How to layer behavioural barriers in a decision making process

Updated: Mar 8

My starting point for any behaviour change project is to understand the factors that are influencing behaviour, but some projects turn into an analytical swamp after the first stage mapping barriers. One way to solve that is to think about the target behaviour as a process and layer the barriers step by step.


Although they might be positioned differently, many consumer insights projects are fundamentally about behaviour change if their goal is to understand what motivates or stops people when it comes to buying a product. So, mapping out barriers with a model like COM-B is a great option and it works extremely well as a structured approach to understanding the problem.


Trouble ahead

In some cases, the analysis grinds to a halt when you try to see how the barriers fit together or how you might prioritise solutions in a practical way - especially as both barriers and solutions might need to be tailored to different target audiences. In short, it becomes hard to see the woods from the trees!

One way to solve this is to categorise barriers and drivers into different layers according to the decision-making steps: Spark-Solutionize-Select.


The steps are meant to be conceptual and work as an analytical tool - not necessarily as clear identifiable phases in a decision making process because they tend to merge into a whole in the person's mind. For that reason, they are also often unlikely to be able to articulate it if asked directly but we can distinguish them in the research and analysis.


Step 1: Spark

The process is sparked off by a core need someone has. These goals are the initial triggers for consumption (e.g. need for energy, entertainment, transport) and a fundamental need the person is trying to satisfy.

They're typically situational needs brought about by physiological or environmental states (e.g. thirst or running out of petrol) and, as such, linked to functionality. A person can have more than one core need, but typically one is the most salient, non-negotiable one which ultimately determines the final choice and other drivers then build on this core need.


Example: It's 3pm and you're feeling a bit tired at your desk - you need some energy to get through the rest of your work.


Step 2: Solutionize

Once you have identified a core need more or less consciously, you look for a solution to fulfil it - i.e. a category of products, services or other options.

This process is influenced by the beliefs, perceptions and attitudes you hold about various product categories, and it's influenced by your past experiences. Category perceptions are shaped partly by time of day, locations, physical availability and habits (e.g. morning coffee) as well as beliefs about people who use or buy the category (user perceptions).


Example: The coffee machine is broken, so you walk outside to find something else. An energy drink might help - you had one last week and it seemed to perk you up.


Step 3: Select

Once you've chosen to a category that you feel fulfils your need, brand or product perceptions will come into play as you select the product or service.

As with category level barriers or drivers, the beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes someone holds are important factors in how they make decisions. Unlike category level factors, brand and product perceptions are usually less influenced by time of day and tend to remain more stable over time. These perceptions can be about many things - from the (perceived) performance of the product to more emotional factors.


Example: The shop has a nice selection of energy drink brands and even different flavour options. You've never really liked the grisly logo of Monster and, to be honest, the can is a little bit too big for you. Red Bull it is - and that new berry flavour seems really light and refreshing which is a bonus on a hot day like today!


Unlike category level factors, brand and product perceptions are usually more stable and less influenced by time of day. These perceptions can be about many things from the (perceived) performance of the product to more emotional factors.


However, physical availability can have a big influence on choice at this stage - even if there are few product or brand barriers, if your products are not available at the places where consumers want them, they might switch to competitors or even to a different category.


Let's put it all together

Here is another example of the choice process happening in a person's mind:

I chose energy drinks because some parts of this process has been me at different stages of my life but it could just as easily be some other category - for example, I have used this to understand the processes as different as reading newspapers or charging electric vehicles!


Depending on the category, the full picture can be much more complex with different target audiences experiencing barriers at different places. When it comes to behaviour change, silver bullets and simple solutions are rare because humans are complex and behaviour is always multiply determined, often in a dynamic way.


Using a layered approach to categorising behavioural influences makes the process helps to simplify the situation and ultimately develop a range of solutions that target the right barriers, at the right stages and for the right target audience!


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