What a rental car taught me about behavioural design
I recently rented a car and it gave me two great examples to questions I’ve faced many times in my career: what habits really are, and why a behavioural scientist is valuable in almost every company and team.
There are many definitions of what habits really are, but most experts would include the criteria of automaticity in it. Unfortunately, most things we’d like to be habits are actually more like routines — not all that automatic, just repeated frequently and require varying degrees of conscious decision-making. I wouldn’t personally include skills such as riding a bike in the definition, but driving a familiar car would fit the bill — which you’ll notice if, like me, you suddenly drive a different car (i.e. the environment changes).
Unlike the car I’ve driven for the past 3 years, this rental car had reverse in the diagonally opposite direction in the gearbox and no automatic handbreak — a set up that can be risky with ingrained habits because your brain thinks you’ve put the gear in reverse and the handbreak goes on automatically (the safeguards when you park). I also kept putting the keys in the middle console when I needed to actually put them in the ignition — less risky, but still an example of a true habit.
The dashboard of a strange car also prompted me to think about how every time someone designs a product or service, they are designing for behaviour. Among other things, the placement of the dashboard drew my eyes away from the road in front of me and it was difficult to easily see the speed because to the design of the analogue speedometer. Both design choices made it more difficult for me to behave as I wanted to — to drive safely and within speed limits.
Is it possible to design a car dashboard without behavioural science knowledge? Sure, we’ve been doing it for a long time — and this car does get people from A to B too. But could it be improved with knowledge of human behaviour? Yes, hugely — and not just as an afterthought, but starting from the behaviour you want to see and designing the product or service from first principles.
*The rental car was small and cheap (a benefit on narrow Italian roads), so I understand why there might be less thought behind the design — the main point stands though!