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Applied Behavioural Economics pt. 2 – Mere exposure

By | All, Behavioural Science

Or ‘Using the power of repetition not just to build memory, but also trust.’

Behavioural economics is fascinating. Understanding some of the fundamentals of human decision-making will give you far more control over successful outcomes of personal and professional goals than you might have ever expected. But how do you turn this science into practice? This is a blog series highlighting the best insights from behavioural economics translated into how to make them work for you daily. Behavioural economics applied. To help you make better decisions that will help you improve your wellbeing, work and society.

Behavioural psychology: The power of mere exposure

Don’t you wish you could remember things better? Every interesting article you’ve ever read, everything you’ve learned in school, wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could recite them by heart? Well, you know what you have got to do then right? Eat, sleep, and repeat. That’s the traditional approach to recognising and remembering. And it does work— sort of. If you repeatedly see or read things, you tend to remember them. Or put differently, the number of times you are exposed to something helps something to be captured in the memory structures of our brain

But the truth is our memories are not infallible. As Kahneman and Tversky have proven, our brain operates on two decision systems: system 1 and system 2. System 2 is a slave to our system 1, which is our automatic, unconscious operating system that uses cues and shortcuts (called heuristics) to form judgments and opinions. Judgments and opinions that our system 2 then turns into beliefs. As Kahneman puts it:

‘Very quickly, you form an impression, and then you spend most of your time confirming it instead of collecting evidence.’

People rewrite and reshape their memories, often to fit with their existing beliefs. I read this quote from Caroline Webb that summarises it perfectly: ‘The startling truth is that we don’t experience the world as it is; we’re always experiencing an edited, simplified version’. What has this got to do with your memory? We tend to see our memory as a recording device that captures facts, observations and information with accuracy. The truth is, our memory is highly subjective.


The Law of Unintended Consequences

That subjectivity of our brain also makes it very interesting though. As it brings one of my all-time favourite mental laws into play: The ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ also known as second-order effects. Yes, you can use repetition or exposure to capture information, but this is only an immediate consequence of the action (repeat-remember). There is a subsequent effect of our repetition action as well. Behavioural science adds on a fascinating second-order effect on the concept of repetition that explains why using repetition can help you be more influential. 

If you repeat something, it doesn’t only activate memory; it also triggers trust and liking.

So, if you repeat things, you become trust worthier, hence more influential. In behavioural science, this is called the mere exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle. It describes a phenomenon that causes humans to rate or feel positively about things to which they are frequently and consistently exposed, including other people.

Just think about when you hear a new song on the radio. At first, you may not like it, but after hearing it a couple of times it starts growing on you, and you start loving it. As you grow more familiar with the tune and lyrics, you can even get quite fond of the song. It like the saying: ‘something grows on you’.

The first scientific study on the relationship between exposure and appreciation goes way back to 1960. Researchers first asked participants to rate several nonsense words on a good-bad scale. They were then notified that they were in an experiment measuring the effectiveness of repetition in learning to pronounce strange words correctly. Some of these words were shown once, others twice, five times, or ten times. Participants had to take a look at the words, and then pronounce them every time they were presented to them. Following this ‘training’, they had to rate the words again on the good-bad scale. A significant repetition (or exposure) effect was seen, with the words shown frequently increasing in positive evaluation

Strangely, however, words which were seen only once in training were judged afterwards not quite as ‘good’ as before the start of the training. Thus, as a result of 2, 5, and 10 exposures words improved in meaning, and as a result of but one exposure, they worsened. The study revealed the same effect with Chinese characters that people didn’t understand.

So, even when you talk bullocks like Trump (sorry, I could not let that one pass), but repeat it enough people may trust you anyway. But let’s leave the roaring research sixties behind and let us see this principle a bit more in the light of the present. 

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Using the mere exposure effect to create brand loyalty

I guess the most discussed application of the mere exposure effect can be found in marketing and communication. If you expose someone to a brand logo, slogan or communication vehicle often enough, it boosts recognition. People will even recognise brands with the brand name removed. Familiar stimuli require less cognitive effort. We don’t have to go to the trouble of reading brand names, but we recognise the colours, shape of the logo and font types that we were exposed to many times before. Just do a little test yourself. I guess you can tell me which soft drinks these are even if you aren’t fluent in Arabic:

Visual source: Google.


Studies have shown that recognition, whether correct or mistaken, enhances the likelihood of preferenceTherefore, mere repetition can boost brand liking and brand loyalty. I guess we have all been there. If you ask me why I buy a particular brand of toothpaste, I buy it because I am used to buying it. I couldn’t give you a clear-cut answer to the benefits of my toothpaste or on which features it outperforms other toothpaste brands. I just like it (or have grown to like it because of familiarity). It again all links back to the fact that:

Our brain is continually trying to lower our cognitive overload and repetition helps us make autopilot decisions.

There is all kind of tactics to use mere exposure in marketing and communication. Depicting familiar situations in your communication, presenting ads several times, developing a distinctive identity, playing by the sector rules (ever wondered why all hotel booking sites look the same? Now you know), and so on. To me, however, the far more impressive effect of mere exposure is the impact it can have on decision-making. 


Using mere exposure to make better decisions

It is essential to realise that the mere exposure effect substantially impacts human decision-making. People apply for schools, pick restaurants, favour people of which they heard the names more often or which they saw more frequently. So, if you commute by train to work every day and you see the same person making the same journey day in day out, you start to trust this person. The same goes for colleagues: the ones you see or interact with more often you tend to like more.

Liking people is one thing, but what if this mere exposure favouring affects your decision-making? To give you an example. If people apply for secondary education, they may consider a school, after reading the school curriculum and the school brochure, to be the perfect match but still apply for a school with a lesser fit because they have heard of it more often. Have you ever wondered why that blend, uniform looking global hotel chains are still in business? It is again the mere exposure effect at work. People may spend hours browsing hotel booking sites, checking out pictures and reviews of luxurious or boutique hotels. But often they tend to book a hotel which they are familiar with. Hence, settling with they already know. This is also known as satisficing instead of maximising. Most of us are satisficers.

Well-known brands give people comfort, especially in uncertain situations such as travelling to new surroundings. It’s like seeing your national air carrier on an airport across the world. It feels a bit like home in a strange kind of way. It is one of the pillars of success for fast food chains such as McDonald’s. Because you are exposed to them everywhere, all across the world, McD becomes familiar to you, and it makes many people tend to feel more secure to eat there instead of at the food stalls on the streets of Bangkok, which is a major mistake! Nothing, nothing beats eating Thai street food. I almost can’t make a better case than this that mere exposure sometimes makes you make worse decisions.      

This flaw in decision-making has to do with a cognitive bias: ambiguity or uncertainty aversion. This is the human tendency to favour the known over the unknown, including known risks over unknown risks. This is why stockbrokers tend to invest in domestic companies more often, even though international companies are showing better numbers. But it also prevents people like me and you to invest in stock markets because it has risks that we cannot conceive of understanding. Even more severe is the fact that people choose to withhold from medical treatments if the risks are unknown

If you want to help people to make better decisions, you, therefore, need to be very aware of their anxieties.

Please check out, our Influence Framework© if you want to learn more about the effect of anxiety on behaviour. It would be best if you avoided ambiguity whenever you can.


Using the mere exposure effect to reduce risk

You can also minimise risk perception by again using the mere exposure effect itself. We, as humans are social animals. We want to be liked, we want to be like others, and we want to belong to a group. This is an innate human desire: we all want to be part of something bigger and want to feel respected and accepted. This is the reason why people tend to favour but also trust people who are similar to them.

It will reduce someone’s uncertainty when you expose them to a similar other.

Preferably several times. Let me illustrate this with an example. We worked for an institution that provided a debt relief program for youngsters with serious debts. The program was free of charge, but the attendance rate was meagre. When we conducted Behavioural Research, we revealed that the youngsters had extreme anxiety. They didn’t feel the debt advisors were people like them. When we communicated and showed, truthfully, that the advisors were all people like them that used to have debts themselves, the willingness to attend the program skyrocketed. We merely exposed them (at several touchpoints) with similar and familiar others which reduced the uncertainty aversion and boosted the desired behaviour.


Using mere exposure to have personal influence

If you want to influence someone by using the mere exposure effect, you can do two things. First of all, repeat the message you want to convey over and over again. Of course, connecting the message to genuine human insights as you can unlock with our Influence Framework©. You can use literal repetition, but synonyms can also work. A ‘master’ in using repetition is Donald Trump. Just take a look at how Trump answered a question at Jimmy Kimmel live, analysed by Evan Puschak

Visual source: Evan Puschak


What do you think after reading this text? Do you think we have a problem or not? And do you believe it is a minor problem or one that could harm us? Unfortunately, this rhetoric works. But we can learn from it. Not only how we can influence someone (please don’t turn into a Trump) but also how we are influenced on a system 1 level by the mere exposure effect ourselves.

But there is another way to make this mere exposure work for you without you having to turn into a Dumb. You can also try to be visible yourself around the people you want to influence. Be repetitive exposure in person. In his book ‘How Brands Grow’. Byron Sharp delivers scientific evidence that brands grow not by positioning or differentiation, but by salience. He introduces the concept of ‘mental and physical availability’. The more people see a brand or the more it is evoked in people’s memory; the more people will trust and buy that brand. Again, it shows that:

Familiarity breeds liking.

I believe the same goes for you being influential, as the findings of Sharp make sense and connect with the mere exposure effect. So, know that you’re the brand called you. Make yourself familiar by merely being around and make it easy as possible for people to reach, see or talk to you. And use repetition in your communication.

Be careful not to overexpose.

Not in words, visibility or advertising. Overexposure maybe makes up for arty pictures, but it is an art that is only appreciated by a few. Just a small but essential side-note repeating is not the same as copying. To be perfectly clear. Some people kind of misunderstand what repetition is about and are more in the business of stealing. And not even as an artist I may add.

Visual source: CNBC

Using mere exposure to build better relationships

Now that you are familiar with the mere exposure effect, you can also use it to build better relationships with people. Familiarity is the foundation of every relationship. You share more with people you have seen more. Mere exposure builds interpersonal trust. So, whether you want to earn the trust of a friend or your partner’s friends, your family or your colleagues you need to show up more. Invite them over for drinks, talk to them more often, go to get-togethers or send them a message now and then. It’s how salespeople or the best account managers operate by nature. They remember birthdays, make house calls, and keep in touch regularly. In the end, the unconscious decision-making part of people’s brain will prefer who they are comfortable with.


Using mere exposure to help solve societal problems 

I briefly touched upon the relationship between anxiety and mere exposure. However, anxiety doesn’t always have to be a bad thing; you can also use it to your advantage. The mere exposure effect can help people become more aware and more willing to take action for severe problems. Researchers exposed participants to images of environmental risks and directed their attention repeatedly to a subset of these risks. When the participants were asked about those risk they were exposed to more often, they indicated to judge these risks to be more severe, more frightening, higher priority and more distinctive than risks they were exposed to fewer times. The researchers, therefore, suggest that mere exposure can increase the perceived severity of environmental risks because it increases the fear and distinctiveness of those risks.

I wouldn’t promote fear-mongering by the way, but this research does show that you need to expose people more often to a message to have an effect on memory and action. As we are facing some serious international issues today, it could be beneficial to see if we can leverage the effect of mere exposure. Sometimes people need to be shaken up a bit to care; I don’t know what the right balance is of the amount of fear. Just like a photograph can turn out wrong because of overexposure, the same goes here. Given is, you shouldn’t overdo it. 

Mere exposure: don’t overdo it

Not all exposure is good exposure. Too much exposure can lead to conflicting feelings. Whether it is a person you see too much, or a brand or a communication. It can cause indifference, or something called ‘audience fatigue’. People reach a saturation point. So, you have to find a balance in the number of exposures. But also, the quality of exposures matters. Take a look at this social thread on Tide adds that people seem to dislike much

Visual source: Reddit


When following Byron Sharp’s thinking, you could argue that the quality doesn’t matter and at least Tide has built mental availability. There’s certainly truth in that. But the fact is, too much exposure can decrease liking. Psychologist Wilhelm Wundt discovered that:

People’s enjoyment rises when an idea, experience or product is new, but when it becomes overly familiar, the joy will drop. 

Visual source: the Wundt Curve (see resources below)


The lesson we can learn from this is that yes, we want to build familiarity. But we can build sustainable relationships by changing a familiar product, service or even yourself just enough to make the experience new again. This is why making incremental changes can be a tactic to keep benefiting from the mere exposure effect. And by the way, Wundt also discovered this is the way arousal works. So, if you want your partner to keep longing for you need to get out that familiarity comfort zone. Time to dust of those worn-out habits and find some new excitement.


Using mere exposure to study and remember 

Next to the fact that exposing people to something multiple times is what will activate the exposure effect, there is also the question of timing. When do you expose someone? I guess we have all grown up with the habit to repeat, repeat, repeat to learn new stuff, remember it and reproduce it in tests. What we did back then (and maybe still are doing now) is using repetition to help us remember. But what we were never taught is how to apply this mere exposure effect on ourselves to get a maximum result. And this all has to do with the timings of the exposure.

The best learning experience comes from so-called spaced repetition.

It is one of the most powerful techniques to help your brain recall information (also check out my post about chunking). It would be digging a hole here to dive into the Behavioural Design of learning right now, but to bring you up-to-speed quickly. The benefit of spaced repetition is based on the research of Ebbinghaus who has discovered the Forgetting Curve. This curve shows we forget things over time. 

Visual source: Farnham Street blog


But we can change the curve by adding space between the repetition. Or as Ebbinghaus said himself:

With any considerable number of repetitions, a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.

Visual source: Farnham Street blog


I will dedicate a particular blog to the way you can boost your learning experience using spacing and achieve memory mastery by using repeated exposure. For now, this quote of John Medina, author of ‘Brain Rules’ wraps it up nicely:

How do you remember better? Repeated exposure to information in specifically timed intervals provides the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain. …Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid, it can be. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.”

Conclusion: mere exposure is applied behavioural design

To conclude, mere exposure provides people with a shortcut that lowers their cognitive overload in deciding something is valuable or not. By repeatedly exposing someone to something or someone, you can build liking, trust and memory. And it can help people to make better decisions and to shape desired behaviours. How’s that for making behavioural economics work in practice? Not bad, not bad at all.


Astrid Groenewegen
Co-founder SUE | Behavioural Design



Resources (in order of appearance):

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design
behavioural Design

Applied Behavioural Economics pt. 1 – Chunking

By | All, Behavioural Science

Or ‘How to break-down behaviour to make it easier to perform’.

Behavioural economics is fascinating. Understanding some of the fundamentals of human decision-making will give you far more control over successful outcomes of personal and professional goals than you might have ever expected. But how do you turn this science into practice? This is a blog series highlighting the best insights from behavioural economics translated into how to make them work for you daily. Behavioural economics applied. To help you make better decisions that will help you improve your wellbeing, work and society.

Behavioural psychology: The power of chunking

One thing we all want more of in life is simplicity. In fact, mostly, our brain loves simplicity. We all have a very ingenious decision-making system in between our ears that helps us make decisions with as little effort as possible. Even now, your brain is continuously working hard for you to do as little thinking as possible. Most of the choices we make are based on automatic shortcuts. To save brain bandwidth for the decisions, we do have to contemplate rationally.

This so-called two systems thinking, that was discovered by Kahneman and Tversky, is actually a lifesaver if you imagine an average person is making 35.000 choices a day. Varying from minor decisions, such as should I step to the right? To decisions that have a greater impact, such as should I hire this person? Making all these decisions consciously would go beyond our cognitive abilities, so we need our subconscious mind.

But the truth is, sometimes we want to be consciously aware and remember things. We want to have the capability to learn, for instance. And well, you need some conscious awareness for that. That’s where the technique of chunking can help you out. In Behavioural Design, a very important notion is the fact you can boost desired behaviour if you make the behaviour easier to perform. In our SUE | Intervention Model, this is referred to as your capability (can you perform the desired behaviour).

So, let’s get back to learning and remembering. How can we make it easier for you to learn and remember? If you take the way our brain operates as a starting point, we need to start at the notion that our brain loves simplicity. By chunking or grouping separate pieces of information into chunks, this is exactly what you will be doing. Let me give you an example. Read these three sentences once and then say them out loud by heart:

Remember far is to information easier
Pieces is divided into up it if
Our logical are head that patterns in

Quite hard, right? Now, try these three sentences:

Information is far easier to remember
If it is divided up into pieces
That are logical patterns in our head

I bet; this time it was no problem at all. Fact is, it was exactly the same information only represented in another way. Our brain is a pattern-making machine, as soon as we can discover patterns it is much easier to make decisions or to remember things. I read this very interesting book by David Epstein called Range. In one of the first chapters, he dives into what makes up for a savant. Those chess players or piano virtuosos that stun everyone from the age of 3 with their talent. You probably have heard of the 10.000-hour rule: you need to practice something for 10.000 hours to become really good at it. Only that way you can reach the savant or elite level.

Kahneman and Klein found this only holds true for domains that are characterized by predictable patterns and logic. Like playing golf, playing classical music or a game of chess: ‘There are rules, and boundaries and patterns repeat over and over, feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid’. Now, you probably don’t have the ambition or are a tat late age-wise, to become a savant, but still, something very interesting was discovered with savants that can be relevant to you and it has everything to do with chunking; The plot thickens George Villiers would say.

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Change in perception: you don’t need 10.000 hours.

It was often thought that next to the 10.000 hours of repetitive exercise, savants had another characteristic. Savants must have a photographic memory. A logical conclusion if you witness young children who play symphonies by heart or four-year-olds that beat chess players ten times their age with impressive high-pace gameplays. But the truth is, savants in the predictable domains are masters at chunking.

Several savants were put to the test by different researches. Epstein refers to an experiment National Geographic TV did with Susan Polgar, the world’s first female chess grandmaster; they printed a mid-game chess play with 28 pieces on the side of a truck. Susan glanced at the truck and then recreated the game flawlessly. When they printed a random play with fewer chess pieces on the truck, she could barely recreate the play. It lacked existing chess patterns. Chess players don’t have photographic memories and remember every single chess piece; they chunk meaningful pieces together that form familiar patterns. Chunking may seem like magic, but it comes from the patterns savants have locked into their memory in those 10.000-hour repetitive study. Interested to know more about how to optimise your learning experience? Here’s were you can read sone more on spaced repetition. A variety of chunking applied to learning.

Chunking is all about presenting information in a way that it is easier to process for people.

So, the good news is: you don’t need a photographic memory to remember things. Better news still, you don’t need to put in 10.000 hours to be a chunking master. The world we live in is often far less familiar and predictable than golf, chess or classical music. ‘Our rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns, and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate or both’. So, focusing for 10.000 hours on patterns in daily life is less relevant.

Chunking can help people make sense of the complex world they live in.

You can use chunking to help someone make sense of what you are offering them or what you want them to do. But chunking is more than just providing someone with a logical pattern. If you chunk information or to do’s or goals, you are breaking-up a larger whole. Chess players don’t remember a whole game strategy; they remember parts of the tactics. So, when looking at behaviour:

Chunking can work as a way to break-up a harder to perform behaviour into smaller, manageable steps.


How to change habits using chunking

Some practical examples that may help you boost your sales, change the attitude in consumer behaviour or effectively design a customer experience or user experience. Let me start by telling you how to change habits using chunking: If you want someone to quit smoking, a sticky habit, that CAN be very difficult to change.

You can make it simpler by breaking up the quit-smoking-behaviour behaviour into chunks. The NHS has introduced a perfect example of this thinking. They help people stop smoking by not by focussing on quitting smoking at once but by helping someone step-by-step. First, you can apply for a free ‘stop smoking kit’. It contains things like nicotine patches and a squeezy toy to give you something in hand to replace your cigarette. But they guide you towards the end-goal of quitting smoking easily. By for example, first sticking on the patches and sending you motivational emails.


Visual: NHS


If you break down a goal into smaller steps, people feel more confident that they can reach the end-goal.

Therefore, chunking is also very effective in helping someone reach their goals. But also consider using chunking if you are trying to achieve a goal. Don’t focus on running the marathon at once, but start at 1K, 5K, 10K. You will get there in the end (and if not, running is just not your thing which I can relate to completely but that’s a different story).


How to improve sales conversion using chunking

Let’s check out some more examples of companies who do a good job adding chunking to their offering and who combine this technique from behavioural economics in marketing or advertising. The first example is the blogging platform Ghost which shows that chunking may help you improve your sales conversion and get you more online sales. Maybe you have ever heard of the ‘aha moment’ describing that point that people start to get value from a product and keep on using it. Ghost introduced a simple five-step process to guide users to the essential steps to get value out of the platform. These steps are laid out for users, and they see a satisfying green check mark and a strikethrough for tasks they’ve completed.

Behavioural economics chunking - Ghost 1

The only challenge with having someone takes steps on your website is that they have to be online to see the site. This was solved by Ghost by sending users who had left the online set-up process conditional emails depending on where they left off in the process.

Visuals: ghost.com


These emails gave clear guidance on how to finish the step. Eventually, they were able to boost the efficiency of their conversion rates with 370%, only by chunking the behaviour into smaller steps and guiding people through them.


How to shape behaviour using chunking

Another company who helps people develop good financial behaviour by chunking tasks is HelloWallet. They do this via a weekly Sunday email that contains just one small manageable financial task for users to focus on – perhaps merely setting up a holiday savings fund, and no more. HelloWallet points out that it takes just three minutes to set up, and by dividing up savings behaviour into smaller weekly chunks, people begin to develop better financial habits and are more likely to meet their goals. HelloWallet’s research shows that success in these small tasks builds people’s confidence and make them feel more able to tackle their finances.

Visual: HelloWallet


How chunking helps us remember things top of mind

Another upside of chunking is that our capability to receive and retain information improves. You probably have experienced it yourself: have you ever better remembered a phone number by chucking it? For instance, the SUE | Behavioural Design phone number is (+31)202234626. But I remember it by chunking it: 223 4626 (the country and area code are in my automatic brain already so I don’t have to chunk those). This is why our phone number is also displayed in chunks on our website: To make it easier for visitors to remember it.

Why chunking works psychologically is that the chunks are seen as one ‘unit’ of information.

So, instead of remembering all separate digits, I just have to remember four chunks. Making the cognitive steps smaller. There now maybe is a question that comes to your mind. Is there anything known about the optimal number of chunks? Well, this has been researched. Early behavioural research revealed that humans best recall seven pieces of information plus or minus two. However, more recent studies show that chunking is most effective when four to six chunks (or steps) are created.

Conclusion: chunking is applied behavioural design

To conclude, chunking is a practical user-centred design approach that helps people to make hard behaviour easier to do. By limiting steps or units of information, someone has to do or remember you help them lower their cognitive needs. At the same time, you boost their confidence, memory and capability to perform the desired behaviour. How’s that for making behavioural economics work in practice? Not bad, not bad at all.


Astrid Groenewegen
Co-founder SUE | Behavioural Design



Resources (in order of appearance):

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design

The Behavioural Design Blog – overview

By | All

With this Behavioural Design Overview we want to help you to navigate through the Behavioural Design Blog. Our ambition with this blog is to explore how influence works by applying it to interesting real world problems. Most of these blogs appeared in  Behahavioural Design Digest, our weekly newsletter. You can subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page.

Everything we write is in line with SUE’s mission “to unlock the potential of behavioural psychology to nudge people into positive choices about work, life and play“. This is the guiding principle behind our Behavioural Design Method we teach in our Behavioural Design Academy and that we apply in our Behavioural Design Sprints.

You can read more about our mission on the “about SUE”-page.

Essential Reads and Videos

There are blogposts that are essential to our thinking on how to influence minds and shape behaviour.

Key Behavioural Design Concepts explained

Citizen Behaviour / Behaviour in public 

In this series we apply behavioural design thinking on how societies shape the behaviour of citizen

Behaviour in Organisations

Behavioural Design for teams, organisations and professionals

Personal Development / Self-Improvement

A series on blogposts on how to apply behavioural design thinking to design a better life.

Customer Behaviour

Thoughts on how to use behavioural design to shape customer behaviour

Society, Government and Politics

We like to think of a society as a behavioural design that shapes predictably irrational behaviour of its constituents


We dedicated a couple of posts on the methodological part of behavioural design

Where to start? This is golden era for Behavioural Design

By | Behavioural Science, Citizen Behaviour

The Covid-19 crisis requires behavioural change
at an unprecedented scale

Amsterdam empty streets during Corona

Abandoned Zeedijk street in Amsterdam during the COVID-19 outbreak.

A tiny creature with massive powers

One tiny microscopic creature did something to humanity what no other animal was capable of doing:

It stopped us.

Everything we thought about the present and the future has been shattered to pieces in just a matter of three weeks.

The future turns out not to be as positive as we anticipated.
The present turned out much more fragile than we assumed.

It took a tiny little virus to evaporate the profits of the last ten years in a matter of days. It squeezed out a sizable chunk of your pension. It might kill your job, and it might turn the debts you took in optimistic times, into serious liabilities.

The Covid-19 crisis requires behavioural change at an unprecedented scale. In this blog we explore the wicked design challenges for behavioural change.

Make Behavioural Design work for you

Join our virtual Behavioural Design Academy from home and see how you can effectively change behaviour and habits to cope with this crisis.

This changes everything

This virus has  thrown us abruptly into a forced behavioural change experiment, and we are struggling to adapt:

  • We need to figure out how to stay in quarantaine without making each other’s life miserable.
  • We have to find a way to be productive and creative while isolated from our teams.
  • We need to stay in mental and physical shape.
  • We’ll have to use our mental strength to avoid anxiety and depression and to be grateful for what we have.
  • And we’re going to get back in financial shape after this crisis. Surviving this one will provide us with valuable lessons for the future.

A Classic Wicked Behavioural Design Problem

If this is not a wicked Behavioural Design problem, then what is?

(Ok except for the climate crisis, which, by the way, is getting temporary relief from our ferocious efforts to finance our progress by pumping the CO2-byproduct of that progress into the atmosphere and the oceans, whereby we turn it into a problem the future generation will need to fix).

This forced social distancing experiment challenges us to change our beliefs and attitudes, change our behaviours and build new habits.

This crisis has all the characteristics of the ultimate behavioural design challenge:

  • It involves new behaviour.
  • We will need to break existing habits,
  • The behaviour we want to design will probably pay off in the far future,
  • While at the same time, we need to to be disciplined in the present.

In other words: although most people will want behavioural change, their habits, their context and their relative inability to resist instant gratification, will make it extremely difficult to succeed.

But isn’t this the characteristic of every exciting behavioural design challenge?

All behaviours that matter are difficult to change.

Amsterdam empty street 2

Book a virtual Behavioural Design Sprint

Book a Behavioural Design sprint to prevent a standstill and have Behavioural Design help you turn this crisis into progress.

Wicked behavioural challenges to work on

Behavioural Designers always design interventions with these barriers for change in mind. We believe that behavioural change can only be achieved if we start with irrational humans. We’ll need to take into account the forces that prevent them from changing their behaviour. We need to find Jobs-to-be-Done that matter to them, and we need to try to make a connection with those jobs. We’ll need to discover the hot trigger moments, where motivation and ability are high and use those moments to let them commit to something small.

We then need to find ways to keep them engaged and to help them to build and sustain new habits.

We’ll need to leverage our psychological understanding of behaviour to help people to build the habits that:

  • keep them in a positive flow
  • get them to experience deep work
  • harvest the creative, social and intellectual capital of their team
  • be creative and productive
  • get them to experience gratitude, joy and wellbeing
  • contribute positively to the life of others
  • get them to learn new skills
  • trigger a curious and optimistic mindset
  • get them to grow as a person
  • get them to try new ideas and embrace uncertainty


Change behaviour and the rest will follow

This crisis forces us to practice virtue in the face of gigantic obstacles.

It provides us with a unique opportunity to practice calm, to inspire others with optimism and re-program our brain away from anxiety into fascination and desire for action.

All these positive outcomes can only follow from changing our behaviour first. We firmly believe that we will find calm, experience joy, get creative and feel the power of great collaboration, only if we act first. Our emotions and experience follow from our behaviour. Only if we can get ourselves to commit to new habits; only if we can prime ourselves into thinking differently; only if we infatuate others with our energy and excitement, we will be able to come stronger out of this crisis.

In the upcoming weeks, you’ll hear much more from us. But we also urge you to apply the behavioural design method to influence the minds and shape the behaviour of yourself, your beloved ones and your colleagues. Use the SUE | Influence framework to analyze behaviour, use the BJ Fogg method to come up with interventions for behavioural change, prototype, test and adapt.

There’s so much good work to do.
Let’s get it on.

The team at SUE | Behavioural Design

More blogs on Designing Citizen Behaviour

In this series we apply behavioural design thinking on how societies shape the behaviour of citizen

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Training and sprints during Covid-19

By | Behavioural Science, Customer Behaviour

Behavioural Design and Covid-19

Training and sprints will continue

It would be the worst Behavioural Design if we as SUE wouldn’t come up with interventions to help contain the Covid-19 outbreak. Starting with how we manage things at SUE for all our clients and participants. And not to mention for our team. At our offices we have already taken all the measures that are advised:

  • We wash our hands regularly
  • Most of us are working virtually right now
  • We have special hygiene soaps in the offices
  • We have stopped shaking and hugging (and we are big on hugs)

But we are taking things a step further.

Make Behavioural Design work for you

Join our virtual Behavioural Design Academy and see how you can effectively change behaviour and habits to cope with this crisis.

Behavioural Design as part of a solution

Behavioural Design might be needed more than ever right now. In these times of uncertainty, we believe our clients and participants need all the help they can get not to come to a standstill. How can you make sure your clients are still coming to you? How can you make sure you and your team can still be a high-performance team when forced to work virtually? How can you install team habits? How can you better understand the psychology from clients, citizens and employees so you can help them make better decisions? How can we design behaviour to help slow the spreading of the virus down?

You might have been forced to stop travelling, but that doesn’t mean you want progress to stop or even worse to come to a standstill.

More know-how on Behavioural Design can help prevent a standstill or even help you acquire know-how to outsmart the competition (and virus). That’s why we will continue sprinting and training. SUE is going virtual as long as the outbreak isn’t contained. And SUE will start making free content and training to help organisations and people to install the new behaviours needed in these times. Just keep an eye on our newsletter that you can join on our homepage and this blog.

The reason for going virtual

After reading up on trustworthy sources on the Covid-19 outbreak, one of the most important conclusions is that we can help slow-down and contain the outbreak if we make sure a little people as possible come into contact with each other. We found this interesting graph that shows it in one clear picture:

That’s why we have decided to go fully digital at SUE. We feel it is our responsibility to our clients, participants and employees to protect them as much as we possibly can. By not bringing them together in one room. We have set-up a virtual training and sprint room, and we have all technology in place to visually collaborate from a distance.

Book a virtual Behavioural Design Sprint

Book a Behavioural Design sprint to prevent a standstill and have Behavioural Design help you turn this crisis into progress.

An interesting pilot

Maybe we can make the saying ‘never waste a good crisis’ true for every one of us. We will develop, prototype and improve new working habits.

Let’s turn this forced virtual working into a blessing. If we can make this work, we can also keep it up when this Corona crisis is over.

It could open possibilities for employees to have more flexibility as working from home reduces their travel time. It can open up new ways of wokring that helps parents spend more time with their kids. It can make teams surge as this time can help them experiment with high-performance team habits. It can maybe help this planet as breaking the habits to jump on planes, to commute to work by car or shop ’till we drop is replaced by more positive habits. It will be an interesting journey, and yes, we will experience setbacks. But this crisis will force us to learn super quickly to build better behaviours. Necessity is the mother of all progress. In the meantime,

We will take you along on our journey to help create better habits.

Both in staying on top of our game in work performance, but also in finding out how to make sure you still feel genuinely connected when not being in the same space. We will share this in our newsletter and on this blog. Interesting times and we hope you will join us on this ride. That is both necessary, but also extremely intriguing.

Our clients and participants

If you have booked a sprint with us, we will contact you personally to give you all instructions how to participate in the virtual sprint to help you come up with solutions to make Behavioural Design work for you. Do you want to book a new virtual sprint, as you also might feel Behavioural Design is the missing layer to dealing with this crisis? Please contact Susan; she can help you out with everything.

If you have enrolled in our Academy, we have sent you an email with the latest update on how you can access the virtual training will take place. Please also check your spam folder to find it. Do you want to join the Academy? Just enrol on the Academy page, and you’ll get all the information on how to join the virtual training room. The dates mentioned on the website are still the dates of the training.


Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions: hello@suebehaviouraldesign.com
By phone: +31 20 2234626

Watch the complete overview of our blogs on behavioural design.

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SUE | Influence Framework Explained

By | All, SUE Amsterdam & Behavioural Design Academy originals

SUE | Influence Framework©:
Understand the forces that shape behaviour

The Influence Framework© is a powerful mental model we developed at SUE to systematically analyse the forces that shape behaviour. The framework will provide you with all the human insights you need to come up with ideas for behavioural change. A deeper understanding of the forces that prevent people from change, or that could boost behavioural change, is essential to influence minds and shape behaviour. In this blog post, we explain the model step-by-step and illustrate it with lots of examples.

1. How does influence work?

For a full overview of the essence of behavioural design, I want to urge  you to go to read our blog “What is behavioural design“. For this blogpost, it suffices to understand that you need three ingredients for successful behavioural change: 

  1. Understand how people think and how they make decisions. (cognitive psychology)
  2. Understand how you can analyse the forces that shape people’s behaviour (SUE | Influence Framework©)
  3. Understand how you can come up with ideas for behavioural change (BJ Fogg and the science of Influence

One of the biggest misconceptions of behavioural design is that it’s limited to this third ingredient. Think about all the persuasion techniques in the field of interface design and UX to boost online sales. Booking.com has turned these techniques into an art form

However, if you don’t take into account what happens inside the mind of the human you try to influence, you can use as many persuasion tactics as you want, you’re not going to be successful. 

Let me illustrate this with an example: You can use all the scarcity, authority, social proof in the world to persuade me to make my next city trip with Flixbus. But as long as you haven’t addressed my (probably irrational) prejudice that travelling by bus coach is going to be a social nightmare, full of annoying people, my brain will remain locked for every attempt to change my behaviour. 


2. Analysing the forces that shape behaviour

The best way to think of the SUE | Influence Framework© is to think of it as a tool that brings the dynamic forces to the surface that shape behaviour. With this framework, you will be able to understand why people do the things they do and what prevents them from changing their behaviour

Understanding these forces helps you to spot opportunities for behavioural change. Only when you have armed yourself with these opportunities, you can start to come up with ideas. 

To illustrate this with the example from above. Only when you take into account that I have anxieties, doubts and prejudices that prevent me from travelling by coach, you will have the right insight to come up with ideas to influence my decision-making. You will ask yourself the question: How might we take away the prejudice that cheap coach travel equals social nightmare. 

If you want to design a successful strategy for behavioural change, you will have to work outside-in. You start with learning what happens inside people’s mind, and you adapt your intervention to this understanding. 

Master the Behavioural Design Method

In our two-day masterclass Behavioural Design Fundamentals, you will learn how influence works and how you can come up with interventions for positive behavioural change.

The SUE | Influence Framework™ has three parts, with a total of seven elements. We will delve into these three parts below.

  1. Part 1: Current and Desired Behaviour 
  2. Part 2: The Job-to-be-Done
  3. Part 3: Pains, Gains, Comforts and Anxieties

3. Part 1: Current and Desired Behaviour 

The best way to think of behavioural change is that you need to have someone (or yourself) switch from a current to desired behaviour. This sounds obvious but is actually quite challenging. Because people need to stop doing the things they do and start doing something new. Stopping is hard because your current behaviour is full of comforts. You don’t need to think about it, and your behaviour is more than often driven by habits that are difficult to control. 

Furthermore, there are several difficulties associated with new behaviour too: Am I able to do this? Do I want it? Do I trust it? Do I get it? Can I afford it? What will others think of me? 

You immediately sense that, if you want to get someone from A to B, you will have to deal with several forces at work that lock us in our current behaviour and prevent us from switching to the desired behaviour. The SUE | Influence Framework© is nothing more or less than a tool to uncover these forces.  


4. Part 2: The Job-to-be-Done

 If you want to understand why people do the things they do, then the Job-to-be-done framework by Clayton Christensen is essential. Christensen argues in a famous Harvard Business Review paper that people “hire products and services” for a job that arises in their life. Understanding the “job” or “task” is the key to understanding what motivate people to do the things they do. If you want to know how you can get more people to buy milkshakes in a fast-food restaurant, you need to understand the job-to-be-done for which people would come in and “hire” a milkshake. In the famous lecture below, Christensen argues that most people who buy milkshakes at a fast-food restaurant buy it because they have a long and boring drive to work. They want something to fill their stomach while keeping the commute interesting. The milkshake does this job better than any other product. It keeps you busy for at least 10 minutes, it doesn’t crumble all over you, and you can easily keep it in your hand while steering the car. 

Job-to-be-Done thinking requires a deeper understanding of the human behind the customer. A while ago we discovered in a Behavioural Design Sprint we did for a health tech company that the real Job-to-be-done for people with diabetes is to live a normal life. They want to be reminded as little as possible by their disease. People with diabetes look at every product and service through the prism of this Job-to-be-done. The unconscious question they ask themselves is: Does this product help me to approach my Job-to-be-Done to live a care-free life in which I am bothered as little as possible by my disease? This insight was incredibly important because, until that point, our client always communicated to people as patients.

Case: Zoku Amsterdam

The founders of Zoku Amsterdam had given themselves more than 2 years to figure out how they could design the ultimate hospitality experience for people who needed to stay longer in a city, because of their job.

Zoku Amsterdam - Hotel Room

The Job-to-be-done that Zoku took as the critical opportunity for their prototyping is that people want to feel at home. They want to feel part of the community of the city. And this experience is precisely what most hotels don’t offer you. Every hotel reminds you in everything of the fact that you’re just a passenger. Zoku designed the room with this Job-to-be-done in mind. The centrepiece of the room is a dining/working table, not the bed. Lunch and dinner at Zoku are to be consumed at a long communal table. You can invite your customers for meetings, and they have daily activities in which you can participate.

More about Job-to-be-Done:

5. Part 3: The forces diagram

5.1. Four forces 

We already argued above that the biggest challenge with designing for behavioural change is that people need to stop doing the things they do. Furthermore, they have all kinds of insecurities and discomfort about the new behaviour we want them to perform. We have also argued that the best way to motivate them to embrace new behaviour is to connect with their deeper goals in their life (called Jobs-to-be-done). 

The third and final component of the SUE | Influence Framework© is four dynamic forces that push people towards or pull people away from the desired behaviour. The Influence Framework works with these four forces: 

  1. Pains of the current behaviour
  2. Gains of the desired behaviour
  3. Anxieties, doubts, and other barriers of the desired behaviour 
  4. Comforts of the current behaviour

5.2. Force 1: Pains

Pains are what people experience as shortcomings and frustrations related to their current behaviour. 

Pains are often the problems to which a behavioural designer designs a solution. Pain and frustration trigger a propensity or willingness for change. The better you can connect with people’s Pain, the higher the eagerness to change their behaviour. 

In our behavioural design sprints, we often discover that if you can articulate people’s pain quite well, they reward you with their trust. They appreciate that you understand their world. Every populist in the world knows that people are not interested in what you want to do. They want to feel instead that you get their pain. It’s a meme in every sales training that the best sales-men sell pain.


5.3. Force 2: Gains 

Gains are the positive consequences that people will experience when they perform the new desired behaviour.  

Whenever I stay at Zoku, I can at least work in my room if I want. I can eat healthy without having to go out. I can enjoy hanging around in the big co-working living room with my laptop. I can impress my clients with the view, etcetera. These are all gains you will experience if you book at Zoku. 

However, these gains only make sense relative to the Job-to-be-Done. You appreciate the Gain of the design of your room, the shared breakfast table, the healthy food kitchen and the co-working living room because they all contribute to the Job-to-be-done of feeling at home in the city you have to stay for work. 

Important to remember: Always connect the Pains and Gains with the Job -to-be-done

Case: Pains and Gains and travelling by train 

I often need to travel between Amsterdam and Belgium. I have stopped taking the car, and I only go by train these days. My Job-to-be-done is to spend my time as purposeful as possible. The Pain of driving my car is obvious: I can’t answer e-mails, write blogs, or finish reports. I’m utterly exhausted after a six-hour drive, of which I regularly spend two hours in traffic jams (Belgium is a traffic jam inferno). The Gain of travelling by train is also apparent: Travel time equals working time. I can read, write, or answer e-mails. For travellers like me, a power socket and a little table for my laptop are worth a lot. 

5.4. Force 3: Comforts

Comforts are the routines and habits that get people to stick to their current undesired behaviour. 

It’s not that I wouldn’t like to work out more often. And if I’m honest with myself, I do have the time in the morning to go to the gym. My only problem is that I have too many bad habits that stand in the way: I want to wake up slowly. I need to have breakfast. I need to bring my toddler to school (and she adores not cooperating). By the time I dropped her at school, my window of opportunity to go to the gym is closed. It’s already late, my stomach is full, and my mind is already at work. 

You could argue that everything is in place for me to start working out. I feel the desire to have more energy and to lose a couple of kilos (my JTBD). I feel the pain of not being fit. I know how much I enjoy the feeling of being fit (gain) and I only have to walk 200 meters to my gym, so I can’t blame it on an inability to get there. As the co-founder of SUE I’m pretty free to decide how I run my schedule (no anxieties). I just can’t break through my comforts/ habits. What works for me is that my gym organises a 10-minute abs-workout every hour. I know that if I can make it in time to join this 10-minute class, I will probably stay a bit longer.

5.5. Force 4: Anxieties 

Anxieties are fears, doubts, prejudices and other barriers for the desired behaviour.

Anxieties could be all the things that prevent you from changing behaviour Anxieties could be related to: 

  • The desired behaviour: Too complicated, too hard, too socially uncomfortable, etc. 
  • The supplier: can I trust this supplier? 
  • My own capability: I’m not sure if I can do this, or if it matches with my self-image. 
  • My environment: I don’t know what my significant others will think of this behaviour

Taking away Anxieties are often underestimated in a strategy for behavioural change. However, they form a crucial piece of the puzzle. Sometimes taking away anxiety is the last puzzle piece needed to turn an intervention into a success. Like in the Flixbus example I wrote about earlier: taking away my fears and prejudices towards coach travel is addressing the most critical force that stands between me and the desired behaviour. 

Case: De Porsche Pitch

In The Perfect Pitch, a book by advertising legend Jon Steel about the art of pitching, the author shares the story of a pitch his agency won for the Porsche-account. The killer insight that got them to win the agency competition was that advertising doesn’t need to persuade Porsche-drivers. It needs te to persuade non-drivers that Porsche-drivers are not cars for men with a middle-crisis. They called it the “asshole-factor” of a Porsche driver. Taking away these anxieties and prejudices towards the Porsche driver turned out to be the most genius advertising strategy ever for the brand.

7. How to start working with the SUE | Influence Framework©?

 The Influence Framework helps you to build empathy for your target audience. Our Behavioural Design Sprints always kick off with six interviews. If you conduct six interviews with people from the target audience, you will be able to fill in your Influence Framework. For a proper Behavioural Design interview, there’s only one simple rule of thumb:   

Past behaviour never lies 

When we conduct interviews, we always try to map human journeys. What we’re looking for is how real humans think, feel and behave. How does a successful journey look like? What about a failed journey? Why did people fail? What made them feel uncertain or uncomfortable? Why didn’t they do the things they wanted to do?  

In 6 interviews you’ll get a clear idea about the Jobs-to-be-Done, the Pains and Comforts of their current behaviour and the Gains en Anxieties of the desired behaviour. It can also be gratifying to interview extreme users. Experienced people can tell you a lot about Jobs-to-be-Dones and gains. People who are struggling can teach you a lot about pains, comforts and anxieties. 

When you have mapped out these forces, you can spot opportunities for behavioural change, by asking yourself these 5 questions: 

  • How might we help people to achieve their goals (Jobs-to-be-done)? (Job-to-be-Done)
  • Can we come up with solutions that solve pains or frustrations that people experience (pain) 
  • Can we break into an existing habit? Or do we need to change a problematic habit? (comforts)
  • Which anxieties, doubts, prejudices and other barriers do we need to take away? (anxieties)
  • What could be the psychological value that we can create for people (gain)

More about this topic: 

8. Examples

  • The best way to think about the success of Uber and Lyft – aside from a nearly unlimited supply of cheap investor capital – is that they successfully eliminated all the pain from the taxi-experience. Not knowing when your car is going to arrive, not being confident about whether the cabbie will rip you off, or having to negotiate about the price. They brilliantly help you to achieve your job-to-be-done to experience the city. An Uber-Gain is that you never have to worry when you go out: You order an Uber when you leave the club, and within 5 minutes, you’re back on your way home.
  • AirBnB is a much more gratifying way to experience new places. This is the ultimate traveller Job-to-be-done. The Pain that is associated with hotels is that they’re anonymous. They make you feel like an outsider-tourist. The Gain of AirBnB on an emotional level is that you can feel home abroad. This feeling gets even strenghtened on a functional level: Since you do your cooking and supermarket shopping, you can feel what it is to live like a local. There are some anxieties AirBnB needs to take away, like whether the place is as good as advertised (that’s why they always demand professional pictures). A relatively new anxiety is the worry that the neighbourhood might be completely fed up with AirBnB-tourists.

9. The ethics of influence

 We have argued above that a successful behavioural design strategy consists of three ingredients:

  1. A deeper understanding of human decision-making 
  2. Understanding the forces that shape behaviour 
  3. Using principles from the science of Influence to come up with ideas and interventions for behavioural change

The SUE | Influence Framework© is a powerful mental model to get a clear understanding of why people do the things they do, and what prevents them from changing their behaviour. 

The SUE | Influence Framework© is also the best guarantee that a strategy for behavioural change will be human-centred. When using this framework, Behavioural Designers always ask themselves the question on what they can do to help people to become more successful at what they do, or help them to overcome their anxieties or help them to break bad habits. if you take your time to build empathy with your target audience and you use the Influence Framework© to analyze their behaviour, you will always spot opportunities to design positive choices. 

PS: The mission of SUE is to unlock the potential of behavioural psychology to nudge people into positive choices about work, life and play. We use this mission as our guiding principle for everything we do. We’re very conscious of the fact that behavioural design can be a ‘dark wisdom’, and that those who master it are often the ones with the worst intentions. We don’t want to be naive about the fact that people will abuse this knowledge to manipulate people. Still, we firmly believe that the world would be much better off if we can inspire more people with a better understanding of how influence works, and do positive things with this knowledge. 

More about our mission at SUE

More about human-decision making (system 1 system 2)

More about ideas for behavioural Change (BJ Fogg Model and Cialdini)

In this overview of our Behavioural Design Blog, you will find our essential reads, key concepts, and Behavioural Design Thinking applied to citizen behaviour, employee behaviour, consumer behaviour, personal development and politics and society.

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design

What is Behavioural Design?

By | All, SUE Amsterdam & Behavioural Design Academy originals

This blog post is an extended introduction of Behavioural Design. You will get a clear idea about what it is, how you can use it in your professional and personal life to influence minds and shape behaviour, and what you could do to learn more about it. Moreover, this blog post is the perfect entry to most other blogposts we published on the SUE Behavioural Design website.

  1. Behavioural Design is about influence
  2. Behavioural Design is a Method
  3. The ethical side of Behavioural Design
  4. Behavioural Design is about designing choices
  5. Behavioural Designers think ‘outside-in’.
  6. Behavioural Designers work with principles from the science of influence
  7. Behavioural Designers research, prototype and test
  8. Domains of Behavioural Design
  9. Start to learn more about Behavioural Design


1. Behavioural Design is about influence

How do you influence minds and shape behaviours?  How do you change other people’s, as well as your personal behaviours? How do you help people to make better decisions?

Isn’t it strange that the majority of all of our behaviours and communication aims at influencing other people, and yet at the same time, we have no clue about the principles and laws that govern influence?

Behavioural Design is a systematic understanding of how people think and how they make decisions. This understanding forms the basis of thinking about interventions that lead to behavioural change.

Maybe you want to influence the behaviour of your partner of children. You might want to influence your colleagues or managers. Some people want to develop a healthy habit for themselves or want to live a more sustainable life. Maybe you want to influence customer behaviour, or win elections. No matter what the subject is, you can all think of them as a behavioural design challenge.

So what is Behavioural Design. The most pragmatic definition of Behavioural Design we came up with so far, is the following:

Behavioural Designers combine Psychology, Design, Technology, and Creative Methods to find out why people do the things they do and to figure out through experimentation how to activate them to change their behaviour.


2. Behavioural Design is a method

The best way to think about Behavioural Design is to think of it as the combination of Design Thinking with the Science of Influence. 

Design Thinking is the method through which designers solve problems. Designers start with empathy. Through interviews and observations, they try to “fall in love with the problem”: Why do people do what they do and where could we spot opportunities for improvement? This insight phase forms the groundwork for ideation. First, designers come up with as many ideas as possible, and then they prototype the most promising ones. They take the prototypes back to the real world and test them with real people to learn and to observe how the prototype succeed in influencing the targeted behaviour. Design Consultancy Ideo, the godfathers of Design Thinking uses this simple graphic to explain the process:

This image describes the process of design thinking

When you combine the method of Design Thinking with Behavioural Sciences, you will get Design Thinking on Steroids. Because a better understanding of human psychology you will get 1) better insights into why people do what they do 2) better ideas on where to look for solutions 3) better prototypes, because you will have a much sharper understanding of what specific behavioural outcome you’re designing for.

At SUE the essence of what we do is to train the Behavioural Design Method at our Behavioural Design Academy and at In-company training and we run the Behavioural Design Method in Behavioural Design Sprints together with our clients.

More about Design Thinking:

3. The ethical side of Behavioural Design

Behavioural Design is dark wisdom. The difference between positive influence and manipulation is a very fragile line. In the end, we have to be aware that Behavioural Design is about using deliberate action and techniques to influence the behaviour of the other in the direction you want.

The problem is that those who want to design for good, quite often feel bad about using dark forces. Whereas those who use this dark wisdom to manipulate and mislead, are usually much more motivated, advanced and have fewer scruples about the application of it.  Think about how extreme-right populists exploit fear and uncertainty, or think about how technology companies exploit our vanities, and our desire for social recognition and belonging to the extent that it leads to (social media) addiction.

The world of interaction design is full of  “dark patterns“, which are manipulative ways to present choices to us in such a way that they manipulate us into making a specific decision, whether we want it or not.

Doctor Evil

At SUE, we are very sensitive to this ethical component. We even encoded it in our mission. The SUE mission is “to unlock the potential of Behavioural Psychology to help people make better decisions in work, life and play”. Our point of departure for designing interventions for Behavioural change always starts with the question “How might we help people to make better choices? Moreover, how could we design products, services and experiences in such a way that they contribute to helping people to achieve their goals or dreams? Our commitment to this mission is sacred, even to the point that we refuse to accept work that doesn’t match with this mission. You can find more about this way of thinking below at “5. Outside-in Thinking“.

More about the ethical side of Behavioural Design:

4. Behavioural Design is about designing choices

Multiple levels of influence

In a certain sense, the term “Behavioural Design” is a little bit misleading. Behavioural change is the outcome we aim for when we design an intervention. When we want to achieve this outcome, we need to design on multiple levels at the same time:

  1. The design of attention: How do you make sure something catches people’s attention?
  2. The triggering of curiosity: How do you get people to invest time and mental energy to learn more about what you want from them?
  3. The change of perception: how do you get something to stand out as the attractive option between other choices? How do you design the desired perception?
  4. The design of experience: How do you get someone to have a positive feeling? How can you reduce stress or uncertainty?
  5. The triggering of behaviour: How do you trigger the desired behaviour? How can you increase the chance of success that people act upon your trigger
  6. The change of habits: How can you get people to sustain the behaviour? Most behaviours require much more than a one-time action. Think about saving, living healthy, exercising, recycling, collaborating, etc.

Thinking fast and slow

This simple list of influence levels teaches us that Behavioural Design is all about how we design choices and how we present those choices.  Behavioural Design has everything to do with human decision-making and how the brain works.

The cornerstone of thinking about human-decision making is the masterpiece “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Kahneman and Tversky. This book – awarded with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 – is the fascinating journey of the collaboration between two Israeli psychologists and their discoveries of how the mind works. This book is the ultimate work on thinking about thinking.

Kahneman and Tversky discovered that about 98% of our thinking is automatic and unconscious. Our brain is making most of the decisions for us, by taking shortcuts – which they call heuristics -, with the goal of not having to invoke the 2% bandwidth of our slow, rational brain.

In a way, influencing behaviour comes down to helping people to decide without having to think. Because the more we need to think about something, the more stress we get, the less we end up making choices.

Since 2018, we now have a second psychologist in the ranks of noble prize winners. Richard Thaler built upon the work of Kahneman and Tversky and zoomed in on how to make use of System 1-System2 thinking to nudge people into better decision making on wealth, health and happiness.

Our hard-wired tendency to persuade

Our biggest fallacy, when it comes to our attempts to influence minds and shape behaviours, is that we always tend to persuade the other with rational arguments. The problem with persuasion is two-fold:

  1. Persuasion evokes System 2-thinking, and we don’t like that. When you try to persuade someone, you want them to think about your argument. Thinking complicates things.
  2. System 2 is the little slave of System 1: we only accept rational arguments or facts, when they are in line with how we already think about matters. You can only persuade someone who’s already convinced.

The real challenge is to make decision making extremely easy.

More about designing choices:

5. Behavioural Designers think ‘outside-in’.

The most common mistake we make when we try to influence minds and shape behaviour, is to think inside-out. We take the benefits our product or service as our point of departure, and we try to figure out how we could pitch those benefits in such a way that people would realize the value of what we have to offer.

Behavioural Designer work the other way around. We take the human behind the customer as our focal point, and we try to figure out what this human needs to be successful, which anxieties, doubts, prejudices or bad habits he hold that stand in the way of embracing the desired behaviour, or which pains or frustrations we could solve for him.

The Influence Framework

We developed the Influence Framework as a tool to do outside-in thinking systematically,. This model brings all the forces to the surface that influence the behaviour of the people for whom we need to design interventions.

The Influence Framework consists of five questions we need to answer to understand why people do what they do and how to get them to act:

  1. Job-To-Be-Done: What is the underlying goal for which people would have to embrace the new behaviour? How might we align the desired behaviour with goals that matter to them?
  2. Pains: What are possible frustrations and pains in their current behaviour, for which we need to come up with a solution?
  3. Gains: What are the benefits we have, compared with their current solutions?
  4. Anxieties: What are anxieties, doubts, prejudices or other barriers that prevent someone from embracing the new behaviour?
  5. Habits: Which habits keep them locked in their current behaviour?

Finding the answers to these questions will provide you with a blueprint of where to spot opportunities for behavioural change.

In this video, you can find a brief explainer of the Influence Framework.

More about outside-in thinking:

6. Behavioural Designers work with principles from the science of influence

The next step in the Behavioural Design Method is about turning a deep understanding of the forces that explain people’s behaviours, into ideas for behavioural change.  These are two different games. Whereas the Influence Framework uncovers the unconsciousness of people, is this part about applying principles from the science of influence to come up with solutions on how to change behaviour.

We use a variety of principles, but the basic framework is this elegant and simple   formula of Prof. BJ Fogg:

Behaviour = Motivation x Ability x Trigger.

bjfogg model uitgelegd

When we try to come up with ideas and interventions for behavioural change, we try to find answers to three simple questions:

  1. Trigger: What’s the perfect time and place to prompt a desired behaviour?
  2. Ability: How might we make the desired behaviour easier (or the undesired behaviour more difficult)?
  3. Motivation: How might we boost motivation for the desired behaviour?

The purpose of these three questions is to help system 1 to decide without having to think.

You could plot every known persuasion principle in the literature onto these three axes. The persuasion principles by Robert Cialdini (authority, scarcity, social proof, liking, reciprocity, commitment), can be understood as techniques to boost motivation. Lot’s of usability-principles are ability principles: default options, choice reduction, simplicity, affordance, all aim at making the desired behaviour easy.

More about principles from the science of influence:

7. Behavioural Designers research, prototype and test

The Psycho-logic is a different kind of logic

The more familiar you get with how the brain works and how influence works, the more you become aware of the fact that human behaviour obeys to a different kind of logic than formal logic. Rory Sutherland calls this “psycho-logic” in his brilliant book  Alchemy.

The way people make decisions is highly context-sensitive. These decisions are full of stories they tell themselves and full of irrational beliefs they hold. Furthermore, even the slightest difference in how something is framed can have a dramatic effect on how people perceive the meaning. When an English native speaker says he or she thinks something is “interesting”, it usually means precisely the opposite. Whereas a non-native Dutch audience would think they “interesting” means what they think it means.

The importance of doing the research yourself

That’s why research and prototyping are so important. Before you come up with an idea for behavioural change, you first need to fall in love with the problem. You observe or interview humans and try to put yourself in their shoes. You’ll be surprised about how many thoughts and beliefs you hold, are actually projections of your limited world view onto the world of the target audience you want to influence.

Prototyping and testing is all about trying to find out which variation of your intervention has the highest potential to design perception, attention, curiosity, experience, behaviour or habit. Even with the clearest of insights, you can still come up with an intervention that ultimately misses its desired effect. What you thought your intervention was supposed to trigger, sometimes triggers the exact opposite.

More about prototyping and testing:

8. Domains of Behavioural Design

The number of applications for Behavioural Design Thinking is endless. Because in the end, most of the things we do as humans aim at influencing the behaviour of others. You can apply it from managing teams to the design of products. Or from getting people to buy products, to changing the way they perceive a service or experience. And from the design of financial habits, personal habits and healthy habits, till the raising of children.

At SUE, we’re particularly fascinated by six specific domains for behavioural change:

Most of our blogs and our weekly newsletter “Behavioural Design Digest” is about one of these topics.

9. Start to learn more about Behavioural Design

Now you have a deeper understanding about what Behavioural Design and how you can apply the Behavioural Design Method to influence minds and shape behaviour, there’s a couple of next steps you can take to learn more about the method:

  1. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter Behavioural Design Digest, in which we take a closer look at how influence works in daily life.
  2. Subscribe to one of the upcoming editions of our Behavioural Design Academy masterclasses and learn the Behavioural Design Method step by step.
  3. Organize an in-company training for your team and learn the method while applying it to a critical business challenge for your organization.
  4. Hire SUE to run a Behavioural Design Sprint to research, prototype and test ideas to improve the success of your product or service
  5. Book SUE for a keynote or workshop  (contact us)
  6. Check or frequently asked questions and discover answers to questions you didn’t even know you had.

sue behavioural design

Three Cardinal Sins against Customer-Centricity in Finance

By | All, Financial Behaviour, SUE Amsterdam & Behavioural Design Academy originals

Last week, I was attending a keynote presentation by the CEO of one of the biggest Belgian banks. He was presenting the story of the digital transformation of his bank and he brought it as if it was a visionary story. And although the man certainly had excellent presentation skills, I somehow got annoyed with his storyline. Probably in the first place because it felt like 2007 was back with cliché-slides as “Shift Happens”, “The Consumer is in Control” and “Remember Altavista? Look at what Google Did!”. But the second reason for my annoyance had to do with something more profound. He was preaching the “customer-first”-mantra, while in reality, his story had absolutely nothing to do with customer-first. It was very obviously “Bank-First”, under the disguise of “we want to make it more simple for the customer to buy more stuff”.

In my view, his keynote sinned against three cardinal sins of customer-centric innovation. And I want to argue that you can find these three cardinal sins in every digital transformation pitch by gurus, consultants and managers. So what I want to do is to put the spotlight on each of these three sins and I want to use the next blog post to suggest how you can transform these cardinal sins into decisive action.

Cardinal Sin 1: The customer as consumer at the heart of the strategy

At the heart of all these digital transformation keynotes sits the demanding, narcissistic customer. This customer is said to be spoiled by the speed and simplicity of Google, the absurd logistics of Amazon and the mobile interface-perfection of Apple and Facebook. What follows is that all these corporations assume that it’s exactly this demanding and spoiled attitude what makes this customer so different from the good old days. The CEO shared an example in his keynote of how his bank redesigned a front-office and back-office process to allow a customer to open an account in a couple of minutes on his smartphone. The bank would reward this customer with € 5, allowing him to walk into a Starbucks and buy a coffee just minutes after opening his account.

The problem with this example is that the banker looks at his customer with a “consumer”-frame in his mind. But when you look at the customer as a moody, demanding, click-trigger happy cowboy, and you build your processes and services around this persona, you’re doomed to lose the battle. Because the real challenges where every digital transformation project should focus on, are the challenges and problems that the human behind the customer is facing. And those problems are on an entirely different level: An incapability to build wealth, or to become financially independent. 95% of the people are financially illiterate and could really use some help to construct financial buffers, make smarter investments, generate passive income, etc. Thát’s the real design-briefing for which financial institutions need to develop intelligent answers. A better interface just a simple hygiene-factor for which they do need to catch up. To design your entire digital infrastructure around a spoiled persona is, to put it mildly, incomplete. And to put it more bluntly: out of touch with the real world.

Cardinal Sin 2: Evil KPI’s

Every time you hear Mark Zuckerberg doing an interview, he keeps insisting that the interest of the Facebook-community is central to everything the company does. In a recent interview on Reid Hofmann’s Masters of Scale-podcast, he says: “Our mission at Facebook is to discover where our community wants us to go.” With this mission in mind, Facebook employees conduct hundreds of experiments each day. Mark Zuckerberg is convinced that the world will be a better place if Facebook discovers what people want.

The only problem with this mantra is that Facebook has become a public company in 2012. And once a company goes public, its primal reason for existence is to create shareholder value. And the number one metric to create shareholder value is “engagement”: when as many people as possible, return to Facebook as many times as possible to serve them as many ads as possible.

Facebook-scientists, Facebook-algorithms and the Facebook-AI work really hard to generate a maximum amount of “engagement”, which, frankly, is newspeak for addiction: 1) The company has perfected the way notifications trigger little dopamine-shots in the brain in order to get people to return to the platform over and over again. Nir Eyal describes this addictive design in the book Hooked. 2) The algorithms and the Facebook-AI also know that the best way to get people more engaged is by fueling outrage. Nothing fuels better engagement than extreme content. The reason why a relatively small Russian troll-farm could have such a significant impact on the US-elections is that they correctly understood that outrage is the fuel that drives the Facebook-algoritms.

The point I’m making is this: Although Facebook’s rhetoric may be full of storytelling on “connecting” and “creating a better, more open world”, it’s business metric drives the behaviour of the company in a different direction. To maximize “time-on-device” and “engagement” to generate as many opportunities as possible to serve ads to people, has, in reality, led Facebook, its employees, its algorithms and its Artificial Intelligence to steer on more evil KPI’s like Facebook-addiction, craving for constant social recognition and political polarization.

This brings me back to the banker. His “digital transformation with the customer at the center” eventually also steers on traditional banking-KPI’s of selling as many products and triggering as many transactions as possible. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. The bank needs to make a living. However, if they would also steer on real customer-centric KPI’s, I guess they would be much more successful. If they were to focus on maximizing spending power, maximizing investment capacity or capacity to loan, maximizing interest,… they would easily be able to come up with tons of new services for which their customers would never want to switch to another bank again.

Cardinal Sin 3: An inadequate understanding of the good life.

Behind all these digital transformation stories I never hear the philosophical question whether all these changes are actually meaningful. If the goal of all these digital transformation projects is to help a spoiled consumer to buy everything faster and more frictionless, then the vision they have on humanity is incredibly limited. You can read in it the fulfilment of the ultimate corporate wet dream of reducing every human to a consumer.

Today, this reductionist consumerist vision leads to two crises of epic proportion. Of course, there’s first and foremost the ecological crisis. The speed with which our consumption behaviour is exhausting the earth and its vital resources is not sustainable. Read Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” or watch her Ted-talk.

But next to this ecological crisis we are also in the middle of a more profound psychological crisis. The more gratification we can buy, the less we seem to enjoy. The more we pursue impulses and individual greed, the emptier our existence appears to become. This crisis of meaning could well become the biggest crisis of the 21st century. It is funny in that context to observe that all those “Silicon Valley”-bobos are utterly obsessed with Stoic philosophy. Because they no longer know how to enjoy, they go back to the answers formulated two millennia ago.

In his keynote, the banker does not say a word about how the derailed banking world wants to play a meaningful role again in the lives its customers. We know what happened in 2008 with the money people entrusted to the banks. That turned out to be nothing more than casino money for speculation to increase the profits of the banks and the bonuses of the bankers. The fantastic challenges for the banks are nevertheless obvious: Helping freelancers to make ends meet. Protecting the middle class from loss of wealth and poverty in their old age (which is something the Dutch Rabobank is actively working on for example). Investing in projects that promote public prosperity. Boosting general well-being. Helping people to make their capital work for them. Looking for new ways to let the abundance of capital in the market find their way to entrepreneurs. Managing an aging population. Speeding up urbanization. Financing sustainability,…

There are so many opportunities to use digital transformation to become truly indispensable in the economy. So many possibilities to become incredibly relevant, once you put the human behind the customer at the center of your digital transformation. Simply start with replacing this spoiled persona at the heart of your transformation story with the citizen who has more and more difficulties to live a carefree life in increasingly difficult times.


Tom De Bruyne
Co-Founder SUE Amsterdam and the Behavioural Design Academy.


Cover image by April under Creative Commons License.

Master the method and tools to change behaviour in our two-day masterclasses at the Behavioural Design Academy.
Create, prototype and test your marketing challenges in 5 days with SUE’s Behavioural Design Sprints.

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Lose weight using behavioural design

By | All, Food, Health & Fitness, Self Improvement

Lose weight using behavioural design

Nir Eyal – once said: “Never trust a behavioural designer who’s out of shape.” The reason is that being (or getting) in shape or losing weight is all about showing (or stopping) a particular behaviour. And the secret weapon to successfully losing some extra weight is applying some behavioural design principles on yourself. So, if you want to light up your life and shed some extra you, you simply need to unlock the power of behavioural psychology.

Did I say simply? Yes, I did! The uplifting news is: You can quickly learn how to lose weight by using some simple behavioural design tricks, which you can use to effectively influence your behaviour (and I’m going to share The Golden Tip with you in a moment). Doesn’t that lift some weight off your shoulders already? Or, your bum. Or your belly. Or your second chin. Wherever you’d like. I’m all for it.

The Golden Tip

Okay, I understand you are hungry for The Golden Tip now. I can appreciate this appetite for knowledge. I need to make one more pun about eating before I move on, or are am I overfeeding you with puns already? I get it, so here you go. The Golden Rule is:

Ability eats Motivation for Breakfast

Let me explain what this means and what kind of substantial impact it can have on you realizing your goal to shed some weight. According to BJ Fogg – a Stanford professor who has studied human behaviour for years – there are two dimensions of behaviour: Motivation and Ability. For years we all only used motivation in trying to nudge our behaviour. But, most of the times it is much more effective to work on the ability axis. In plain English, making the desired behaviour easier or the undesired behaviour harder to do.

Let me give you an example. You can be very motivated to lose some weight. Most of us truly do. But most of us also don’t. It often takes the perseverance of a top athlete to stay focused and determined on that goal. Now, I ain’t no Olympic qualifier just yet, and my guess is most of you aren’t either. So, my motivation often goes down the drain, and I often switch to unwanted behaviour, like eating that bag of crisps that happens to be lying there. Or, drink that one (okay four) glasses of wine if you’re with friends. Or heating up that microwave meal after working late. No judgment here, we’ve all been there.

You can’t help your motivation from dropping now and then. But if it happens, ability is your secret weapon to success.

The secret weapon to success

But the key to successfully sticking to your weight loss plan lies exactly here. You can’t help your motivation from dropping now and then. But if it happens, ability is your secret weapon to success. By making your unwanted behaviour hard to do or your wanted behaviour easier to do, you’ll succeed. That’s behavioural design.

It may seem like an open door now, but the best ability intervention is not buying the unhealthy stuff: Don’t have any (not any) in your house, so if your motivation breaks you simply can’t eat something bad for you (making the undesired behaviour harder). Another intervention: Do food prepping. Make a healthy snack staple that will last a week, let’s say a healthy banana cake. If you get the 4 o’clock craving, you have that banana cake ready (making the desired behaviour easier). Bye, bye crisps. Something else: Put a toothbrush and toothpaste on your desk. If you get a snack attack, brush your teeth. See if you like to destroy your sweet minty breezy breath with some sugar or fat now. You won’t (making the undesired behaviour less enjoying aka harder).

These are just some examples of behavioural design by making behaviour harder or examples of making it easier. But I hope you get my point. Motivation is excellent, but the number one secret weapon for losing weight is ability.

Maybe you can come up with some more smart ability ideas yourself. I’d honestly love to hear them. Please post them on our Facebook page so that everyone can take advantage of them. I’ll put a healthy banana cake recipe on there too. To get you started.

How you can start right away

To wrap it up, the things you could do right away:

– Remove all unhealthy food from your house
– Make that banana cake or have someone make it for you
– Get yourself a toothbrush and toothpaste to put on your desk
– Analyse your behaviour: When does your motivation crack and where. And try to come up with some ability interventions for those moments (and please share them with us, ’cause we’re fellow crackers, you’re not alone in this)

Good luck!


PS If you know someone who’s struggling to lose some weight, please share this article with him or her.

Astrid is the founder of SUE Amsterdam and The Behavioural Design Academy. Our mission is to unlock the power of behavioural psychology to nudge people into making positive choices in work, life, and play.

In two days of high-end master classes, we train people in unlocking the powerful principles of behavioural psychology and teach them our Behavioural Design Method™ that translates this knowledge into actionable skills to influence personal behaviour or the behaviour of customers, employees, family members or the general public.

Cover photo by Steve Rotman under creative commons license.

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Chief Behavioural Officer: It’s the new ‘must-have’ role

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations, Customer Behaviour

Step by step, behavioural economics, and psychological science have expanded their reach to become an established part of the business, policymaking, and regulation – for anyone seriously interested in both understanding and changing behaviour. And within marketing and market research, behavioural economics has become a required area of expertise and competency. We are now witnessing the next big step – the creation of the role of the Chief Behavioural Officer (CBO). This move will ensure that behavioural science has a voice at the highest level inside companies and institutions, a clear demonstration of the impact and value it is generating.

In this article, we look at how, within the last decade, this has become the new reality. We identify two main drivers and examine how behavioural science is increasingly being factored into everyday business, policy decisions, and common practice. First, though, we take a closer look at the trend of the CBO role and in-house behavioural insight teams.

Read the whole article

Author: Crawford Hollingworth
Published by: The Marketing Society UK
Date: 1 December 2014


Cover image by Thomas Angermann under Creative Commons License.

Master the method and tools to change behaviour in our two-day masterclasses at the Behavioural Design Academy.
Create, prototype and test your marketing challenges in 5 days with SUE’s Behavioural Design Sprints.

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