Behavior Research Links

So, I was just talking to someone interesting in doing user research for behavior change, and I put together a set of links for her.  I thought it was a useful list, so also posting it here:

This is a nice collection of resources about UX User Research, including a list of people to follow:

Complexity and Learning

I’m kind of obsessing about complexity theory right now (Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Model mostly), and looking at simple, complicated and complex systems. I had a lot of conversations about this last weekend, and have been thinking about it a lot.

A couple of upfront disclaimers — first, I’m just learning about this, so I don’t pretend to really understand this stuff.  It’s my interpretation, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to know I’m getting the details wrong. Second, I’m not digging into Chaotic (for now at least). Third, there’s a much longer post on this brewing, and I have more questions than answers right now.

So — let’s apply this to the question of school testing, for example:

Simple things (with explicit rule sets) are probably fine to assess via multiple choice tests. MCQs for multiplication tables? Sure! No problem!

But complicated things (e.g. the subtleties of designing a scientific experiment) and complex things (e.g. problem-solving skills) do not have explicit rule sets, and are therefore NOT appropriate topics for a really reductionistic assessment methods.

School testing models are trying to squeeze all the ambiguity out of the system by trying to control every variable. You can do that with simple and possibly with complicated systems (though it’s an insane amount of work — witness the amount of procedural documentation in the air safety industry, or the nuclear power industry in their attempt to eliminate all ambiguity. It’s usually only justifiable when people’s lives are at stake).

But you can’t (by definition) eliminate all the ambiguity in complex systems. E.g. you can teach principals for problem-solving, or a process, but how it gets implemented depends on the context, which you can’t control. That’s where teachers, with their personal judgment and ability to adapt, become really important. It’s one of the limitations of computer-based instruction.

People don’t like not having control. School testing is trying to exert control by pretending that everything can be put in the simple box, so it can be measures using simple, objective measures. But it just doesn’t work.

I think there’s some real value in having a good way to assess whether or not  you are dealing with a simple, complicated or complex situation, and adjusting not only your assessment, but also your learning design for that. Working on this, but if you know of anything really useful, please let me know.

A couple of good resources:


Addition:  This article is a pretty perfect case study of this Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems

Stephen Anderson – From Paths to Sandboxes

Sat in on Karl Fast and Stephen Anderson‘s Design for Understanding workshop at the IA Summit last week, and it was double-plus-good.

Here are Stephen’s slides from his IA Summit presentation.  Excellent stuff relating to autonomy in learning environments, and multitudes more:

Social Norms -or- Hey, What are they doing over there?

I’m working on a change management presentation, and have been looking for some of the social norms research – especially at the practice of using messages that help people understand that the majority of the group is already doing the desired behavior.

Before I close the tabs, I thought I’d collect the most interesting links here (that’s all I have time for today!).


Wikipedia entry (which defines it, and rightly points out that outcomes are uneven for this approach) –

Environmental behaviors and social norms (This is a nice summary paper of using social norms in environmental campaigns, influencing behaviors like littering) –

Thermostats with social feedback (This is one of the actual papers on this pretty widely known example) –

Social norms and teen smoking (And feet. An interesting television commercial aimed at social norms and teen smoking) –

Social norms and tax compliance (using a general appeal vs a social norm appeal to improve tax compliance) –

More social norms and tax compliance (HBR article, though you need registration/subscription to see the whole thing) –

Social norms and binge drinking (a write up of one of the earlier studies that looked at perceived and actual norms for college students’ drinking behaviors) –


Webcast: Using the Psychology of Games for Learning

I should have posted this a few days ago, but I’m doing a webcast tomorrow (Wednesday May 15th, 1pm ET) for ASTD on using the psychology of game design for learning.  Talking about some familiar stuff (flow, hyperbolic discounting) and a few new things (visceral feedback).  Not sure if you need to be an ASTD member to attend, but I *think* you can just sign up:


Virtual Chainsaws (When it’s not a knowledge problem)

Just wrote a piece for the Research for Practitioners series over at Learning Solutions Magazine on some really fascinating research at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab.  It’s crazy interesting research, and it involves virtual chainsaws, behavior change and crafty research techniques. What’s not to love in that?

Go check it out here: Research for Practitioners: When It’s Not a Knowledge Problem


Problem Statements – The much shinier version

The last blog post I wrote was about starting design with a problem rather than a solution, and it came from a conversation with Stephen Anderson about a presentation he was putting together for the IA Summit.

Here’s his presentation, and (of course) it’s great stuff:

You can’t solve problems you don’t know about

So, several conversations recently are coming together:

– Judy Unrein’s post on Mike Monteiro’s How Designers Destroyed the World talk, and her discussion about how designers can’t be just be order takers (go watch the talk – it’s amazing)

– A conversation with Stephen Anderson about his upcoming IA Summit talk called Stop Doing What You Are Told! about reframing the design problem (soooo looking forward to those slides)

– Dan Lockton’s article in the guardian about sustainable design, which talks about how, if people aren’t doing things the way we would like, we should figure out how to solve their problems, rather than treating them as the problem.

Getting to the problem

So, this is hard.  I think designers are often given solutions to implement, rather than problems to solve.   I sometime think that’s half my job with clients — getting a clear statement on the problem they are trying to solve, or the opportunity they are trying to realize. It’s something where the outside perspective can really help — when you live with problems all the time, they frequently become tacit.

When I was teaching undergraduates, this was a hard idea to communicate, but it’s a key skill that everyone needs to have. I used to have a really simple card sorting game that I’d have my students play to see if they were being given a problem to solve, or a solution to implement.  If it was a solution, then they had to work on a way to get the actual problem clearly stated.


I think, in light of Dan’s article, I’d tweak it a bit more, and talk about strategies for unpacking even the problem statements (e.g. the card “Sales people aren’t able to answer customer technical questions” would probably be better as “Customers have technical questions that they need answered during the sales process”).

I have several different questions that help me dig for the problem:

  • “Uh huh, and what do they need to do with that?” or “What do they need to do differently?”
  • “What bad thing will happen if they don’t know that?”
  • “Can you give me an example?”
  • “If you woke up tomorrow and we’d implemented this perfectly, what would be different?”
  • “What does is it look like when they get it wrong? What are common mistakes?”

Curious to know what other people do — what do you use to understand what the real problem/opportunity/challenge is?