Matthew Gardner had been working in design for years, but when his current organization noticed a gap in customer engagement, Irrational Labs offered the training they needed to discover new solutions. Matthew shares what it was like to juggle a full-time job with the Irrational Labs Behavioral Science bootcamp, and how he got the most out of the online learning experience. Plus, Matthew provides his insights into what a designer can gain from learning behavioral science at Irrational Labs, and how those skills can elevate a design career.
What inspired you to learn behavioral science?
I was working as a print designer for a trade association in Washington, D.C. when I first heard about the “user-centered design” (UCD) concept. UCD says that designers can design how a product is built rather than just putting a pretty face on it. That concept drastically changed how I grew to think about design.
While studying at the IIT Institute of Design – one of the earliest schools to offer courses in user-centered design – I was exposed to the idea that behavioral economics was integral when designing for people. That thought percolated with me over the years. I worked as a service designer with the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation, focusing on all sorts of questions ranging from improving operations to better serving a given population. In some instances, there was a behavioral design component. I moved on to lead Innovation and Connected Care work at a health care provider for two years. Looking over the beginning of my career, I realized that I was doing pieces of behavioral design throughout my career, just without a structured approach.
Now working at Bind as a Customer Experience Architect, my team enrolled in the Irrational Labs bootcamps because we knew our members could reach better health and save money if they were to adjust some of their health care research behaviors... My boss was exposed to the idea of behavioral design through Irrational Labs, and I was excited to try it out. The concept had been on the wings of work I've been doing for the last ten years, and I was happy to have someone put some structure behind it.
So what exactly is behavioral science?
Behavioral science is taking a look at people and their sometimes irrational behaviors to figure out how you can affect those behaviors to a mutually positive end. With this innovation, both consumer and organization wins.
People tend to follow patterns of bias over time that affect their decision-making. There are things in their environment in conflict with what you (and they) want, so you work to change those things, overcome biases, or make it easier for someone to do what you hope they will do. On a scientific level, we are looking at those patterns over time, just like you would look at a series of hypotheses, and saying, "Based on these other hypotheses from these circumstances, if you do X, we think the result will be Y." We are actually conducting an experiment with a control arm and a test arm, and asking, "Did we affect change by following these hypotheses?"
What was your career goal when you enrolled at Irrational Labs?
I think of myself as a Service Designer or a UX Researcher, and I didn’t want to change that. By enrolling at Irrational Labs, I wanted to be more successful in helping people live better while also helping the business. I saw a need as I talked to my coworkers, and as I listened to the problems they're facing, I realized that Irrational Labs is relevant and valuable in all types of business and design opportunities. In that vein, this makes Irrational Labs cutting edge. The processes to support it are in place with A/B testing or variation testing, both parts of UX design.
What was the Irrational Labs application process like for you?
It's not a challenging application, but even in the application phase, Irrational Labs began showing me how to tie my values into the class. It was a solid representation of how behavioral design can impact any step of any process.
What exactly did you learn in the Irrational Labs curriculum?
We began with a general overview of behavioral science and moved into the importance of identifying a key behavior. We covered behavioral diagnosis, which requires considering all of the factors that might facilitate or impede a decision.
Irrational Labs talks about barriers, bias, and benefits through their 3Bs framework. Each week, a few reading sections are unlocked, and you have to commit to a time to study them. We learned to develop context by adding data and information such as how many times people face a particular barrier or evidence that people experience a specific bias. We began to generate hypotheses for potential experiments. We were taught additional biases to look out for and how others have addressed them.
The last third of the class exposes users to case studies, so we gained access to what behavioral scientists have discovered. We could then start to apply those to the given key behavior that we were trying to reach.
Were you able to juggle this bootcamp with a full-time job?
When I was learning the behavioral economics curriculum in the course at Irrational Labs, my manager, my design colleague, and I formed a group where we would regularly discuss what we were learning in the bootcamp and how we could apply it to our work. The bootcamp became a part of our workload. We had monthly sessions with our bootcamp peers where we focused on specific key behaviors and how to reduce the friction, bias, and barriers while enhancing the benefits of people engaging with these behaviors.
I went on to complete the Behavioral Design for Health specialization course. My work was busier at that time, and there was less time designated for the bootcamp in my schedule. It was more difficult to juggle the two but still helpful to work alongside colleagues.
Since this was a remote bootcamp, how did you interact with your cohort and instructors?
My second cohort was unique because it was made up of only employees from Bind. During the Behavioral Design Course bootcamp, there were all sorts of international folks in our cohort. It was a far-reaching, diverse group of people that we were able to interact with.
We would meet with our instructors during office hours to discuss what we learned. They would answer any questions and talk us through exercises. Kristen Berman, one of the co-founders of Irrational Labs, was present on most of the calls, along with two or three other instructors. It was practical and helpful for further digesting the content that was part of the reading.
How challenging was Irrational Labs in comparison to your formal education?
Irrational Labs was on par with some of the Master's courses that I've taken. It was different, though, because we were using real-life problems in the bootcamp. Irrational Labs included legitimate projects, and in that way, learning came more naturally because we had data and a genuine problem available to us. It wasn't that the class was any easier, but the real-life context made it feel much more productive.
Did Irrational Labs offer any career services?
Everybody who participates has access to Irrational Labs’ Slack workspace, which includes an excellent set of dialogue about what's happening in the class, opportunities for networking, valuable discussions, and observations. A lot of the conversation is focused on the course and enriching dialogue, but if someone were motivated, they could do some sound networking through that platform as well.
Did everything you learned at Irrational Labs make you better at your job as a Customer Experience Architect?
Bind aims to drastically change how people engage with health care. Many health insurance companies have a high deductible plan with coinsurance that gives people no certainty nor visibility into what something costs in advance of care. We provide price certainty to our members, so they know if they go to provider A, they will pay $30, and if they go to provider B, they’ll pay $60. We help our members make decisions that are right for their individual needs. If we want to help people save money, they need to engage with us differently than they have with other health plans, and that’s the design for behavior change that we need to accomplish.
Part of my role now is using the structure that Irrational Labs provided through behavioral diagnosis to clarify what we’re working on. I use a significant amount of what I learned during the bootcamp. We also have a project lead that manages several experiments that are informed by Irrational Labs curriculum.
For our readers who are weighing self-teaching vs bootcamp, was Irrational Labs worth it for you?
There’s a solid learning curve with behavioral diagnosis. It’s an art — there’s no one right way to do it. While some might be able to get themselves out of the fog through self-teaching, it certainly helps to jumpstart yourself by going through the bootcamps at Irrational Labs. I would recommend it.
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