One way to describe a story is: a character wants something but there are obstacles in their way that they must overcome. Behavior change is similar. We want to change our behavior to reach a desired outcome, but there are obstacles in our way. Behavior change is not always straightforward, but if we lean into our natural storytelling tendencies, maybe, we can make it easier.
see the world through the lens of story, having built a career producing stories for TV, film and games. So when I work on behavior change designs for clients, I always start with identifying who is the main character and what do they want?
For instance, let’s take Disney’s Moana. Our main character is 16 year old Moana, daughter of the Chief of Motunui. She wants to save her people from the blight that is infecting their island home. We have a main character and her desire — we know who’s story this is and what’s driving them to take action.
But there are, inevitably, obstacles. For Moana, she must learn to navigate the open ocean, find and convince demi-god Maui to join her on her quest, and confront the fiery demon Te Ka. In behavior change design, this is where we start identifying the barriers that get in the way of our user’s desire. How can the main character, Moana, overcome these obstacles?
Interestingly, each time Moana is about to give up and declare herself unfit to pursue her desire in the face of these obstacles, she receives social support from either her grandmother or the Ocean spirit, reminding her of her initial desire but also her capability. With their social support reinforcing her desire, Moana overcomes the challenges and restores the heart of TeFiti and saves her people. Moana has finally gotten what she wants, with her behavior changing along the way.
When designing for behavior change, it’s not enough to identify the obstacles to the desired outcome — we must also create social support that reinforces the initial desire of the user. Think of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most successful behavior change interventions. It’s not a particular high tech behavior design intervention. What it is is a story support system, where fellow addicts help each other overcome their own obstacles through the reinforcement of their initial desires.
When we start looking at behavior change design through the lens of story, we can see a more complete picture of the user, their desire and the obstacles they face. But more so, we can help thread social support systems into the main character’s story, noticing the gaps of positive reinforcement when their desire is not enough. We can then help craft a new story, one where the main character finally gets what they desire.
When designing for behavior change, ask yourself:
Who’s story is this?
What story are they in?
And how can we help the main character craft a new story where they reach their desired outcome?
Ari Mostov is a healthcare narrative strategist, working with healthcare innovators to create a new narrative for health. She often has the Moana soundtrack stuck in her head. Learn more at wellplay.world