What do I actually do as a behavioural science practitioner?
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Inspired by fellow behavioural science practitioners, I wanted to add my part to demystify what day-to-day roles in this industry/profession can look like.
Like many of us who work in the applied side of behavioural science, my current work life is heavily influenced by the industry I was working in before BeSci became a bigger part of my work. I started working in consumer insights in 2006, and in 2012 I co-founded one of the first UK agencies specialising in applied behavioural insights.
My working life during those 8 years was rather different to what it is now so it may not be an illustrative reflection of many careers in this area. Back then, much more of my work included "educating the market" (e.g. conference talks around the world), pitching for market research projects with global clients, leading qualitative and quantitative research projects and managing a team.
These days I've made a conscious choice to focus on what I enjoy and what I do best. Much of my work could be described as digging up and digesting large amounts of information, distilling it to the most relevant parts and transferring that knowledge to others in the simplest, clearest way possible so that they can take action. I enjoy solving complex puzzles in different domains like a psychological detective - it satisfies my intellectual curiosity and allows me to broaden my horizons for BeSci applications as much as possible.
In more practical terms, I work with different types of clients, so it’s hard to describe a representative week, but I’ll base this on the past year - however, next year might be different which is always exciting!
Collaborate with market research agencies as a behavioural science expert
Typically that includes some of the following activities, with the exact mix depending on the partnership and project: contributing ideas to the client proposal/pitch, research design (including discussion guides and questionnaires), desk reviews of the client’s existing research through the lens of BeSci, analysis of quantitative or qualitative data, and presentation or workshop – and sometimes a dash of training for the agency and/or the client.
Occasionally I also do some qualitative research to keep my skills fresh (I used to do more of it) but mostly I focus on selecting the best combination of “behavioural tools” (frameworks and theories) that will help solve the client’s puzzle most effectively and help them take action.
Work with an aviation tech startup to shape their customer experience through the lens of behavioural science
This is a new and exciting avenue for me, because it allows me to think about the business more holistically. A customer’s experience includes elements from marketing, sales, UX as well as the tangible aspects which are often constrained by regulations in an industry such as aviation.
My natural starting point is always how people think and behave, which is the lens through which I look at every step of the customer experience by defining a target behaviour for each stage of the customer journey, analysing the barriers/drivers within it and (collaboratively) designing the choice architecture to maximise the likelihood of the target behaviour.
I use a systems thinking approach to weave together an understanding of customer and corporate buyer behavioural insights; organizational and regulatory constraints and business strategy as well as a macro environment view.
Write papers and literature reviews for clients
These might be point-of-view pieces for people who want/need to publish white papers but lack the deep thinking time required so I do it for them. They’re always white labelled so my name is never on them, but I enjoy them nonetheless because it’s such a luxury for me to do that kind of geeky work AND get paid for it!
Literature reviews and intervention audits are often a similar case for clients – I take on reviewing the BeSci evidence base in a particular domain and write it up as a report, which is similarly delicious work as the white papers and both expand/diversify my knowledge base.
I’ve done these in such varied topics as furniture retail, personal finance, sustainability, food systems and food psychology, vaccine hesitancy, electric vehicle ownership, health behaviour change tech, medication adherence and aviation, to name a few – the variety of verticals helps me cross-pollinate ideas across domains and allows me to look at these challenges with fresh eyes.
That's the work clients pay me for, but in addition to that I also write BeSci articles (not as much as I want), keep myself up to speed with different types of research (ditto, but there’s disproportionately more reading than writing) and run BeSci training sessions.
I also constantly update and build my professional toolkit - as I progress in my career, I realise how much more there is to learn. This year I've been immersing myself in other areas of knowledge such as business strategy and service design, which complement my behavioural science knowledge in practical ways.
I'm agnostic when it comes to method and methodology - an understanding of human behaviour can enhance any aspect of a business, so even if the topic or situation doesn't lend itself to an experiment or RCT-type test for whatever reason, I can still help that client do something better, even if it's a better analysis of the problem with behavioural insights or happily collaborate with others who specialise in something different!