Behavioural Apps - Cut through the CRAP


There is emerging a plethora of would-be schools of thought for Behavioural Systems Design each school based around a variety of mixed method approaches and all intended to guide the delivery of habit-forming products and services. These range from the accessible, tabloid-style behavioural science programs of Stanford's B J Fogg , the original master of "captology" through to the Finnish-led schools of Persuasive Systems Design & BCSS (behaviour change support systems). Neither provide the full and necessary picture nor do they deliver a repeatable, scalable approach that copes with complex systems design issues across multiple problem domains although some European researchers lead the charge in the definition of reusable software patterns for behaviour theories. Both investigators provide sound starting points for those wishing to learn more; (Ittle, Silence & Johnson, 2016).


More recently, Nir Eyal has delivered his HOOKED model for building habit-forming apps which neatly incorporates the Skinneresque principle of Variable Rewards made popular by gambling entities and another principle he refers to as Investment. Variable rewards are intended to generate a feedback loop and uses the craving effects of the neurotransmitter dopamine to catalyse anticipation of a rewarding behaviour. Investment is of particular interest to those who market consumers of SaaS, electronics even supporters of football teams. It encapsulates the tangible effort of investing time, effort, emotion and even identity into a product, service or group such that you are likely to stick with it. These principles are of particular importance for app and ITC-based services. Like his contemporaries, Fogg and Oinas-Kukkonen the pragmatic elements of Eyal's HOOKED are of use to most behavioural designers.

At Morton & Lawson we use evidence-based theories, models, including Fogg's Behavioural Model, Kukkonen's BCSS-PSD, elements of HOOKED and choice architecture from the field of behavioural economics to help us evolve a methodology and platform plug-in that may aid cross disciplinary teams in their efforts to design and develop behaviour focussed apps; apps that not only work but are adaptive and can bear post delivery audit and scrutiny. We also use two mainstream behavioural theories and emerging behavioural systems design model ignored by others. We call this new approach Athrú. It is intended to operationalise behavioural science and systems engineering models and methodologies, bringing the two together along with human factor models to ensure behavioural apps are defined, built and managed with rigour, not approximation.


Agile & JIRA

In Athrú we establish a detailed model of user behaviour with validated, standardised scales. These models require a programmatic interface in order to facilitate scalable data collection. Structural models are generated for the analytic team and these are sorted against a library of persuasive feature sets. We look to use a simple ML-based prompt and build mechanism for identifying and assigning the relevant persuasive feature sets to the right user behaviour profiles in Athrú. These then are able to dovetail into user stories and UX mock-ups using API's for popular available tools to define and share what is now a coalesced requirements set. The output of these then needs to plug and play with agile development platforms, including JIRA.

A prime goal of Athrú is to enable round trip traceability of behavioural requirements; requirements that adapt to the changing behaviour of users. Behaviours are not universally set in stone; they are subjected to a great deal of flux and with Athrú we view behaviour as something of an escalator moving up and down a continuum but operating inside a loop or cycle that is subject to the influence of cognitive and environmental factors. Any behavioural app UX needs to adapt to the fluctuating behavioural characteristics of its users.

Athrú is in its infancy and requires a great deal more data and challenge of its models before we productise it. We will be opening the development up to invited collaborators. If you believe you have something to offer - drop me a line.



Finally, it's usual for me to list my references for the post in a brief bibliography. However, to get access to the full range of the knowledge base I use to drive my work feel free to browse my ZOTERO Reference Library online. Also I recommend you read this if you can


ITTLE, L., SILLENCE, E. AND JOINSON, A. Behavior Change Research and Theory. 1st ed. Saint Louis: Elsevier Science, 2016. Print.




Dr Daryl Foy

Dr Daryl Foy is a Behavioural Scientist who specialises in the design of effective health behaviour change apps based on evidence including his own validated models for optimising persistent use. He consults to industry on how-to integrate persuasive design into LEAN product development as well as conversational UI. He can be contacted at