Terrence Stoker
Terrence Stoker 18 March 2016

How Design Shapes Behaviour

We like to think our actions are as result of free-will. Yet, how the world is designed has a direct impact on our responses.

We don’t often stop to consider the relationship between our actions and the way the world is designed. If there are two paths before us, but one is blocked, we’ll take the other. The fact one was blocked directly affected our decision. Stairs blocked, lifts shut down, cones placed in parking spaces all influence our decisions for action. 
This has been noticed by researchers, too.


As an article in the journal Applied Ergonomics points out: 

Understanding the influence of external information at a lower level of awareness during the processes of route selection could be a key factor to predict user's movements within complex buildings, avoiding wayfinding problems and improving egress in emergency situations.

This is both enlightening and slightly worrying. After all, no one likes discovering their actions are directly a result of another’s intentional design decision. It’s also enlightening, however, in revealing human behaviour.

Barriers and behaviour

As we’ve noted, when paths are blocked people will find alternatives. Whether it’s closed doors, closed gates or turnstiles, people will respond to the environment around them. Consider the simple action of queuing. While it might seem a strange topic choice, there are entire books written about this very simple action. 

For example, it’s speculated how shops were set up influenced the creation of queues, which formed out of necessity. As the BBC notes:

"Traders started moving from market stalls into shops as they moved into towns. In the more formal setting of a shop people had to start to queue up in a more structured way."

People were only able to enter a shop through one entrance. This meant lining up in a way that let you in faster and in the order you appeared. It was fair: the earlier you arrived, the further up the queue you would be. Of course, it’s imperfect since, for example, just because you arrive earlier doesn’t mean your need is more urgent. 

Shopping and design

We all know shopping malls and general consumer buildings are designed with consumption in mind. The owners want us to purchase as many items as possible. That’s why, for example, you find cheaper snacks right before the checkout counter. While waiting, it’s hoped our boredom means impulse buying. It benefits businesses to put items in easy-to-find spaces.

As business behaviour expert Isaiah Hankel pointed out:

“A worldwide survey of 7,000 consumers found that your product is 86% more likely to be purchased and 115% more likely to be recommended when you simplify customer decision making. This means making things as easy as possible to find.” 

Again this shows the impact design has on behaviour. 

This does not just apply to in-person design but digital, too. It’s time businesses, whether digital or not, start thinking about their relationship to customers by virtue of design.


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