From Dots to Spans: Stringing Together Simple Actions to Create Habits

From Dots to SpansA cardinal rule of designing for behavior change is that you must actually specify and understand what you are asking your user to do before you can create an effective framework to influence the behavior. BJ Fogg’s Behavior Grid is a useful tool for defining the behaviors you want your users to do, and designing an intervention accordingly.

One of the challenges I’ve found in using this taxonomy to design behavior change interventions is that it’s very difficult to coach people into span or path behaviors. To assign someone a span, like “eat a low calorie diet for a few weeks until you see a weight loss,” or a path, like “stop smoking from now on,” actually consists of many smaller steps that are subsumed in the larger span/path goal. For an end user, the span or path still leaves a question mark as to what the component behaviors should be and how to cope with obstacles that arise.

Fogg Behavior Grid

In reality, most behaviors we expect of a user are dots–one time actions that can essentially be checked off a to-do list. Some examples include:

  • Purchase a product from my website
  • Provide me with information about yourself for my research
  • Make an appointment with your healthcare provider
  • Do a workout

Ultimately, the goal is to help a user string these dots into spans or paths, essentially repeating the one-time behavior continually so that it becomes a habit or routine.

Now, I’m using the term “habit” a bit loosely here, since many of the spans or paths we eventually want users to adopt, especially in health, may never become really automatic. I can speak for myself and say that even though I have a very regular exercise routine and genuinely enjoy my running, there are many days where it takes a conscious effort on my part to get my butt out the door. But some dots might eventually become habits–for example, remembering to take medication at the right time every single day.

In any case, the way to build up to a repetition of a desired behavior over time is to coach people toward that smaller behavior, toward the dot. Tools like a calendar can help people to consistently repeat the action. When I’ve tested health coaching applications with users, one request we frequently hear is “Just tell me what to do.” A dot behavior is what telling a user what to do looks like.

Whether you’re offering your users health coaching, or guiding them through some other type of behavior pathway, be very clear with yourself and your design team about the behavioral goals, and if you can, make them dots.

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