Digital application design throughout all available digital channels has got to keep human behaviour and the science behind it top of mind. Here’s why, writes Greg Gatherer, account manager at Liferay Africa.

Did you answer calls from unknown numbers? Many people don’t because it’s usually spam, but if you’re a parent, business owner, or anyone else who needs to be easy to contact, you don’t have the luxury of ignoring calls. Even if most of them waste your time, one of them might be important.

Despite our many technological advances since the telephone was invented in 1876, phone calls remain a useful form of communication, filling gaps that texts and email cannot. When you make a call you can confirm that the other person has heard you, you can gauge their tone, and you can connect more deeply with family, friends and colleagues. Yet we’ve come to see phonecalls as annoying and invasive, and one of the reasons is that telemarketing and robocalls have somehow become part of our daily lives.

This demonstrates one of the most basic teachings of behavioural science-that negative and positive reinforcement shape our experience and drive behaviour. If you get a sales call from a stranger almost every time you answer your phone, you stop answering. Your brain has learnt that this is an unrewarding action. In that way, telemarketing has taken a tool and made it less useful by letting time-wasters interrupt us all day. It’s also changed our relationship with that technology from positive to negative.

Millennials and Gen Z are notorious for refusing to answer calls, even from friends, and telemarketing no doubt contributed to that. And for what? Does anyone enjoy telemarketing? No. It’s a marketing system divorced from people’s preference for meaningful communication.

This might sound like a mere complaint about spam, but it’s a good example for thinking about why an understanding of human behaviour must be built into the design and use of technology, and of digital experience platforms (DXPs) in particular. If institutions exploit technology for short-term gain in ways that make people hate, fear or simply avoid that technology, then we lose out on the potential benefits.

We’re already seeing robust debate about the effects of social media on mental health, and these ethical discussions are becoming central to the tech industry as consumers grow wise to the ways technology can affect their wellbeing.

What can be particularly worrying is when those fears are misguided. Just last month I wrote about how the fear of job loss is impeding digital transformation in South Africa. A lack of basic computing education is preventing government employees from implementing digital solutions, while some are reportedly even trying to protect their jobs by vandalising computer equipment.

The digitisation of government systems can bring long-term benefit for everyone, but that’s not necessarily a convincing argument to someone worried about immediate harm, not because it’s interfering with their attention span but because it threatens their basic capacity to survive.

And they’re not entirely wrong; technology is constantly changing the job market. But a fearful relationship with technology adds to the problem by making employees resistant to upskilling. Think about it: if you experience a DXP as intimidating or as a threat, would you try to use it?

We’re asking workers to look to the future but not doing enough to address their concerns in the present and change the way people relate to the presence of digital technology in daily life. If these tools built to serve us don’t ‘understand’ us – all of us – then it doesn’t matter how advanced and sophisticated they are. The solutions they offer become unrealistic.

The thing about behavioural science is that it is realistic. Behavioural economics, for example, is distinguished from regular economics because it doesn’t assume that people are perfectly self-aware and rational all the time.

This scientific field aims to understand people as they are, and learn how to nudge them in the right directions. Nudges are subtle, simple interventions that use positive reinforcement to encourage the right actions rather than force them. It respects our need for choice and is driven by data on why we behave irrationally and how that can be changed. You can see why behavioural science is therefore crucial to the success of a DXP.

The future of behavioural science lies not only in targeting individuals through the insights gleaned from data, but in changing social norms.

In this case we could ask, how might our designs address the fear of adopting new technology? How can behavioural science help us change people’s relationships with technology from negative to positive, so that they experience it as an opportunity or convenience, not a threat? If we expect people to answer the call of digitisation, then we have to speak to the reality of their needs.