Are you interested in changing people’s behavior? It doesn’t matter if you’re a marketer, an experience designer, or a behavioral scientist — before you can change behavior, you need to figure out what you want people to do.
These are called target behaviors, and they need to be defined before you can start thinking of solutions — the more specific, the better.
It might sound simple, but creating strong target behavior statements can trip up even the most experienced folks. And weak target behaviors can derail entire projects.
Here’s the simple formula I use to write a specific and actionable target behavior.
A Simple Formula for Defining Target Behaviors
If you want to write a target behavior statement that works, use this simple two-step formula.
[One clear, specific behavior you want people to do]
[where and when they should do it]
Seems simple? Good. Here are a few examples of how it works in practice:
3 Example Target Behavior Statements
1. Goal: We want customers to help us save water and therefore save the environment.
Many brands lean on vague goals when it comes to sustainability. Here’s an example of a behavior statement that could use some improvement:
❌ Be environmentally friendly
This target behavior isn’t specific enough — there aren’t any defined actions to mentally grab onto. Being more “environmentally friendly” feels too big and too vague.
Here’s how we could improve this target behavior statement:
✅ Reuse your towels [specific behavior] during your hotel stay [where and/or when].
2. Goal: We want people to be better prepared for a fire by having working smoke alarms.
People usually ignore smoke alarms until they start chirping when the batteries die. A common target behavior statement (that needs improvement) might be:
❌ Check smoke alarms to make sure they’re working
This target behavior is getting more specific, but it’s still pretty hazy. Here’s a better one:
✅ Change smoke alarm batteries [specific behavior] once every six months [where and/or when].
3. Goal: We want people to engage more with our app.
If you want to use behavioral science and psychology to change user behavior, you’ll have to balance the needs of the business with the realities of behavior change. Target behaviors need to be almost uncomfortably specific.
Here’s a typical target behavior (or objective) you’d find in a client brief:
❌ Increase time spent on our app.
If you get a marketing or customer experience brief like this one, do yourself (and the client) a favor and narrow down your target behavior before getting started. For example, a more specific statement might be:
✅ Open our app [specific behavior] every weekday during their lunch break [where and/or when]
The Most Common Mistake When Creating Target Behaviors
When creating target behaviors (or being briefed with one), the most common mistake is confusing outcomes with behaviors. For example:
❌ We sell 25% more items of clothing this year.
Sales are an outcome.
❌ The customer buys 10 more items of clothing from us this year.
Yes, even sales framed as a customer action are outcomes.
So what should you do?
Start by taking a step back. Ask yourself what behaviors people would need to perform for these outcomes to happen.
Target Behaviors: The Bottom Line
Defining target behaviors is a critical part of applying behavioral science to customer experiences. If you want to change behavior, you have to know your ultimate goal, but you also need to know a few more things:
Build context around target behaviors by asking yourself a few questions:
- Which users should we target for which behaviors? Who will be performing the target behavior and who will be supporting, reminding, or assisting with that behavior?
- What are people doing now? What’s stopping them from performing this target behavior?
- What are the physical and social contexts surrounding this behavior? Do people have an environment that’s supporting the target behavior, or working against it?
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