Back to Blog

A Product Manager’s Guide to Understanding Behavior

Saad Kamal | January 6th, 2020

As product managers, you are knee-deep in metrics, data and analytics. You try to track and analyze anything and everything you can. As a product manager, you also know that the only metric that truly matters is if people actually use your product. You’re trying to build something for someone who could really benefit from using your product. If they could only see what you see, why wouldn’t they use it?

You’ve interviewed countless potential customers, poured through survey results to find trends, refined your personas so much that you feel like Jim, the structural engineer is family. But Jim the structural engineer, he’s still using the same archaic product that he’s used for the last 8 years. As inefficient as it is, Jim is comfortable with his wicker armor even when you try to give him the finest, intricately interlaced suit made from the purest of mithril this side of the great Anduin.


Because Jim the structural engineer is human. And like other humans, he’s developed deeply engrained behaviors to do the job in front of him. Those behaviors may not have started off being efficient, but to him, they are now.

How did Jim develop those behaviors in the first place? That’s a little complicated because humans are a little complicated. Luckily, we can establish some historically observed patterns by psychologists and dive into theories they have developed based on those observed patterns. One angle of understanding behavior is through the study of behaviorism.


Behaviorism is a scientific discipline and a school of thought which branched off Edward Thorndike’s work in the late 1890s around the ‘law of effect’. He best summarizes it by saying “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.”

Although some behaviorists will have a differing spectrum of total buy-in, behaviorism theorizes that all behavior can be explained through the lens of conditioning. Some will add that instinctual reaction as the only other time we do something that isn’t a learned behavior. That also means that explaining behavior through individual thought, logic, emotion or reason is the wrong way to look at why humans do what we do. Again, not all behaviorists agree, but it’s something to consider as we discuss further.


Ok, then what is a behavior? That one is pretty straight forward (for the purposes of this post). A behavior is anything we think, anything we feel, or anything we do.


The first time I touched a hot pan, I received some sort of external stimuli. My central nervous system reacted to the stimuli. My hand reacted to the commands of my central nervous system to undo what I just did — and quickly. My body was then flooded with chemicals to cause a physical and emotional whirlwind from that event. My brain connected the action I did to the chemical reaction it proceeded to tell me ‘remember that this action caused this reaction’.

Not being the smartest shed in the tool, I’m sure I did it again. Maybe I didn’t come across the same exact conditions as the first time I burned my hand, but it was close enough to cause association. I filed the experience in my internal memory banks under the ‘don’t touch a hot pan you idiot’ directory. Play this out over time and you have a beautiful feedback loop with enough consistency and predictability to cause conditioning.

Why is conditioning so strong?

Humans are lazy. It’s not really our fault. Survival is hard and resources are limited — so we need to take advantage of any shortcut that we can. It’s why we love carbs, it’s why we look for patterns, it’s why we don’t see a better way to do something even if it’s right in front of us.

We create shortcuts. Behavior is another shortcut. Just like the shortcut of chemicals that caused us to feel one emotion or another, the behavior shortcut is a great tool in limiting our mental exertion. Our brain consumes anywhere between 20% and 30% of our total calorie intake. We’ll use those shortcuts whenever we can in order to reserve that energy for something else that may need it.

This is what makes changing behavior seem like an uphill battle. Because it is. When dealing with a problem that our potential product customers have faced before, the easiest thing for them to do is the thing they’ve done countless times before which produced an acceptable outcome. Putting on a wicker suit of armor is second nature, why do more work by learning how to procure, suit up, learn a new weight balance and still move around with a new suit if you’ve never experienced the benefit?

How do we overcome the burden of thought?

The first thing we need to understand is what customer behavior is today. You probably do some of this already. You may ask, or better yet, you may observe customer’s current processes for addressing the problem your product is trying to solve. Understanding what they do today is the first step to building something that they’ll actually use in the future.

A standard question in my initial customer interview question list has been “what tools do you use to overcome this problem today?” The responses to this question provides such valuable insight. First, it helps me determine if the problem I’m posing them is even a problem worth solving for my customers — today. The responses to that question alone may not always tell me if the problem is worth solving or not — as one person can use nothing to supplement their process because they don’t need to while another may be so paralyzed by even facing the problem that they ignore any attempts to fix it. That’s not what I personally am looking for. I’m looking for their thought process, their behaviors and how they self-medicate.

Once you’ve outlined your target audiences’ problem-solving journey, there are a few things we can try to help them change their behavior and actually use your product.

Increase reward for equal effort

As an adult, I’m around hot pans almost daily. There are both obvious, and non-trivial benefit to me cooking food. It’s typically cheaper than purchase pre-cooked food. It likely saves me time throughout the day. I get a metabolic benefit to cooking certain types of food which is easier for my body to breakdown and absorb the nutrients I need to do important things like cooking more food. In short, the reward of cooking food outweighs the risks of being burnt so I keep doing it.

How can we build something that offers more reward than the risk of the effort expended by learning a new way to do it? One way is to close the cause and effect, effort and reward loop into smaller parcels. Make your customers do less work to see iterative reward, but always make sure they see the reward right after they’ve completed the effort. You’ll see this come up again and again as we discuss further. Consistent, timely and predictable reward after work is put in to develop association = conditioning.

Reduce Learning

One way to limit unnecessary mental taxation is by providing familiarity to your customers. Your product isn’t the only thing that they’ve ever encountered in their lives. Chances are they use doorknobs on a daily basis. They’re used to the height of a doorknob and understand that if they rotate the knob in a direction, the door will un-latch. If you give your target customer a round or handled doorknob shaped piece of metal attached to a standing plank of wood waist high that divides one room from another, they’ll probably instinctively grab it and try to turn the knob.

This isn’t a knock (like what I did there?) on doing something creative with your implementation. Just know that if you do, you’re potentially introducing friction for customers to use your product. It may not be a lot of friction, but it’s still uncomfortable for our default laziness and can get in the way of product adoption.

Reduce Complexity

You can see a pattern here. We’re all about eliminating unnecessary thought. Let’s talk a little about choice. There’s a writeup by Barry Schwartz — The Paradox of Choice — Why More is Less. To sum up his work, he finds that the more potential choice we have in front of us, the poorer we are at making the best choice from the options.

Whenever someone has to make a new choice, there are a lot of complex and interdependent mental processes going on in their minds. We think of social factors like rising expectations, social comparisons and implied perception of internal factors like potential self-blame, opportunity costs and aversion to trade-offs. This can be so taxing that we can put off making critical choices just to collapse the potential options in front of us until the choice is easier to make, as those potential options naturally decay over time.

Be mindful of the number of choices your product is asking your customers to make, or you may find them not making any choices at all.

Reduce Behavioral Change

The ideal product adoption method for a customer is one that doesn’t ask them to change their behavior at all. Ideally, you can let your customers go through their existing workflow while showing them the reward for the work they do is greater using your product. No friction is better than minimal friction.

If Jim, the structural engineer, starts his process for solving the problem your product targets by using his measurement wheel to mark off the distance he needs to survey, let him use his measurement wheel to mark off the distance he needs to survey. If he then writes that down on a piece of paper, let him write it on a piece of paper. If later in the day, he does data entry into a spreadsheet for the measurements he’s taken to upload the data to your competitor’s product — let him to data entry into a similar spreadsheet and have him upload it to your product. Just make sure your output provides him more value than the output of your competitors. This lets you condition your customers to find greater value for the same effort they already do today.

Reduce Work

Now that you have Jim the structural engineer using your product without having to learn any new behaviors to complete the job he needs to do — you can start iteratively taking existing burdens away. I say iteratively for a few reasons. You don’t want to shock Jim by cutting 4 hours of his day right away. That’s going to either give him boredom and eventually anxiety from that boredom, or fill his day with something new altogether and cause him the anxiety of learning something new to occupy a good portion of his day.

A drastic change isn’t always great for your product either. It potentially spreads your product resources thin, focusing on broad items rather than the details — and the details always suffer when that’s the case. Maybe your product can tie into the measurement wheel to actively collect the data for Jim’s spreadsheet. Then your next release can cut the need for the spreadsheet altogether by storing the data directly within your product. You start shifting the needle of effort and reward to skew further on the reward side for less effort.