ByJay Bigford
3 min read

Sending the right message: design and behaviour change

Our aim is for our work to make some sort of change to the world right, and hopefully a positive one. Understanding the science behind how people make decisions and change their behaviour can only help in achieving this goal. We embrace this understanding in our work at Yoke and it has changed the way we design and communicate for good.

Let’s daydream for a moment… you’re sitting by the lake in the park, the sun’s shining and you’ve got a mighty fine lunch on your lap. You watch as a little fluffy duckling waddles up to your feet. The little guy, let’s call him Puddles, wants to share your food. “Cheep cheep cheep.”

Puddles is looking straight at you, head cocked to one side. “Cheep cheep cheep.” Your heart melts and you pick some seeds off your bread and toss them on to the grass. He hoovers them up and potters back to his family with a smile on his bill. Puddles’ communication was on point. He asked for something that both you and him wanted, and he got it. And this is how…

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

It’s highly unlikely that Puddles has read much literature on communication and decision-making; he’s more a fiction guy. But his little campaign for a snack was well aligned with some leading thinking in comms and behaviour change. We’ll explain a bit about how embracing this thinking has helped us as a creative studio and how to apply it to your own design and messaging.

The bigger picture and the frame

We’ll get to how Puddles smashed his own comms goal out of the park later. First, we need a bit of background information on how us humans think and act. In a nutshell: we have two systems of thinking. System 1 is about feelings and emotions. System 2 is about facts and logic. Comms and design based on facts alone are not enough: it’s all down to how we frame that information for System 1. To make sure we frame it for the right outcome, we need to understand how our minds work. Enter the three magic questions, for ethical organisations to effectively change people’s behaviour, comms have to allow the audience to answer ‘yes’ to the following three questions: Should I do that? Would I do that? Could I do that?


To create positive behaviour change, our messaging needs to compel people to do something on an emotional level. This is all about System 1. Puddles owned your System 1. His little fluffy feathers and adorable cheeping were effective because they tugged on your heart strings. Puddles’ messaging ticked the ‘Should I?’ box pretty much without him even trying.


Does what we’re asking people to do feel natural? Is it something they would normally do? If it is, and there’s no internal conflict, System 1 goes ahead and makes that decision. Back to Puddles. He wasn’t after your whole picnic, just a little bit, and that felt reasonable. Feeding the ducks is a park time classic and something you would do. So you did it.


Whatever we’re asking from people, we need to make it simple. If audiences decide they should and would do something but then can’t, then our efforts have failed. Removing barriers between what we’re asking and what needs to be done is essential. Creating an easy path to behaviour change means it’s more likely to be trodden. So what did Puddles do? He walked up to you when he asked for some food, so you didn’t even need to move off your bench. By coming to you and minimising your own effort, Puddles made his snack request eminently doable.

The magic number

Puddles somewhat opportunistically made you answer ‘yes’ to all three questions. This isn’t always necessary, but a lot of organisations that fall short on one or two of the questions often don’t get the result they want. The first question tends to be easy as they have countless emotional stories to tell. The second question is also not too difficult as most people like to think of themselves as charitable. But so many fail on the third question, could I do that? They don’t like to go in for the hard sell — they don’t ask clearly enough or make it easy enough.

Who has the sandwich?

Effective messaging also needs to consider who the audience is. For the ‘Should I?’ question, different stories may resonate to a greater or lesser degree with different demographics. For the ‘Would I?’ question, demographics are massively important, as this is all about aligning communications with a person’s identity, group or worldview. And for the ‘Could I?’ question, some factors may be more important for different demographics, for example the older generation may struggle more with technology.

Because we have agency

Puddles has been invaluable in demonstrating behaviour change comms at a rather simplified ‘top level’ but in reality, things are a little more complex. How about in an ethical design agency? Well, we apply this thinking to pretty much all the work we do, from structuring and writing an impact report, to scripting an animation, being mindful of the three questions gives the work the best chance of resonating with the audience.

We’re always learning and finding new ways to design for a better world which is now more important than ever. It’s therefore up to us to ensure that our communications are as effective as they can possibly be.

How to turn these insights into creative output for good:

  1. Observe your own thinking in regards to the three questions. Observe how you act when ‘consuming’ messaging. Make a note during different interactions.
  2. Read up on the subject, a few greats are ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow‘ by Daniel Kahneman and ‘Nudge‘ by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.
  3. For your next project have a conversation about behaviour change thinking early on, ask the three questions of your audience. See if you can tweak anything to help reduce any hurdles and improve your chances of making change happen.

Credit: In research for this article we interviewed collaborator Dan Harvey.

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