Designing for Healthier Life

Four approaches to designing digital services that persuade your user to live a healthier life

Changing your habits from unhealthy to healthy ones is hard.

Fortunately changing behavior has become easier with technology. We don’t necessarily need that expensive coach to push towards our goal anymore, and a cheap mobile app might even suffice. The question is, how can we build services that help users to change their behavior?

Change in behavior cannot be forced, but we can persuade the user to change his behavior through Persuasive Design.

Why do you need to understand Persuasive Design?

Apps that enable users to order food are kindergarten level in terms of design complexity to apps that try to change the user’s eating habits. Designing products that change behaviors and attitudes is complicated because it forces us to think beyond what the user wants to do, and instead focus on how to get them to do things they should do.

You don’t need to be designing a product for healthier living to benefit from understanding the principles of persuasive design. The basic thesis behind persuasive design, changing user’s behavior to targeted one, is relevant in any domain.

Four approaches to Persuasive design

There are four design approaches for persuading the user to change his behavior: primary task support, dialogue support, social support, and creditability support. Using the different methods and principles in combination maximizes persuasiveness of the service we are designing. A higher level of persuasion means the user is more probable to change his behavior.

Primary task support – making everything easier

The main function of a user interface is to support the user in carrying out the primary task they have at the moment. For a user that aims to exercise regularly, this means, for example, turning the more significant job of exercising into smaller ones, such a picking a suggested training program. This is called the reducing principle.

Seven principles make up the primary task support approach:

  1. Reducing: chunking complex task into smaller ones, e.g. reducing the effort of going for a run by suggesting a running route.
  2. Tunneling: guiding the user through a process, e.g. providing a step by step on how to produce a healthy meal.
  3. Tailoring: providing context-specific information, e.g. showing different information for beginners and professionals.
  4. Personalizing: providing personalized information.
  5. Self-monitoring: tracking the user's performance in the task, e.g. providing step count in an activity app.
  6. Simulating: simulating the link between cause and effect, e.g. showing before-and-after pictures of people with the same weight.
  7. Rehearsal: practicing targeted behavior, e.g. using an app to train meditation for example.

Dialogue support – providing good feedback

Users expect some form of feedback when using an app or a service to achieve a goal or change in behavior. In persuasive design, this should be seen as dialogue, in which users actions are reflected in the system that allows for a continuation of the interaction. For example, when the user accomplished something they set out to do, the service acknowledges this and provides next steps for after it. To provide meaningful feedback, your service should incorporate the following principles:

  1. Praising: offering positive feedback, e.g. congratulating the users for achieving her goals.
  2. Targeting: rewarding the user for targeted behavior, e.g. giving out trophies.
  3. Reminding: reminding the user of their targeted behavior, e.g. notifications about today’s running goal.
  4. Suggesting: suggesting fitting ways to achieve targeted behavior, e.g. food app suggesting healthier alternatives.
  5. Similarity: proving the service in a way that is familiar for the user, e.g. using users language, slang, etc.
  6. Liking: providing a look and feel that appeals to the user, e.g. cartoony graphics for an app that is meant to teach children to brush their teeth.
  7. Social role: offering a social connection for the user, e.g. connecting users to professional coaches.

Social support – using human’s social behavior

We are social beings. Doing things in a group and competing against each other can, in many cases, lead to better results. Services that aim to change behavior have the added benefit of social pressure if done right. Being social of the things we are changing in ourselves pushes us to follow through. Ways of building social support in your service are the following:

  1. Social learning: a person is more prone to change her own behavior if given a chance to observe others, e.g. allowing users to share their completed workouts.
  2. Social comparison: allowing people to compare their performance to others, e.g. people can compare their pace for running 10k.
  3. Normative influence: using peer pressure, e.g. allowing a group of people to set a shared goal that everyone must work to achieve.
  4. Social facilitation: people are more likely to perform target behavior if they feel other people are doing it as well.
  5. Cooperation: using the natural drive to co-operate as leverage, e.g. allowing a group to set for example a shared weight loss goal.
  6. Competition: using people’s drive to compete, e.g. win a prize if you run more miles than your peers.
  7. Recognition: offering public recognition, e.g. interviews of the people who achieved their goal with the service or showing a global leaderboard for most runs.

Credibility support — be trustworthy

Besides providing the means, the feedback, and the social elements for changing behavior, your service should also be credible. More credibility converts to more persuasiveness. There are seven aspects that increase the creditability of your service:

  1. Trustworthiness: users are more likely to follow instructions of a trustworthy app.
  2. Expertise: services that are perceived to be based on expertise and researched knowledge are more persuasive.
  3. Surface creditability: people make a quick judgment of the system's creditability based on several factors. Using a cartoony font, for example, might reduce the professional aspect of the service.
  4. Real-world feel: providing information on the people behind the service builds creditability.
  5. Authority: using authority to build more creditability and increase persuasiveness.
  6. Third-party endorsements: well-known and respected sources as endorsers work wonders in building creditability.
  7. Verifiability: allowing the user to verify services claims, for example, by linking to outside sources.


The presented approaches and principles are some of the most fundamental ideas behind the persuasive design. However, despite multiple the ways that we can increase the persuasiveness of the services and products that we design, changing user’s behavior is a rather difficult task. We can also see this in the surprisingly few products that are in the market today, which are good at changing their user’s behavior. This, of course, should not be seen as discouragement, but rather as an incentive to work even harder at building these products that change our behaviors for the better. There is a huge market for the products which help us realize our potential and live a healthier and happier life.