How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design

How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design

Source: Nir and Far Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Erik Johnson. Erik applies behavioral design principles on The Behavioral Insights Team at Mo

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How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design

Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Erik Johnson. Erik applies behavioral design principles on The Behavioral Insights Team at Morningstar.

Six years ago, I was in a position that many people early in their careers find themselves in: I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My first job out of college took good care of me and was interesting enough, but I knew it wasn’t the career I wanted in the long term. I needed something else, so I started reading and exploring what was out there. One day, as I was reading a blog post on psychology, I discovered a book called Nudge that caught my eye. I bought it immediately and devoured it. The book opened a whole new realm of psychology and economic thinking that I had no idea existed me in a way nothing else had. This was what I was looking for in my search.

Fast forward to the present day and I’ve fully made the transition. I found my dream job in the field working on Morningstar’s Behavioral Insights Team, where we apply behavioral science research and methods to help people with their finances. It’s amazing and I’m constantly energized by not only the work we do, but also the greater potential in this field.

Whether called behavioral design, product psychology, or behavioral science, there’s never been this level of interest, excitement, or opportunities to understand the quirks of the human mind and use this knowledge to change how people live. From the highest levels of government to the C-suite, behavioral science is being applied in the real world and tackling big problems.

Despite this level of interest, the path to doing this work can be quite ambiguous. For those who read books like Nudge and are inspired to put Choice Architecture into practice much like I was, it’s unclear what they should do next.

It took me more than five years to discover that path and successfully navigate it. It was a winding road with more than a few dead ends along the way and if I was starting over, I would do much of it differently. Being in the incredibly fortunate position to do this work now, I regularly receive questions from others with this passion that find themselves in the same place I was. After thinking through their questions and providing my input, I’ve come up with some advice.

In this post, I’ll outline what I wish I could have told myself six years ago when I decided to make a career as a behavior designer. If you’re interested in doing behavioral work, I hope this will eliminate much of the guess work in your path to a career in the field. There is certainly much more to know and explore, so I wouldn’t consider my advice definitive, but this is what I’ve found to be the most useful. I’ll detail that path in two main sections:

  • Core competencies:
    • Cognitive and Social Psychology
    • Research and Experimental Methods
    • Technology
  • Career paths:
    • Academia
    • User Experience
    • Marketing
    • Consulting
    • Government
    • Your current job

I’ve found multiple paths to working as a behavior designer. It’s important to understand, however, that most of these paths won’t necessarily lead you to a job with the title, “Behavior Designer.” The field is still too new and the private sector hasn’t established the role just yet. However, these paths lead to doing important work, changing lives by changing people’s daily behavior.

No matter which of these roles you choose, you’ll need some common core competencies between them. Behavioral design is an interdisciplinary field, so you’ll need grounding in a few different areas.

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The Core Competencies

Cognitive and Social Psychology

It should go without saying, but you need to understand cognitive and social psychology to do this work. In particular, you should understand the emerging view among behavioral scientists on how the mind makes decisions. To paraphrase, it goes something like this: we’re not perfectly rational, calculating beings all of the time. Instead, we have limited cognitive abilities and our minds use shortcuts (or heuristics) to help stretch our limited mental resources. Because of these limitations, and our shortcuts, our decisions are remarkably susceptible to our environment and social cues. Changing our environment or social cues can radically alter behavior.

You do not necessarily need a formal degree for this, though it’s certainly very valuable. Whether you study it formally or independently, you absolutely need to master the material.

To do this, start with the seminal works in the field. The following were my favorite starting points:

There are many, many more books to read, so I encourage you to find other works. Start with the best sellers for an easier starting point and work your way to the more academic and technical works.

The next step is to go beyond the books. Read the academic papers they cite. Follow the leaders in the field and consume the new papers, articles, and books they share or publish. Attend great behavioral design events like Nir Eyal’s annual Habit Summit. Join organizations like the Behavioral Science & Policy Association, the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, and Action Design to stay up to date on the latest research and content. By reading the defining papers and books of behavioral economics, you’ll have the knowledge base you can build upon.

If you are interested in this work and have yet to start digging into the literature on your own or know you are not self-directed enough to master this material without structure, then take a formal study program. You can find a comprehensive list of programs graduate programs here from

Research and Experimental Methods

You probably already knew you would need to know psychology to be a behavior designer. What most people do not realize is that the concepts are secondary to the method. I know I didn’t in the beginning. What is that method? Research and experimentation.

The fundamental skill set of a behavior designer is research. Whenever possible, this means experiment design and execution. Much of what we know in this field is the result of research from randomized controlled trials (RCT) or other methods like observational studies, surveys, and regression analyses. When you read any of the hallmark books, you’ll find the concepts presented are backed by RCTs or other forms of research from academia (and, increasingly, the private sector). The scientific method is the key to separating what’s real and what isn’t.

Why is this so important? The mind is a fickle thing and the smallest changes in population, environment, and the like affect how it operates. Because of that, you can’t just take something from a book, apply it to whatever you are doing, and assume it will work. The actions people take vary wildly in different contexts and populations, so many great behavioral ideas don’t end up working. You can try using the widely-held concepts of classic behavioral economics, but you have put them to the test in your own world. You must validate them with experiments. This is the true work of a behavior designer.

The most powerful…