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Consider what affects the behaviour of users

Considering what makes users behave a certain way is a helpful step toward understanding their needs and finding a solution that works for them. You can think about behaviour as consisting of 3 elements: capability, opportunity and motivation. To change behaviour, a person needs to be capable of changing it, and have the opportunity and motivation to do so. Framing your research in this way can give you a deeper understanding of users and give you better evidence about how to meet their needs.

When to do it

Do this to inform your research plan and then refine it after you have conducted a round of research.

How to do it

You should:

  • identify the user behaviour that you want to understand and be specific about the circumstances and what they need to do differently – instead of ‘eat more healthily’, say ‘choose foods that have less sugar when shopping in the supermarket’

  • use the following activity to map what you know about your users’ behaviour and where there are gaps in your knowledge

  • revise your research plan to gather any missing evidence

Try this activity

This activity will help you understand what affects user behaviour and plan how to find out more about it.

Time, space and materials

  • 30 minutes

  • any space with a wall, sticky notes, paper, and pens for a face-to-face event

  • or for a remote event use a video conference and online whiteboard that will take the place of the wall and enable participants to add and move online ‘sticky notes’


  • Use sticky notes and make 6 column headings:

    • physical capability: physical skill, strength, stamina

    • psychological capability: knowledge or psychological skills, strength or stamina to engage in the necessary thought processes

    • reflective motivation: processes involving plans and evaluations

    • automatic motivation: processes involving emotional responses, desires, impulses, habits and reflex responses

    • social opportunity: influences from friends, family, colleagues and others that lead people to change their behaviours

    • physical opportunity: opportunity afforded by the environment involving time, resources, locations, physical barriers

People to include

  • your team

  • any number of people

  • a facilitator to provide the instructions as this is a difficult workshop, you may require an experienced facilitator


The purpose of this exercise is to think about what might affect the behaviour of your users.

  1. Write the user behaviour that you want to understand on a big sheet of paper and stick it to the wall. Be specific about what they need to do differently and the circumstances - instead of ‘eat more healthily’, say ‘choose foods that have less sugar when shopping’.

  2. Assign a person to each of the 6 columns.

  3. Each person who has a category should write down an example of a booster and a barrier. A booster is something that encourages a person to behave in a certain way – cycle lanes encourage people to cycle to work. A barrier prevents someone from behaving in a particular way – smoggy roads deter people from riding to work. Pick any example, it does not have to be about your challenge. Get ready to share your examples with everyone. You have one minute.

  4. In turn, tell everyone the category name, its definition and your 2 examples. You have 1 minute each.

  5. Ask the rest of the team for reflections and clarifications.

  6. You now need to map what you know and do not know about what is affecting your user’s behaviour. Everyone take pink and green sticky notes. Write barriers and boosters to the behaviour for the first category, physical capability. Write barriers on pink notes and boosters on green notes. You have 2 minutes.

  7. Stick the barriers and boosters to the wall in the physical capability column. Group similar ones as you go. Add a C or H to each sticky note. C stands for ‘certain’ – that means that there is good evidence for this. H stands for ‘hunch’ – this means you do not have evidence for it. You have 1 minute.

  8. Repeat the previous 2 steps for each of the remaining 5 categories in turn.

  9. Assign people back to their original column and distribute everyone else equally.

  10. Take your orange sticky notes. For ’hunch’ in your column, you should write questions to answer in the next round of research. The aim of your questions to move the move the barrier or booster from being a ‘hunch’ to be being ‘certain’. Make them broad, open questions like who, what, when, where or why, not narrow or specific ones like do, have, will or can. Remember, these are things that you want to learn, not questions for users. You have 5 minutes.

  11. In turn, choose 1 person per category to tell everyone about the questions that you have come up with.

  12. You are now going to vote for the questions that you think are most important. You have 5 votes. You can distribute your votes however you want. Put your votes in one place or spread them around. Make your vote by drawing a big dot on the sticky note. You have 1 minute.

  13. Count the votes and write the score on the sticky notes.

  14. You now have a map of what affects your users’ behaviour. This includes things that you are certain about and things that you need to confirm with more evidence.


  • if you have a lot of questions, you can give people a 2nd round of votes to get a better prioritisation

  • keep a record of the unpopular questions too as they may be useful when planning later research

Next steps

  • write up the boosters and barriers and refine them when you have more evidence

  • use your evidence about behavioural boosters and barriers to design the prototype of your policy, product of service (see the chapter:generate ideas to test)

  • add the prioritised questions to your research plan – this activity will not give you a full set of research questions, but it will contribute to your thinking (see chapter: clarify what to learn from research)

Further reading

Find out more about this topic by searching the internet for:

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