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Startups - A Mission to Enrich Human Behaviour





by Ashwin Rajan

This article was originally published on the Shortcut's blog.

Successful technology startups influence and change human behaviour deeply. This may seem contradictory: when people think about technology, they rarely think about human behaviour in the same breath. But they should. Because, above all else, technology gets users to ‘do’ things differently.

Technologies, at the end of the day, are about ‘doing’. They make life actionable and livable by giving their users agency. And this is where behavioural design comes in, as behaviour is at its core about human action.

Behaviour design moves people to action.

Think about it. Any successful product you use, whether as a consumer or as an enterprise, has extended or changed your behaviour. Spotify and Netflix drove us from owning to renting content. Slack changed how we collaborate at work. Dropbox moved us away from buying yet another hard drive. Using Lime means you walk less and can be more spontaneous with commuting. The list of behavioural changes enabled by successful startups is endless.

Despite this deep link between behaviour and technology, too few startups are explicitly focused on behaviour. This is perhaps because of how we frame what startups do in the first place. As Steve Blank so famously said, startups essentially try to ‘search for a scalable and repeatable business model’. While this is true, this definition makes it seem like the business dimension of the startup is the most important one. However, unseen in the work of a startup is the critical search for a ‘usage model’.

A product’s 'usage model' is the simplest description of why and how the product is used.

The more effective the usage model, the deeper the understanding of the human behaviours tied to such usage. The usage model can reveal the purely tactical, such as what the user does with the product: for example, Lime scooters can be abandoned anywhere. Or then, the usage model can capture the emotional or experiential state of the user during usage: Klarna is used spontaneously, while Dropbox is used with concern and YouTube is used with anticipation. You can get even more detailed. Klarna is used spontaneously, and supports transactions. Dropbox is used with care, periodically. YouTube is used with anticipation, for on-the-go entertainment. However you frame it, the usage model can provide a nuanced understanding of the behaviours that are extended by a product.

What usage model is your startup solving for?

The traditional way to think about startups involves three things: 1. What is the problem? 2. What is the insight? and 3. What is the solution? Add to this: How is the solution used? – will help further clarify the purpose of the offering. When you start thinking about usage, you find that a single product actually amplifies multiple behaviours of its user. Even a simple kitchen knife has multiple attributes in terms of usage: it needs to look attractive, handle right, cut well, store well, and last long.

Slack’s usage model is users being able to do everything work related in one place, never leaving the app, thus the reducing cognitive load of switching tools. This drives Slack's core design evolution which allows new third-party to continuously be embedded within contextually, such as below.

Robinhood’s usage model is all about helping users transact with trust, so they can be spontaneous and frequent in usage. Robinhood focuses on design details towards this end right from the signup, as seen below.

Why is defining your ‘usage model’ critical?

People with access to digital technologies face a fundamental crisis today. It is a crisis of attention. The exponential growth in digital content and services compete for a prize in ever shorter supply - human attention. We haven't yet developed technologies that make multiple layers or streams of cognitive activity possible. The most we are able to do is multitask on simple stuff, such as listen to music while running. We can’t, unfortunately, play a game and write a thesis at the same time - and do both well.

In this scenario, the digital products that stand a chance of success are the ones that are used. And used repeatedly. A relevant and useful product will be pulled up time and again - in an identifiable context - and used. This is true at work and at home, at school and on the metro. Let's imagine a user's metro ride lasts 20 minutes. They could either watch YouTube or play a game or shop for a backpack, or a tiny bit of each. If they are playing game A, they cannot also play game B or shop at the same time. At home, if they order lunch from Foodora, Wolt loses out. Competition between digital services - both within a category and sometimes across categories – is effectively zero sum, because all services are vying for the same prize – usage.

A clear usage model reveals what users will do with or using the product. It is the basis for a good behavioural strategy.

A startup may invest all it likes into marketing and promotion. It may develop a pretty user interface. It may advertise relentlessly to potential users. It may even succeed in getting the user to download its app, or buy its product. But if they don’t use it, the product won’t survive for long.


Further, defining its usage model tightly will help the startup define its core business metrics as it races to find product/market-fit and acquire scale. The usage model can be translated into cost of customer acquisition, engagement, customer lifetime value, and more. Finally, usage also defines what data the startup intends to capture and how to create value from it.

But don't take my word for it. The notion of usage-based valuation is at the forefront of thinking in the field, as clear in the video below.

Video credit: L2 Inc. Video Link:

In his definition of startups Steve Blank said another thing that is priceless which most startups tend to forget. He said a startup is a ‘temporary organization’. And this is critical. The key goal of a startup is to not be a startup for long. It is to move past starting up and into scaling up. So startups need to find a fit between their offer and a market that has a potential to scale – quickly!

Since products are about their usage and usage is an extension of human behaviour, startups effectively have a temporary lifeline to find the right drivers of behaviour. This is especially true if you are working on an impact startup, where the outcome of your product or service depends on directly impacting people’s lives. And yet I see too few startups who explicitly understand the behavioural dimension of their work.

How do you get to understand why people use the products they do? Why are some abandoned quickly? Why are others loved, and other seemingly addictive? Are addiction and habit formation around a product a good thing for the user? What are the motivations that drive a user’s adoption of a product? All these and more are questions that lie in the domain of behavioural design.

If the word 'behaviour' comes up less than ten times a week in startup team discussions and meetings, you are probably missing out on something crucial.

So, if you are working on or at a startup, consider how many times the word behaviour comes up in conversations within your team. Thinking about human behaviour is a good sign your team is focused on making a product that really gets used, and a consequence, valued.

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