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Humans are not rational agents: user research matters

Why don’t we exercise more, though we know we should?

Why is it difficult to save for retirement?

In the case of a scary health diagnosis, why does it matter for a doctor to tell us in-person?

To be at times irrational, is to be human. Under the influence of evolutionary and societal forces, we can act in ways that seem sub-optimal with reference to important goals.

Understanding these ‘irrationalities’ is critically important to product development. It means the problem space might be more complicated than expected. Naive solutions that don’t take into account how people act, think, and feel in practice are doomed.

And that’s why User Research matters in the earliest stages of a startup’s life. It’s a tool to interrogate the problem space, and understand any irrationalities in human behaviour within it. This serves as a critical foundation for formulating the purpose and features of your product.

In healthcare, there are plenty of scenarios where people’s psychology and behaviours might be surprising. At Babylon, we have to take these into account when designing products to help people achieve good health. For example, we don’t always act in the interest of long-term goals even if we know what to do. We will eat badly or avoid exercise, even though we know the consequences. 

Just telling a user they need to do something, won’t necessarily drive behaviour change towards good health. As another example, the same piece of health information can feel very different coming from the mouth of a doctor than an alternative information delivery channel like a written report. We have to think deeply about the value of a human doctor in healthcare, and not assume all information can or should be delivered through an app.

As a researcher or product manager, you don’t have to start from scratch in understanding user psychology. There are theories and concepts in Behavioural Psychology (and surrounding fields), that can help structure research inquiry and move you faster to critical insights. As a starting point, I suggest researchers and product managers draw inspiration from self-determination theory and competing pressures model of behaviour.