows why my comment on your Part 1 was apposite.

    Barriers which most expensively/deeply block or undermine change are those of motivation but rarely originate from the simple. The best indicators of an actual block are that any objection is raised and thus the root anti-motivator needs to be sought. E.g.'s might be (for all your examples above) it was not my idea, it impinges on my freedoms (root = esteem  and/or territorial threat), it adds stress (diverse origins, but root = raised (and unacceptable) anxiety generated), it confronts my beliefs (root = values objection).

    Of course all such comments accept that your original article was intended to be concise!