Behavioral Portraits and the Design of Influential Experiences

“Remember… you’re unique… just like everybody else.” Although, it may be a little funny to say it that way, thank heavens for diversity!  For as much as we all have in common, our lives are more interesting because we’re not all the same. We’re interested in different things, we like different music, we’re attracted to different kinds of experiences, and we have unique emotional reactions to the situations we’re in.

Over the past 25 years, Customer Innovations has worked with a wide range of leading companies on the design of products, services, and experiences that influence customers.  In the course of that work, we’ve helped clients understand how their customers’ think, what their customers’ feel, and how and why customers behave the way they do.  That insight is used to design things that really matter to customers; that make a difference in their lives; that are intuitive easy to navigate; and that influence behaviors that make more money for our clients.

In this post, I will describe one of the key tools we use to do this work, called a Behavioral Portrait.   A Behavioral Portrait is rigorous approach to understanding the important ways that different people are attracted to, engage with, and respond to different kinds of experiences.  It also explains why people have widely varying and highly individual emotional and behavioral reactions to the same experiences.  The Behavioral Portrait tool is used to identify key behavioral differences between different customer personae (for more information see the following posts: Personae Driven Experience Design and What is the Difference Between Personae and Segmentation?).

The Behavioral Portrait measures preferences in five major areas that have a profound effect on the design strategy for influencing customers sensitive to these preferences.  These areas are:

  • Novelty Seeking. Describes the degree to which a person is attracted to, comfortable with, and exhilarated by new and unfamiliar experiences.  Novelty Seeking includes individual measurements for curiosity, impulsiveness, and extravagance.
  • Harm Avoidance. Describes the ways a person engages with ambiguity, risk, and unpredictable interactions with people they don’t know.  Harm Avoidance includes individual measurements for anticipatory worry, fear of uncertainty, and shyness with strangers.
  • Social Orientation. Describes a person’s preferences for social interactions and connections that influence their experiences and their lives. Social Orientation includes individual measures of introversion/extroversion, sentimentality, attachment, and dependence.
  • Decision Style. Describes a person’s preferred mode of perceiving and interpreting information and then making decisions based on that information.  Decision Style includes individual measurements of perceptual breadth, detailed versus conceptual interpretation, and analytic versus synthetic decision-making.
  • Behavioral Activation. Describes the unique ways a person initiates action, as well as, their degree of focus and persistence over time and in the face of obstacles. Behavioral Activation includes individual measures of energy, directedness, criticality, and single-mindedness.

Customers have different reactions to product, service, and experience design/  execution based on their preferences.  For example:

  • Higher harm avoidant customers tend to get stressed about elements of the experience that are unpredictable, confusing, or seem risky.  Higher harm avoidant customers also tend to react more negatively to any embedded element in the experience that might be perceived as a “violation of justice.”  For example, in a restaurant, they will react more negatively if people seated after them are served before them.
  • More socially oriented customers will go along with the behavior of others and will respond more strongly to social influence.  For example, more socially oriented customers will respond more positively to conservation programs that illustrate how their behavior compares with others (e.g., your electricity usage is 57% higher than the average for your neighborhood… or… the blue recycle bins are at the curb for every house on my street except for mine).
  • Higher novelty seeking customers will tend to be the early adopters of the latest and greatest new technologies. They’ll tend to engage more readily with interesting information about products and services.  They’ll tend to experiment with alternative medicine.  Our research also indicates that they are more attracted to and more likely to return frequently to restaurants that offer a diverse experience or change up their menu.

We’ve found that by understanding the behavioral preferences for different customer personae allows us to design products, services, and experiences that engage a wider range of customers.   You do this by allowing for personae-sensitive pathways.  For example, you provide a high-novelty seeking pathway that customers can opt into if they desire that.  However, you don’t force the low novelty-seeking customers through that pathway because it’s likely to make them feel uncomfortable.

Customer Innovations has developed several tools for measuring these behavioral preferences.  These tools include:

  • The full Behavioral Portrait tool – an 85-question instrument that takes about 12 minutes to complete and provides a reliable measure of an individual’s preferences across the 5 dimensions and 17 sub-dimensions described above.   This full Behavioral Portrait tool is used as part of in-depth personae development research.  It’s also used to provide rich feedback to individuals about their preferences.
  • A streamlined Behavioral Indicator tool – a 17-question set that can be embedded in a quantitative survey in order to correlate a respondent’s behavioral preferences to their response to other questions about their experience, their attitudes, or their preferences for new product or service concepts.

If you have an interest in learning more about the approach outlined above or any of the associated tools, please let us know.

Understanding Basic Drives and Experiential Temperament

In many ways, we are the product of the behaviors that worked for a long line of our ancestors.  When faced with a life threatening situation, say happening upon a saber tooth tiger, our ancestors were the ones that ran first and asked questions later.  Their friends that naively felt driven to go take a closer look weren’t so lucky.  Based on situation after situation like this, we are the descendants of the people that were driven to:  form and cooperate with others in reciprocal relationships, intuitively understand other peoples motives in order to be able to anticipate what they’d do; learn more about the way the world works in order to develop effective predictions and plans; and acquire the resources they needed to survive and that enhanced their status within the social hierarchy.

At the deepest level, our experiences today influenced by the same set of basic survival drives that were adaptive for our ancestors in the situations they faced.  While evolution does not pull our experiential strings directly, it has determined the design of how our brains process and act on experiences.   How we react to threats, strive to connect with others, seek to understand the ways of the world, and acquire resources are consistent with the mechanisms that contributed to the survival of those that came before us.

In the book, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, Paul Laurence and Nitin Nohria, two Harvard University professors, conclude that we are hardwired with four basic drives that can be used to explain a wide range of individual and collective behavior.  These four basic drives are to:  ACQUIRE (obtain essential resources as well as, intangibles that improve our social status), BOND (develop relationships with individuals and groups that provide security and pleasure), LEARN (acquire experiences and beliefs that help us make the world more predictable), and DEFEND (protect against threats to ourselves, as well as, our resources, relationships, and beliefs).

As different as we all appear to be on the surface, these four basic drives provide a common framework that apply across individuals and across cultures.   The degree to which they are satisfied directly affects our emotions and, by extension, our behavior.   As we will see, individual temperamental differences have an effect on the relative strength of these drives and how they’re expressed.

ACQUIRE:  The drive to obtain essential resources as well as, intangibles that improve our social status.  We are motivated to acquire goods that increase our sense of well-being.  We experience satisfaction when this drive is fulfilled and frustration when it is not. Our drive to ACQUIRE applies to essential resources like food, clothing, shelter, and money.  It also applies to collecting objects, symbols, and experiences that signal or improve our status relative to others.

Beyond our basic survival needs, the drive to ACQUIRE is relative rather than absolute; we tend to compare what we have to what others have.  Observers of the human condition have consistently pointed out that people are happy when they feel better off than other people they know, unhappy when they feel worse off.

In addition, the drive to ACQUIRE is often insatiable beyond any physical need.  We often want more even when there is little or no incremental benefit from having more.

BOND:  The drive to develop relationships with individuals and groups that provide security and pleasure.  There is obvious survival value to forming reciprocal relationships with others, as well as, to be part of a group that provides safety, support, and identity.  Most people experience positive emotions when they are associated with others and negative emotions when they are isolated.

The drive to BOND also leads to emergence of cooperation.  In order to stay positively connected to the group, an individual must naturally keep track of their indebtedness to others and reciprocate in a way that maintains the relationship.  It also becomes very adaptive to sacrifice on personal gain in order to contribute to the greater good of the group.  One of the other implications of the drive to BOND is the emergence of both a dominance hierarchy and attention to social justice.  (See:   Cognitive Ergonomics: How Customers’ React to Violations of Justice).

LEARN:  The drive to acquire knowledge and beliefs that help us navigate successfully in the world.   There is strong survival value in our ability to make sense of the world around us and produce theories that help us: explain what has happened, predict what will happen, and develop reasonable courses of action.   We get frustrated when things seem senseless and we feel satisfied when we can understand about how and why things happen the way they do.  While the drive to acquire is materially driven, the drive to LEARN can be considered intellectual foraging.

DEFEND:  The drive to protect against threats to ourselves, as well as, our resources, relationships, and beliefs.   This drive is rooted in the most basic fight or flight response that is common to most animals.  We all naturally defend ourselves, our possessions, our family and friends against physical harm.  By extension, we also DEFEND our ideas, beliefs, and accomplishments against psychological harm that would undermine our understanding of the world, our self-esteem, or our social status.  When we successfully fulfill our drive to DEFEND, it leads to feelings of confidence and security.  When we are faced with situations that are unpredictable and seemingly out of our control, we react with feelings of fear and resentment.

Laurence and Nohria observe that these drives are independent in that they can neither be ordered hierarchically nor substituted for each other.   This is important since it provides flexibility in our behavioral responses to the situations we face.  This is particularly important since, in many cases, these drives are competing.  We often can’t satisfy each of the four drives in every situation leading to psychological and moral dilemmas.  For example, the drive to LEARN is often in conflict with the drive to DEFEND and the drive to BOND (cooperate) is often at odds with the drive to ACQUIRE.

While these four drives are present in every effectively functioning human being, you know from personal experience that not everyone expresses the drive to BOND or LEARN or ACQUIRE or DEFEND in the same ways.  For example, people vary in the both the magnitude and the direction associated with their drive to LEARN.

Recognizing differences in the strength and expression of each of these drives is a very important part of understanding how different people have experiences… and in knowing what can be done to enable people to have more engaging experiences.  We describe these differences in terms of Experiential Temperament.  The first layer of the Experience Personae Model thus starts with a description of the how individuals differ in the way they express the four drives.

“In one way or another, all our experiences are chemically conditioned, and if we imagine that some of them are purely “spiritual,” purely “intellectual,” or purely “aesthetic;” it is merely because we have never troubled to investigate the internal chemical environment at the moment of the occurrence.”  Aldous Huxley

An individuals’ experience takes place in a biochemical environment in the brain that influences the experiences they will find compelling, engaging, and comfortable.   Different people react to experiences differently based on variations in the neuromodulation processes that influence their activity level and emotional state.

Note:  A neuromodulation process involves neurotransmitters (the chemicals that communicate across synapses in the brain) that are not reabsorbed by the neuron or broken down.  These neuromodulators end up influencing the chemical makeup of an individual’s cerebrospinal fluid (the chemical environment of the brain) and, as a result, influencing (or modulating) the overall activity level of the brain.

An individual’s unique expression of the drives we discussed above has a lot to do with variations in neuromodulation from one individual to another.   In essence, neuromodulators act like the volume and tone controls that influence magnitude and nature of our reactions to experiences.

In our work, we consider four Experiential Temperaments that influence the fundamental ways people engage with different types of experiences:  Novelty Seeking, Harm Avoidance, Social Orientation, and Persistence.  This perspective builds on work originally done by Dr. C. Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine.

Novelty Seeking is the level to which a person is comfortable with,drawn to, and exhilarated by new experiences. While everyone wants some excitement occasionally, people that express high levels of Novelty Seeking seem to live for new experiences and new ways of looking at things. High Novelty Seeking people tend to be curious, exploratory, easily bored, impulsive, quick tempered, extravagant, enthusiastic, and disorderly. On the other hand, low Novelty Seeking people tend to be more indifferent to unfamiliar experiences. They also tend to be more reflective, frugal, orderly, and regimented.

Novelty Seeking describes an individuals’ expression of the common underlying drive to LEARN.  Novelty Seeking behavior contributes to an individual’s practical and theoretical understanding of the way the world works.

In the brain, Novelty Seeking behavior is motivated and regulated by dopamine.  High Novelty Seeking people appear to have low base levels of dopamine and, as a result, experience an increased sensitivity to dopamine releases.  This gives Novelty Seekers an enhanced euphoric rush from novel stimulation that is either physical or intellectual.

Harm Avoidance is the level to which customers strive to escape from unfamiliar, uncertain, potentially dangerous, or unpleasant experiences. People that are high in Harm Avoidance tend to be cautious, apprehensive, and pessimistic in experiences that don’t worry others. They also tend to be insecure in social situations and often need reassurance and encouragement with new experiences. They tend to be critical of themselves if things don’t go smoothly. On the other hand, people that are low in Harm Avoidance are generally confident despite the unknown aspects of an experience, even those experiences that would worry other people. Overall, low Harm Avoidance individuals tend to be relaxed, courageous, carefree, and optimistic.

Harm Avoidance is an important way that different individuals express the drive to DEFEND.  While everyone has the drive to protect themselves, high Harm Avoidant individuals take this to an extreme by avoiding behavior that would lead to punishment, danger, or embarrassment.

Harm Avoidance appears to be regulated by serotonin.  Harm Avoidant individuals are more prone to the frequent release of serotonin when presented with uncertain or potentially threatening situations.  This frequent release of serotonin leads to a decrease in serotonin sensitivity and a resulting increase in cortisol which is associated with the feeling of stress.

Social Orientation is the level to which people seek to bond with and gain approval from others. Individuals with high Social Orientation are warm, dedicated, and dependent. They tend to seek communication and social contact and are sensitive to social cues which facilitate their understanding of and reciprocity with others. People that are low on Social Orientation tend to be self-absorbed, practical, cold, and more socially insensitive. They often don’t mind being alone and, in general, don’t feel a strong need to gain approval from others

Social Orientation is an expression of the underlying drive to BOND.  High Social Orientation individuals have an amplified need to BOND and tend to be effective in forming and maintaining strong reciprocal relationships.

Social Orientation appears to be related to levels of oxytocin (strong bonding with mates and family) and vasopressin, the only known hormones released by the posterior pituitary gland that act at a distance.  Studies have reported that higher levels of oxytocin enhance an individual’s ability to read others’ emotions based on eye cues.  In addition, a 2005 study in reported in Nature magazine found that people sprayed with oxytocin were more trusting in cooperation situations.  Subjects whose oxytocin levels were mildly increased could infer significantly better what a target person was thinking about, based only on eye cues.  The effect was more pronounced for emotions harder to read through eye cues.

Persistence is the level to which a person feels the drive towards behavioral inhibition (put it off) versus behavioral activation (just do it!). High Persistence individuals are eager to initiative experiences, tend to see roadblocks as personal challenges, and intensify their efforts in response to anticipated rewards. Low Persistence individuals require the deliberate removal of barriers to action and more powerful encouragement to engage in experiences.

Persistence can be considered an amplifier or modulator of the drive to ACQUIRE resources, experiences, relationships, etc…   Persistence appears to be connected with the complex interaction of neurotransmitters including dopamine (motivation based on reward-prediction), and serotonin.

So what does this all mean?  The ability to understand and rigorously describe the Experiential Temperament of a person has a profound impact on designing products, services, interactions, etc… that fit with and influence the way people think.   Designing high Novelty Seeking experiences for low Novelty Seeking customers is not ideal.  Not taking into account the high Harm Avoidant temperament of some customers can lead to experiences that make people feel uncomfortable.

For example, we are currently helping a leading healthcare organization design an integrated patient-physician experience that is sensitive to the fact that people have fundamentally different mental models for their health and the consumption of health-related services.  Some customers will be high novelty seeking “naturalists;” some customers will be low persistence “avoiders;” others will be more high harm avoidant “active consumers,” etc…   The experience that works for each of the personae involves different ways of communicating, prescribing courses of treatment, reinforcing behaviors like wellness programs, etc…

Another client is a leading retail chain expressed a desire to “Disneyize” their experience.  What they hadn’t taken into account in developing that vision is that the current customer experience could be described as:  low novelty seeking; moderately high harm avoidant; and high social orientation.  Some of the ideas this company had for improving the experience were brilliant.  However, many of those “improvements” would have led to an unintended shift in the temperament of the overall experience; one that would have created tension for existing customers.

The most effective experiences either match the temperament of the target ideal individual or avoid stressing people by providing a “temperament neutral experience.”

Designing Experiences that Fit the Customers’ Mental Model

In a previous post (What is a Customer Experience Anyway?), I discussed the fact that a customer experience exists only in the mind of the customer.  We define a customer experience to be… how the customer reacts both rationally and emotionally… across their end-to-end process… of accomplishing one or more things that are important to them.

For years, we’ve been helping organizations enable their customers to have better experiences by designing what they do from “mental model of the customer” rather than the “mental model of the company.”  In virtually every case we’ve seen, these two perspectives are fundamentally different.  In fact, we’ve told our clients, “You’ve got to be out of your mind to design a great customer experience.”  We don’t mean going insane; we do mean that you need to set aside the internal, organizational mental model in favor of adopting the customers’ way of thinking.  In most cases, people inside the organization know too much about all the intricacies of what’s involved in producing the product or service.  This makes it very difficult to get their head around the customers’ often flawed, simplistic, irrational, and biased way of looking at how that product or service fits their needs and makes them feel.

If you agree that it’s a good thing to design from the “mental model of the customer,” the next logical question is, “What the #($*&# is a mental model?”  Over the past several years, my colleagues and I have been evolving a rigorous way to efficiently describe the customers’ mental model; a way that allows you to use that model in designs that influence the way customers’ experience what you do.

In order to accomplish this, we’ve been formalizing models that define a set of Customer Cognitive Personae that describe the way different types of customers experience things.  Generally there are several Personae that must be described based on the fundamentally different customer mental models that exist within the target customer population.  Each Personae is defined by a unique instance of four models:

  1. Customer Goal Model: What is the customers’ understanding of what they are trying to accomplish?  Very often the customers’ understanding of their goals are fuzzy and ill-defined.  Although these goals may include a desire for rationally considered benefits, very often the customer has strong latent goals that involve desired emotional states and a means of self-expression and social acceptability.  Customers’ do not buy products; they buy desired states!  Obviously, you can’t design effective products, services, or customer-facing processes that work for the customer without a clear understanding of the customers’ desired state.
  2. Customer Lifecycle Model: What is the end-to-end set of activities a customer would naturally follow to realize their goals and achieve the desired state described above?  As mentioned in a previous post (The Customer Experience Does Not Happen at Your Touchpoints), the customer does a lot outside their touchpoints with your organization.  Understanding what they do is the key to understanding where you might help them have a better experience.  Although this may include improvements in the existing touchpoints, more often, it involves the creation of new touchpoints.  It’s important to acknowledge that, in the real world, every customer follows a somewhat different set of activities.  However, we’ve found there are typically a small number of common customer lifecycles that capture the essence of the natural behaviors for that different types of customer.
  3. Cognitive Schema: As mentioned earlier, a customer’s experience is that customer’s rational and emotional reactions.  In order to understand these reactions, it’s necessary to understand the way customers’ brains process customers’ experiences.  Schemaare a way of doing that.  A schema is a knowledge structure used to describe an individual’s memories and beliefs about a category of experiences.  For example, customers’ schema for the experience they have in a casual dining restaurant allows them to have that experience without having to “figure it out” each time they go out to dinner.   Understanding the customers’ schema for that category of experience is critical for understanding how to design things that really work for the customer.   The knowledge captured in an individual’s schema allows that individual to:
    • Easily identify how current sensory information is similar to or different than what they’ve sensed in past experiences.  Identification knowledge supports a pattern matching process that helps customers recognize what is familiar or unusual about the situation.
    • Quickly elaborate or fill in additional knowledge of the essential characteristics of similar experiences in order to predict what will happen and interpret what does happen.  Elaboration knowledge is related to how an individual recalls past experiences and uses that information to make predictions about what will happen this time.  Elaboration includes the customers conscious and subconscious expectations.
    • Draw inferences, make estimates, create goals and plan one or more alternative actions.  The customers’ Planning Knowledge includes not only what the customer consciously believes is an appropriate set of actions but also includes the triggers for automatic behavioral scripts that make it efficient for customers to act in an experience while consciously attending to other matters.
    • Act utilizing learned skills, rules, procedures, or automatic behaviors that appear relevant to the current situation or problem.  Action Knowledge includes the routines that customers are comfortable following.  The most ergonomic experiences don’t require customers to act in ways that are uncomfortable for them.
  4. Temperamental Profile: On top of the cognitive structure described above, the customers’ subconscious emotional reactions take place in a biochemical environment that defines what experiences different types of customers will find compelling, engaging, and comfortable.   This profile builds on work done by Dr. C. Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine.   Different customer personae will react to experiences differently based on variations in neuromodulator processes that influence their emotional state.  The most effective experiences either match the temperament of the target customer or avoid stressing the customer by providing a “temperament neutral experience.”  A simplified explanation of each of these Temperamental Profiles is:
    • Novelty Seeking is the level to which the customer is both comfortable with, drawn to, and exhilarated by new experiences.  Novelty seeking is regulated by dopamine.  Novelty seeking customers appear to have low base levels of dopamine and, as a result, experience an increased sensitivity to dopamine releases.  This gives Novelty Seekers an enhanced euphoric rush from novel stimulation.
    • Harm Avoidance is the level to which customers desire to escape from unfamiliar, uncertain, or potentially unpleasant experiences.  Harm Avoidance is regulated by serotonin.  Harm Avoidant customers are more prone to the frequent release of serotonin when presented with uncertain or potentially threatening situations.  This frequent release of serotonin leads to a decrease in serotonin sensitivity and a resulting increase in cortisol which is associated with stress.
    • Reward Dependence is the level to which customers seek approval from others.  Reward Dependence is related to norepinephrine.   Reward Dependent customer are warm, dedicated, and dependent people that seek and are comfortable with experiences that involve social contact and communication.
    • Persistence is the level to which customers have behavioral inhibition (put it off) versus behavioral activation (just do it!).  Persistence appears to be connected with prolactin.  High persistance customers are eager to initiative experiences, tend to see roadblocks as personal challenges, and intensify their efforts in response to anticpated rewards.  Low persistence customers require deliberate removal of barriers to action and more subtle encouragement to engage in the experience.

The ability to rigorously describe the “mental model of the customer” has had a profound impact on designing products, services, interactions, etc… that fit with what customers are trying to accomplish; how they go about accomplishing those things; how they percieve, interpret, and evaluate what you do for them; what they feel comfortable with, stimulated by, etc…

For example, we are currently working with a leading healthcare organization to design an integrated patient-physician experience that is sensitive to the fact that people have fundamentally different mental models for their health and the consumption of health related services.  Some customers will be high novelty seeking naturalists; some will be low persistence avoiders; some will be more high harm avoidant active consumers, etc…   The experience that works for each of the personae involve different ways of communicating, prescribing courses of treatment, reinforcing behaviors like wellness programs, etc…

Another client that is aleading quick serve restaurant chain express a desire to “Disneyizing” their experience.  What they hadn’t taken into account in developing that vision is that the current customer experience could be described as:  low novelty seeking; moderately high harm avoidant; and high reward dependent.  Some of the ideas this company had for improving the experience were brilliant.  However, many of those “improvements” would have led to an unintended shift in the temperament of the overall experience; one that would have created tension for existing customers.

Well this post has gone on for a while and, as always, we’ve just scratched the surface.  I’m happy to provide more perspective to readers with an interest in more detail.  In addition, there will an opportunity to expand and illustrate several of these points in future posts.