Beyond Awareness: A Human-Centred Design Approach to Impacting Behaviour Change

This piece is part of a four part series on behaviour change that was researched, written and designed as part of the Fuller Fellowship program. The series looks at behaviour change through the lens of human-centred design, and provides insights and guidance for communicators, designers, or anyone hoping to impact real, long-term behaviour outcomes for humans.

Humans. Arguably, the most accomplished species on earth.

From the miracle of flight, to penicillin, to the humble Vegemite sandwich, we have achieved some incredible things.

Unfortunately, for every great thing we’ve done to make the world a better place, we’ve also done a fair bit to bugger it up.

According to a 2023 report by the United Nations University, we are now at a crucial point where our behaviour as a species could tip the fate of humanity one way or the other. Continuing the status quo will inevitably lead to irreversible damage to the environment and economy. On the flip side, radical change can tip the scales back towards a sustainable future and thriving global society.

That’s the kind of power our actions have right now.

And truthfully, the behaviours of some people, like our government and industry leaders, hold more power than others. But the small actions of every-day individuals can still have big flow-on effects.

In a rational world, behaviour change would be easy. We would weigh up the long term costs and benefits of behaviour outcomes and make decisions accordingly. But if you’ve ever lived or worked with a fellow human, you’ll understand that we are not rational beings.

When Knowledge is Not Enough

Researchers have looked at behaviour change campaigns and education programs across a range of spaces, and found that not only do our efforts to teach financial literacy, raise awareness of health risks, and other well intended behaviour interventions often fall short, but can sometimes have unintended consequences.

Knowledge is necessary for making better decisions. But when faced with a challenge that requires effort and long-term thinking, threatens our personal values and worldview, or makes us feel bad about ourselves, our brains are very good at irrationally rationalising our way out of things, whether we’re aware of it or not.

So how do we encourage humans to behave better? We take a human-centred approach.


Human-Centred Design and the Mountain of Change

Human-centred design, or HCD, is an approach to problem solving that centres around the needs and experience of the people impacted by that problem.

It’s a process of discovering the psychological and environmental factors at play, defining the problem, designing and testing solutions, and delivering an improved experience that can be further iterated over time.

We can liken the journey of behaviour change to summiting a mountain. The peak represents the target behaviour, and our target audience are mountaineers. This mountain has five stages.


Illustration of a mountain separated out into 5 tiers, labelled pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance from bottom to top

These five stages encompass what is called the trans-theoretical model of change.

  1. Precontemplation – The base of the mountain. Here, more knowledge and awareness is needed to create discontent with current behaviour
  2. Contemplation – Here, our change maker needs to understand what action is needed and why it’s important, along with motivation to act
  3. Preparation – Our climber now needs to understand how to change, along with confidence in their capability to succeed
  4. Action – Confidence and motivation for overcoming failure and a sense of continued success become increasingly important during this stage
  5. Maintenance – After the behaviour target is reached, a continued sense of success and motivation is needed to sustain that behaviour long-term



As HCD practitioners, we can’t drag everyone up this mountain. But we can build better pathways by understanding the obstacles, or ‘friction’ that is making the journey harder and adjusting the environment accordingly. We can also understand where motivation is lacking, and create the right kind of ‘fuel’ that will push people forward.

The journey to change is also not the same for everybody. For some, the path may be smooth, but for others, steep and treacherous. Some may be beginning their journey at pre-consideration, whereas others may have reached the action phase, but slipped off track. People may also believe different stories about this mountain and their capability to climb it.

Robust research is key to learning about our different audiences, understanding influences and challenges, and identifying tailored ways to better balance the fuel and friction at play.

Research and Discover

There are different types of data we can collect through research.

Quantitative data tells us what, where, when, and how many. Think surveys, statistics, and large sample sizes. Qualitative data tells us why. Think interviews, workshops, and small sample sizes. Behavioural data tells us what people do. Think observed actions or recorded habits. And attitudinal data tells us what people think and feel. Think shared opinions and sentiment.

By combining research techniques, we can collect data that covers the who, what, when, how/how many, and why of what people do, think, and feel. We can then analyse this data through a behavioural psychology lens and ask..

  • Who are the different audience groups we need to reach?
  • What unconscious beliefs and biases may they hold, based on their background, experiences, shared beliefs and behaviours?
  • What environmental factors are encouraging or discouraging behaviour?
  • What social factors are encouraging or discouraging behaviour?
  • What values do they hold and how do they encourage or discourage behaviour?


Once we’ve found answers to these questions, we can translate them into ‘how might we’ questions.

  • How might we reach these different audience groups?
  • How might we craft our communication style to suit their subconscious beliefs and biases?
  • How might we alter their environment to encourage the desired behaviour?
  • How might we leverage social factors to encourage the desired behaviour?
  • How might we leverage their values to encourage the desired behaviour?

Behaviour Change Success Stories

In 2021, OzHarvest partnered with BehaviourWorks Australia to understand the fuel and friction driving food waste in Aussie homes, and figure out what could be done about it.
To do this, they ran a video ethnography study that had participants document and reflect upon their shopping, meal planning, and food use behaviour in the home. Combined with a literature review, stakeholder engagement, and large survey study, they were able to assess and prioritise different intervention options based on impact vs likelihood of adoption.


Images of the bright yellow 'Use It Up Tape', plastered over leftover fridge items


The result was the Use It Up Tape. The bright, visually salient tape prompts the user to make decisions about their food usage throughout the week in advance, and nudges time-poor families to use the food items they have before they perish. A trial of the program found that the tape reduced food waste by 40% overall, and by 50% for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Rigorous studies and opportunities to test our ideas at scale are great, but behaviour change can also be done at a smaller scale. We have even used human-centred design techniques to prompt more sustainability focussed behaviour for staff at Fuller (case study coming soon).

Tips and Takeaways

When applying a human-centred design approach to impacting long-term behaviour outcomes, consider these five key takeaways.

Research & Synthesise

Review any existing literature offering relevant behavioural insights on the topic at hand. Based on the questions that still need answering, decide on a combination of research techniques that will provide quantitative and qualitative data about what people do, think and feel.

Map & Personify

Create profiles of your target audience. Who are they? What do they need, want and do? What stories do they believe? Create journey maps that demonstrate their current behaviour journey through the five stages of change, and identify where friction is low, and fuel is high.

Explore & Prioritise

Based on the insights identified and audience journeys mapped, ask ‘how might we?’ questions to identify some potential solutions to the problem. Choose a specific audience and map solutions on an impact vs likelihood matrix, and choose a solution to prototype. Repeat for each audience you want to reach.

Prototype & Test

Develop a prototype, like a trial, roleplay, or clickable wireframe for an app or website, and observe participants use the prototype in a controlled or native environment. Identify what works and what doesn’t, and make adjustments accordingly.

Deliver & Iterate

Once you’ve refined the final output, it’s time to launch. Make sure you plan in advance how you will track and measure the success of the intervention. Be sure to revisit long-term programs regularly to see what can be improved and iterated.

Recommended Resources

Behaviour change is a huge topic. We have covered some of the essentials from a design and communications perspective in this article series, but for a more in depth coverage of the topic, see some of these resources.

Designing Digital Interventions for Lasting Impact
This detailed guide by UNICEF covers how human-centred design can be applied when developing digital interventions within a health and wellness context.

The COM-B Model for Behavior Change
Whilst we haven’t covered this framework in this series, the COM-B model (Capability + Opportunity + Motivation = Behaviour) and associated behaviour change wheel is a rigorous approach to impacting behaviour change at a holistic, systemic level.

So Many Courses, So Little Progress: Why Financial Education Doesn’t Work — And What Does
An in depth analysis on why financial literacy interventions fail, and how they can be improved through a more tailored approach to education, goal setting and skill building.

Toward effective government communication strategies in the era of COVID-19 
An interesting analysis of behaviour change throughout the COVID-19 pandemic through a communications lens.

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