Behavior change is a complex process that requires a deep understanding of the factors that drive people’s actions. To help designers create effective behavior change interventions, the COM-B model has emerged as a popular framework for understanding the various factors that drive behavior.
The COM-B model is a theoretical framework that explains the various factors that drive behavior. COM-B stands for Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation, and Behavior. Each component of the model represents a key element that can influence a person’s behavior.
- Capability refers to a person’s psychological and physical ability to perform a behavior.
- Opportunity refers to the external factors that facilitate or inhibit a behavior.
- Motivation refers to a person’s intrinsic and extrinsic factors that drive behavior.
- Behavior refers to the target behavior itself that we want to change.
The capability component of the COM-B model refers to a person’s psychological and physical ability to perform a behavior. This includes the skills, knowledge, and abilities required to perform the behavior. In order for behavior change to occur, individuals must have the necessary capabilities to engage in the desired behavior.
Without the necessary knowledge and skills, individuals may not be able to perform the desired behavior, regardless of their motivation and opportunity.
Use chunking to break down complex information into smaller, more manageable pieces. Chunking can help designers create interfaces that enhance a person’s cognitive capability to understand complex information. By chunking information into smaller, more digestible pieces, designers can help users better comprehend the information and perform the target behavior.
For example, storytelling can be used to engage users emotionally and help them develop a deeper understanding of the behavior. For example, an app that encourages users to reduce their carbon footprint can use storytelling to showcase the impact of climate change and inspire users to take action.
The opportunity component of the COM-B model refers to the external factors that facilitate or inhibit a behavior. In other words, it considers the various factors in an individual’s environment that can either facilitate or hinder a behavior. These factors can be physical, social, or economic in nature.
This means considering the external factors that can influence an individual’s ability to perform a behavior. For example, a person might have the capability and motivation to start exercising regularly, but if they live in an area with limited access to safe outdoor spaces or affordable gym memberships, it becomes more difficult for them to act on their intentions.
Several techniques can be used to create a space of opportunity. One is Scarcity, which taps into the human tendency to assign more value to things that are perceived to be rare or in limited supply. Designers can use this pattern to create a sense of urgency around certain behaviors by emphasizing their scarcity or the potential consequences of not taking action. For example, a fitness app might limit the availability of a certain feature, such as personalized training plans, to create a sense of urgency and motivate users to sign up.
Another is Social Proof, which capitalizes on the tendency for people to conform to the behavior of others. Designers can use this pattern to create social norms around a desired behavior, making it more likely that individuals will adopt it. For example, a website that encourages sustainable living might display messages such as “Join thousands of others who are taking action to reduce their carbon footprint.”
The Opportunity component of the COM-B model also includes the physical environment. For example, designers can use the Anchoring pattern to encourage behavior change by placing visual cues in the environment that remind individuals of their goals. This could be as simple as placing a reminder on a refrigerator door to eat more fruits and vegetables or displaying a progress chart in a fitness studio to encourage regular exercise.
By taking into account external factors that influence behavior, designers can create opportunities that make it easier for individuals to perform a desired behavior.
The motivation component of the COM-B model refers to a person’s intrinsic and extrinsic factors that drive behavior. In other words, to the individual’s psychological and emotional processes that influence behavior. It includes an individual’s automatic or reflective responses, emotions, and goals that influence their behavior.
Let’s explore a few examples of how we can influence motivation.
Social proof. This pattern leverages the idea that people are more likely to do something if they see others doing it. By highlighting the number of people who have taken a certain action, you can motivate others to do the same. For example, showing the number of people who have already signed up for a service or product can motivate others to do the same.
Goal-gradient effect. This pattern suggests that people are more motivated to take action as they get closer to achieving their goal. By breaking down a larger goal into smaller, achievable milestones, you can motivate people to keep moving forward. For example, a progress bar that tracks how close a user is to completing a task can motivate them to continue until they reach their goal.
Autonomy bias. This pattern suggests that people are more motivated to take action when they feel like they are in control of the situation. By providing choices or allowing users to customize their experience, you can increase their motivation to take action. For example, allowing users to choose from different color schemes or font options can increase their motivation to engage with a website or app.
However, motivation alone is not always enough to change behavior. It must be combined with capability and opportunity to create a successful behavior change intervention.
Applying the COM-B model for behavior change
By understanding the various factors that drive behavior, designers can tailor their approach to enhancing a person’s capability, opportunity, and motivation to perform the target behavior.
This a series of steps is particularly useful to identify an appropriate intervention that will aid behavior change:
Identify the target behavior
Identify the behavior that you want your users to perform. For example, if you want them to complete their profile, set up a goal, or create a task list.
Identifying the target behavior is crucial because it will guide your design decisions and help you create a user experience that encourages users to perform the desired action.
Here are some tips on how to identify the target behavior:
- Define the objective of your product. What is the main objective of your product? Is it to increase productivity, improve communication, or streamline workflows? Defining the objective of your product will help you identify the behaviors that are essential for achieving that objective.
- Analyze user behavior. Analyze the behavior of your users and identify the actions that they are already performing. For example, if you’re designing a task management tool, your users might already be creating task lists or setting reminders. By identifying these actions, you can design your product to support and encourage these behaviors.
- Conduct user research. Conduct user research to understand the needs, wants, and pain points of your users. You can use surveys, interviews, or user testing to gather insights into their behavior. This will help you identify the behaviors that are most important to your users.
- Set specific goals. Set specific goals for your users and identify the behaviors that will help them achieve these goals. For example, if you’re designing a fitness app, your users might want to lose weight, increase endurance, or improve flexibility. Identify the behaviors that are essential for achieving these goals, such as tracking meals, exercising regularly, or stretching after a workout.
- Prioritize the behaviors. Prioritize the behaviors based on their importance and feasibility. Some behaviors might be more critical than others, and some might be more challenging to implement. Prioritizing the behaviors will help you focus your design efforts on the most critical and achievable behaviors.
By identifying the target behavior, you will have a clear understanding of the action that you want your users to perform. This will guide your design decisions and help you create a user experience that encourages users to take action.
Identify the barriers and enablers
Identify the barriers that prevent users from performing the target behavior and the enablers that can help users perform the target behavior..
An example of a barrier is that users might not have the time, might not know how to use the software, or might not see the value in completing the target behavior.
An example of adding an enabler is to provide a step-by-step tutorial, a tool tip, or a reward system to motivate users to complete the target behavior.
To discover barriers your users are experiencing and spot potential enablers, consider going through this list of research activities:
- Analyze user feedback. Analyze user feedback to identify the common pain points and challenges that users face and identify the features and functionalities that users find helpful. You can use surveys, interviews, or user testing to gather insights into their behavior. This will help you understand the barriers that prevent users from performing the target behavior.
- Conduct a heuristic evaluation. Conduct a heuristic evaluation to identify usability issues that might prevent users from performing the target behavior and identify the design elements that can facilitate the target behavior. A heuristic evaluation is a method of evaluating the user interface of a product against a set of established usability principles. This will help you identify design flaws that might hinder users from performing the target behavior.
- Conduct a competitive analysis. Conduct a competitive analysis to identify the barriers that users face when using competing products and identify the best practices and the common enablers of your competitors. This will help you understand the best practices and the common pitfalls of your competitors. You can use this information to design a product that addresses the barriers and provides a better user experience.
- Use analytics. Use analytics to identify the areas of your product that users are struggling with and are using the most. Analyze user behavior data to identify the drop-off points, the areas where users spend the most time, or the areas of your product that users find helpful. This will help you understand the barriers that prevent users from performing the target behavior.
- Conduct user testing and observations. Conduct user research to identify the barriers that prevent users from performing the target behavior and the design elements that can facilitate the target behavior. Observe users as they interact with your product and identify the challenges that they face and the (missing?) features and functionalities that they find (or would find) helpful. This will help you understand the barriers that prevent users from performing the target behavior and the enablers that can help users perform it.
Identify the intervention strategy
Based on the barriers and enablers, identify the intervention strategy that will help users perform the target behavior. The intervention strategy should address the capability, opportunity, and motivation of the user as previously elaborated.
There are several frameworks available for designing interventions to support behavior change. One commonly used framework is the Behavior Change Wheel (BCW), which is a practical framework for developing effective interventions based on the COM-B model.
The BCW consists of three main components:
- The COM-B model, which provides a theoretical foundation for understanding behavior change and identifies three key factors that influence behavior: capability, opportunity, and motivation.
- The Intervention Functions, which describe the different ways in which interventions can influence behavior change, such as education, persuasion, or incentivization.
- The Policy Categories, which provide guidance on how to implement interventions at different levels, such as individual, community, or national policy.
By using the BCW framework, behavioral designers can identify the most appropriate intervention functions and policy categories to address the specific barriers and enablers to behavior change identified in their research.
Additionally, there are other frameworks available that can be used to design effective interventions for behavior change, such as the COM-B Intervention Mapping Protocol and the Behaviour Change Intervention Ontology (BCIO). These frameworks can help ensure that interventions are evidence-based, systematic, and tailored to the specific needs of the user.
The Intervention Functions
The Intervention Functions are a key component of the Behavior Change Wheel (BCW) framework and describe the different ways in which interventions can influence behavior change. The BCW identifies nine intervention functions, which are:
- Education. Providing information or knowledge to increase awareness and understanding of a behavior or its consequences. Using Storytelling (using narratives to engage and inspire) or Reduction (presenting information in an easy-to-understand format) can be used to support behavior change education efforts, such as providing information about the health benefits of quitting smoking.
- Persuasion Using communication or messaging to change attitudes or beliefs about a behavior or its consequences. Utilizing Authority (using expert opinions or endorsements) or Enablement (providing resources and tools to help users perform the behavior) can be used to persuade users to adopt a new behavior, such as promoting a healthy lifestyle by showcasing endorsements from health professionals.
- Incentivization. Providing rewards or disincentives to encourage or discourage a behavior. Implementing Variable Rewards (using game-like elements to encourage engagement) or Feedback (providing users with information about their behavior) can be used to incentivize behavior change, such as rewarding users for meeting their daily step goals.
- Coercion. Using threats or punishment to discourage a behavior. Authority (presenting expert opinions or endorsements) or Framing (presenting information in a certain way to influence perception) can be used to coerce users into adopting a desired behavior, such as mandatory vaccinations for public health reasons.
- Training. Providing structured instruction or practice to develop skills or increase confidence to perform a behavior. Tailoring (tailoring the intervention to the user’s individual needs or preferences) or priming (creating a mental association between certain concepts or actions) can be used to support behavior change training, such as teaching safe lifting techniques in the workplace.
- Enablement. Reducing barriers or providing resources to increase the ability to perform a behavior. The persuasive technique of Reduction (making complex behavior easier to perform) or Tailoring (personalizing the intervention to the user’s needs) can be used to support enablement efforts, such as providing users with tools or resources to help them perform the desired behavior more easily.
- Modeling. Providing examples or demonstrations of a behavior to encourage its adoption or discourage its avoidance. Persuasive patterns such as emulation (highlighting others’ successes in performing the behavior) or Feedback (providing users with feedback on their performance) can be used to support modeling efforts, such as showing users examples of other people successfully performing the desired behavior.
- Environmental Restructuring. Changing the physical or social environment to facilitate or discourage a behavior. Utilizing social norms (highlighting what is considered socially acceptable behavior) or convenience (making the desired behavior the easiest option) can be used to support environmental restructuring efforts, such as creating bike lanes to encourage cycling as a mode of transportation.
- Restriction. Limiting access to opportunities or resources to discourage a behavior. Implementing Scarcity (highlighting limited availability or access to the behavior) or Loss Aversion (emphasizing potential harm or negative outcomes) can be used to support restriction efforts, such as limiting access to unhealthy foods in order to promote healthy eating habits.
Choose the most appropriate interventions to address the specific barriers and enablers to behavior change identified in their research. For example, if a user lacks the necessary knowledge or understanding to perform a behavior, an education intervention might be appropriate. If a user lacks the confidence or skills to perform a behavior, a training or enablement intervention might be more effective.
It’s important to note that while all of the intervention functions can be effective, certain functions may be more appropriate depending on the specific behavior being targeted and the individual or group being targeted. By carefully considering the barriers and enablers to behavior change, you can select the most appropriate intervention function or combination of functions to achieve the desired behavior change outcome.
The Policy Categories
The Policy Categories are another important component of the Behavior Change Wheel (BCW) framework within COM-B. They describe the different types of policy interventions that can be used to promote behavior change at a population level. The BCW identifies six policy categories, which are:
- Communication/marketing. Using communication strategies and marketing techniques to promote behavior change messages and campaigns. utilizing Social proof (showing how many people are already performing the behavior) or Authority (presenting expert opinions or endorsements) can be used in marketing materials or campaigns to promote behavior change messages.
- Guidelines. Providing guidelines or standards for behavior change that are recommended or required by organizations, government bodies, or other relevant authorities.
- Fiscal measures. Providing financial incentives or disincentives to encourage or discourage behavior change. Scarcity (creating a sense of urgency or limited availability) or Loss aversion (emphasizing the negative consequences of not performing the behavior) can be used to encourage users to take advantage of financial incentives or avoid financial penalties for behavior change.
- Regulation. Developing or enforcing laws, regulations, or policies that influence behavior or restrict certain actions. Using Framing (presenting information in a certain way to influence perception) or the Status-Quo Bias (making the desired behavior the default option) can be used to support behavior change regulations, such as requirements for healthy food options in public schools.
- Legislation. Creating or modifying laws or policies to promote behavior change at a systemic level.
- Environmental/social planning. Designing or modifying the physical and social environments in which behavior occurs to promote behavior change. Using Nudges (subtle cues or prompts that encourage behavior) or Tailoring (personalizing the intervention to the user’s individual needs or preferences) can be used to support behavior change through environmental or social planning, such as designing a workplace that encourages physical activity or creating a supportive social network for weight loss.
These policy categories are often used in combination to create comprehensive and effective behavior change programs. For example, a campaign to reduce smoking rates in a community might use communication/marketing strategies to increase awareness of the health risks associated with smoking, guidelines to promote smoke-free environments, fiscal measures such as increased taxes on tobacco products, and regulation to restrict smoking in public places.
Use the different policy categories to influence behavior change, Work with policymakers to create effective behavior change programs that address the specific barriers and enablers to behavior change identified in their research. This can help to create an environment that supports and encourages behavior change, making it easier for users to adopt and sustain new behaviors over time.
Using the Persuasive Patterns as aid
By combining the knowledge of the COM-B model with the techniques and tactics provided by the Persuasive Patterns card deck, designers can create designs that effectively enhance a person’s capability, opportunity, and motivation to perform the target behavior. This powerful combination can help people achieve their behavior change goals and lead to a healthier and more fulfilling life.
1 The Behaviour Change Wheel by Susan Michie, Lou Atkins & Robert West
2 The COM-B model for behavior change by Decision Lab