How I narrowly avoided an identity crisis: behavioral science vs. human-centered design


If you look at the formula to problem solve using human-centered design (which you may know as “design thinking” and, although there are differences between the two, let’s call synonymous for now) and behavioral science, they look pretty similar. For some steps, they even use the exact same language.

Basically you define what your problem is, empathize with and understand the people your problem is affecting and to whom your solution will be targeted, ideate (or generate) solutions, prototype your ideas and then test out a final product, intervention or solution.

So are human-centered designers and behavioral scientists really the same kind of problem solvers who learned the same method but maybe had a different major?

This is the question I found myself asking during my first semester in the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences program. While I didn’t have a full-blown identity crisis, I did find myself asking, “I love the behavioral science approach, but am I actually human-centered design thinker?” I thought I was a behavioral scientist. Could I be both? Was there a difference?

This led me to do some digging. And by some, I mean a lot. And even though prologues are tempting to flip through, I do think it’s necessary to start at the beginning — with defining exactly what human-centered design and behavioral science are.

Let’s actually start with behavioral science. Behavioral science is a field that bridges economics and psychology with a sprinkle of neuroscience and philosophy to study how humans make decisions and how we can impact those decisions. Human-centered design is an approach to problem-solving that starts and ends with people and figuring out how to well, design, things to meet their (unmet) needs. Those definitions alone led me to the first defining point:

1. Behavioral science and human-centered design ask different questions.

Human-centered design asks: “How can we improve the product/environment, etc. to make a more ideal experience?”

Behavioral science asks: “How can we improve/influence decision-making to lead to more ideal behavior?“

If you have a background in behavioral science or human-centered design, maybe this is already starting to make a lot of sense, but to break it down a bit further, the fundamental difference between these two lies in the angle they come at a problem from. Yes, both start with defining a scope and understanding the target population, but those inquiries have slightly different motives, whose differences lie in the nuances, which leads us to:

2. Both ask questions to understand people’s current situations, but these questions aim to distill different concepts.

Human-centered design tries to distill underlying assumptions by asking how is this current problem affecting people and what unmet needs do they have?

Behavioral science tries to distill behaviors and underlying motivations by asking how is this challenge people are facing rooted in behavioral and motivational barriers?

Now that we have an understanding of definitions and the fundamental questions of human-centered design thinking and behavioral science, we can actually go back a step further to see where these two fields came from. To blur the line a bit, both human-centered design and behavioral science emerged around the same time. It’s a bit hard to pinpoint an exact date for each, and, similar to dating, the label is often finalized after the thing itself is established. Both emerged around the 1970s, but other than that, I’ll do my best to spare you the specific dates.

Behavioral science as an academic field that started with Kahneman and Tversky’s paper on prospect theory in 1979 that looked at how people make decisions under risk… and realizing people don’t act “rationally” (aka as a computer, Mr. Spock or Sheldon Cooper would). This led to a reckoning that it doesn’t take risk to make people act “irrationally” — in fact, we diverge from rationality all the time. From this reckoning, the field of behavioral science was born. What started off as an academic field, grounded in research, quickly became applied to industry, beyond the scope of its research origins.

Human-centered design was needed to solve what Horst Rittel coined “wicked problems,” which were “unique, ambiguous and with no definite solution.” Basically, it was recognized that there needed to be a new way to solve difficult problems — and to be successful at solving these problems, we needed to take humans into account. This concept was championed by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon. Since then, it’s been developed and taught by the Standard University (Design School) and frequently used by IDEO, who is often credited with coining the term “design thinking.”

In case you skimmed that last bit, all of this can be distilled into a simple sentence:

3. Human-centered design is an approach; behavioral science is a field.

This is all good to know, but now let’s get to the implementable stuff, which is where to go from here. Which of approaches should you use? Is one better? Can they be used together?

I admit I’m an overachiever and a perfectionist, but I’m inclined to say the answer to that last question is yes. First, let me say, I think either by itself can lead to innovative, effective solutions that keep people at the forefront. That said, I think we can take it a step further and use these approaches synergistically. We can use human-centered design to understand people and the unmet needs we can address. Then, we can use behavioral science to understand the behavioral barriers that are currently blocking achievement of their unmet needs. With this double-deepened awareness, we can design solutions that are both targeting the right area (the unmet need) and developing a solution that will not only take how people behave into account but will specifically include intervention components that are designed to work with human behavior.

Through this dual lens, we can achieve what both fields are working towards: improving the lives and wellbeing of people.

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