Glossary: Essential Behavioral Design Terms

8 min read

behavioral design meeting

A  glossary of the most commonly referenced terms in behavioral design with industry specific definitions. Go into every meeting feeling prepared.



A/B Testing

A form of experimentation that compares two versions of a single variable to see which produces better results. In machine learning, a system runs A/B tests continuously to improve it’s model and improve results over time.


The second step on the CAR (Cue, Action, Reward) Model. It is the key behavior you want a user to perform.

Ambient Communication

Non-text communication, such as color, size, texture, pattern, motion, sound, vibration, or time that helps you to communicate complex content to users quickly and intuitively.

Behavioral Analytics

A subset of business analytics that center on user behaviors and interactions with a product. Behavioral analyics try to understand why users behave the way they do and identify ways to change behavior to meet the businesses needs.

Behavioral Design

A design framework for programming human behavior. It is a set of ideas that describe and predict how and why people behave the way they do. It’s also a set of practices for changing those behaviors.


A scientific paradigm for understanding behavior that focuses on the importance of reflexes and how experiences shape our behavior.

B.F. Skinner

United States psychologist and a leading proponent of behaviorism. Notably discovered that to build a habit the best way to achieve it is through variable rewards.

Burnout (or User Burnout)

Fatigue or frustration that results in the cessation or reduction of use os a product or service as a result of overuse. Behavioral designers need to be aware of this risk and not push users so far that they burnout and stop using the product or service.

CAR Model

Cue-Action-Reward, the CAR Model combines each of those steps into a framework you can use in your app to induce a new habit.

Choice Architecture

Prescribes that, as a Behavioral Designer, you can design someone’s environment as to create specific, intentional default actions they will take. Popularized by Sunstein, Thaler, & Balz, Choice Architecture (also known as Nudge Theory) pervades our daily life and is one of the most successful and widely-used Behavioral Design techniques


The number or percentage of subscribers to a service that discontinue their subscription to that service in a given time period. Churn drastically undercuts growth and companies must ensure that their growth rate exceeds their churn.

Cognitive Load Balancing

Prescribes techniques for how you might best display only fragments of the whole information set to a user at once and effectively switch between those fragments. Limiting how much mental work the user must do at any time can improve their quality of experience and increase their ability to properly perform the target action you need them to do.


The first step in the CAR Model. Something the user senses in their environment that they can learn to associate with an action.

Data Science

A field that uses scientific methods to understand and gain insights from data. User behavioral data is often captured and analyzed to understand why users behave the way they do and how we might change that behavior. Data science requires a specialized team, tools and experience to successfully derive meaningful insights.


A neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that is activated when we receive an unexpected, delightful experience. It causes neuron-to-neuron connections in our Habit System to associate the particular cue we experienced with the action we just performed.

Engagement (or User Engagement)

A broad term to describe the measure of a product’s ability to occupy the attention or efforts it’s users or a group of users. Higher user engagement is correlated with higher LTV, retention and conversions.

Environment (or User Environment)

The immediate reality in which someone is performing a behavior. For example, if someone using your smartphone app, their environment is your app’s user interface.


The rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group. In Behavioral Design ethics are especially important and should be strictly defined and followed.


A process for testing an unknown to discover it’s impact. Experimentation is the fastest way your team can learn about your product and users. Experimentation isn’t just something for scientists: every change you make to the product can be experimentally validated for how it helped – or hurt – your KPIs.

External Cue

An external cue is anything that someone senses from their immediate surroundings that causes them to perform a habit.


Feedback is the signal the user receives that they completed the desired action. Feedback is different than reward as it is neutral and the user receives it each time. It serves to not only confirm the action is completed, but to contrast the Reward and in doing so increases it’s effect.

Habit System

A more colloquial term describing the Basal Ganglia, a set of brain structures involved in behavioral control and habits.

Hook Model

A model for building a habit and increasing the frequency in which a user completes a target action as explained in Nir Eyal’s “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Incentive (or Soft Incentive)

Soft incentive describes how your App may use the future promise of emotional or community-based value to encourage a single, challenging, one-off behavior today. Soft incentives largely rely on our desire for personal accomplishment, congruence with our narratives of identity, or the approval of our friends

Internal Cue

Sometimes called an “endogenous cue” is something that people sense inside themselves; their internal feelings and thoughts. Unlike external cue, internal cues are ‘inner’ events that are private to a person’s brain. They have the same power as external cues to initiate a habit.

LTV (or Lifetime Value)

The Lifetime Value (LTV) of a user is measured as their cumulative value to your product during their time using your product. LTV is a critical KPI to measure if your product generates enough revenue through usage and retention – either via advertising, subscription, or recurring purchases.

Machine Learning

An application of artificial intelligence that gives the system the ability to autonomously run experiments, “learn” from the results, and adapt and improve over time. In behavioral design, we might predict the optimal moment to display a result for that user. Machine learning gives the AI the ability to analyze the resulting behavior and determine if the prediction is good or if it needs to be adjusted in the next attempt.

MAT Model

The behavioral model created by B.J Fogg that describes the system that forms a habit. This suggests that users perform a habit when they have adequate [M]otivation, [A]bility, and in the presence of a Synthetic [T]rigger.

Neutral Response

Another word for Feedback. This response follows an action to let the user know they have completed an action without rewarding them. It also serves to contrast the variable reward state, or positive feedback.

Olds & Milner

Scientists who’s pioneering work in Behaviorism laid the foundation for Behavioral Design. In their most notable experiment, they placed electrodes in the septum region of rats brains to stimulate a pleasure sensation and gave the rats a lever to push to send a burst of electricity to the region. They discovered the power of the release of dopamine on changing the rats behavior as they observed the rats approach near starvation and dehydration in favor of continuing to press the lever.

Operant Conditioning

Operant refers to an operator, in our case the user, and conditioning refers to training or learning. Operant conditioning is a process by which users, or operators, learn to behave in a desired way through the use of rewards, or in some cases negative consequences.

Optimal Challenge

Prescribes that at a given moment and for a given person, there exists an optimal amount to challenge, or push, someone to perform an action. Challenge less, and you may not help the person achieve their goals. Challenge more, and you may induce fatigue and user burnout.

Optimal Group Structure

Proposes that there exist predictable, optimal scopes and natures of interactivity between app users that will best motivate them to change their behavior.

Optimal Information Flow

Proposes that there exists, for each person, an optimal ordering of steps for a process and an optimal density of information they can be presented with before they struggle to perform your desired action. This technique works best on actions that you need people to perform once or infrequently, such as a signup form or completing a purchase.


Personalization is the process of personalizing a product to optimize it to individual users. Machine learning techniques and artificial intelligence are making it easier to personalize and adapt products.  If you believe in theories such as, Optimal Challenge, then you must also acknowledge that to be most effective your product needs to be able to adapt to each individual user’s engagement and learning needs to form a habit.

Persuasive Tech(nology)

A broad term that describes technology that is built and designed to modify or change user behavior with persuasive techniques.

Positive Feedback

Also described as a reward. It is the variable feedback, often positive, that a user receives in contrast to neutral feedback. It is designed to reinforce and increase the frequency they complete the target action.

Power User

In SaaS, a power user is a user who uses the software, app or product with a high level of proficiency and one who devotes a large amount of time to it. Power users usually only make up a small percentage of a user base. They are also notably, not affected (and sometimes negatively affected) by the use of reinforcements.

Primary Reinforcer

Food, water, sex: the basics needs for which an individual and the species cannot survive without.

Push Notification

A message sent by a mobile app that pops up on the user’s home, or login screen usually in the form of a banner and often accompanied by sound and vibration. Push notifications do not require the user to have the app active to receive them. They are often used to prompt the user to return to the app or alert them of a change or update in the app.


Also often referred to as a reward. It is a delightful, surprising response to completing a desired action that stimulates a dopamine response in the user and aids in habit formation.

Reinforcement Learning

Also called Reward Learning, or RL, increases the frequency that someone performs a behavior. RL focuses on how a habit can be induced by carefully controlling the rewarding consequences of an action.

Reinforcement Schedule

The schedule at which you display a reinforcement, or reward, to a user between which they receive only neutral feedback.


A broad term that describes the percentage of users who remain with your product. It is often more narrowly defined by parameters such as length of time, demographic cohorts, or after specific milestones. High retention correlates with higher LTV.


When the feedback we receive as the consequence of our actions is delightful AND surprising, we consider it rewarding. The brain’s Habit System activates and we become more likely to perform that action again in the future. The surprising and delightful reward we received for our behavior reinforces the cue – action pairing, and increases our chances of doing it again: it’s the glue that locks the new habit into a user’s mind.

Reward of the Hunt

A type of reward that satisfies our desire for conquest. The gains of victory. These tie closely to the primary reinforcers that our brains evolved because they most closely mimic reality. Behavioral Designers often use Rewards of the Hunt in games, in settings with competition, and (surprisingly), in situations where the next blast of dopamine might be just a few swipes away.

Reward of the Self

A type of reward that satisfies our desire for self-mastery and proficiency. Apps often use Reward of the Self seen as positive praise or encouragement after completing an action.

Reward of the Tribe

A type of reward that satisfies our desire for belonging. To matter to a place and to a people. The approval of our friends and lovers. Status, and the pleasure of being known. We experience Rewards of the Tribe daily in the Social Media apps we use with likes, comments, and approval.

Secondary Reinforcer

Everything else, beyond our primary reinforcers that we’ve come to love and find pleasurable because we’ve learned to mentally associate them with primary reinforcersCue, Action, Reward) Model. It is the key behavior you want a user to perform.

Stimulus (or Stimuli)

In Behavioral Design, it is something that incites a response or a reaction in the user’s break such that there is a release of dopamine which aids in habit formation. It is often the variable reward.

Stimulus Devaluation

Provides a technique for destroying a learned Cue-Action association by introducing delay and friction between an Action and its associated Reward. The resulting experience still allows a user to perform their desired action while destroying the habit-forming nature of the experience.

Sunk Cost

Leverages the cognitive bias of Sunk Cost Fallacy, for which people inaccurately over-value experiences, relationships, or products because they’ve already given them time, money, information, or opportunity. It is a particularly effective way to increase the frequency of a behavior that users are already performing by introducing a “ratchet” effect in which they become more likely to keep using you Product because they over-value the importance of their previous use and investment.

Synthetic Cues

Cues that have been intentionally constructed by a Behavioral Designer to cue a particular action. Some examples include, push notifications, banners, alerts, sounds, etc.


Also, known as a Cue, is a prompt to perform an action.


The thing that is subject to change or variation in an experiment. In order to prove cause and effect, it is important to keep all things constant with one variable. It is also helpful to have a control group to contrast results against.

Lindsey Meredith