Digital Design: Human Behavior vs. Technology - Vita Beans

Posted by Denisse Albornoz at Mar 04, 2014 10:50 AM |
What comes first? Understanding human behavior and communication patterns to design digital technologies? Or should our technologies have the innate capacity to adapt to the profiles of all its potential users? This post will look at accessibility challenges for digital immigrants and the importance of behavioral science for the design of digital technologies. We interview Amruth Bagali Ravindranath from Vita Beans.

Vita Beans and Guru G

Borrow elements from behavioral science and social marketing to make technology more intuitive.

Make technology easy to use, fun and effective.
Chirptoons: Create Cartoons in a Jiffy. Designed by Vita Beans
(The animation seems to be skipping a few lines. Check box below for a transcript)
Design your own here: 

Transcript of animation:

Ajoy: Hi!
Usha: Hi! What will we talk about today?
Ajoy: We will learn to design digital stories!
Usha: What do you mean by digital stories?
Ajoy: What we are doing right now!.
Telling a story through a digital medium.
Usha: Oh! But what is so complicated about that?
You write a story and then you post it online What’s
the big deal?
Ajoy: This is true. But you want everyone to access
your story right?
Usha: Yes! Of course!
Ajoy: Then you need to think about your audience!
Are you sure they all know how to use this technology?
Usha:, not really.
Ajoy: Do you know what makes it challenging for them? 
Or how to adapt technology to make it easier?
Usha: Eh, clue :(
Ajoy: Then read on.Today we will take a step back.
We must think about human behaviour first!
and then design our technology accordingly.
Usha: Sounds good! Let's do it.

First off, apologies for such a feeble and sad animation. When I was given access to Chirptoons, I was quite confident I would be able to produce a somewhat interesting introduction to this post and get you excited about our next interview. However, between first-time user friction and a couple of glitches in the program, I found myself -a semi-savvy digital native who has been using technology, almost every day of her life, for the last 15 years- struggling to create the cartoon and clearly failing at it. The biggest challenge was translating what I had in mind into a digital format (The demo was very straightforward. I was just particularly inept), and it was frustrating to the point I decided to drop it, leave it as is, publish my unfinished cartoon and turn this post into a reflection on 'design challenges behind digital storytelling', so I could move on with my life.

What I experienced with Chirptoons is what many users: both digital natives and immigrants constantly face due to the pace at which new digital technologies are emerging.  While the privileged demographic who has physical access to technology has a decent knowledge of basic web browsing and document processing features, there is still a very large gap in accessibility in terms of how to navigate more complex formats. At the end of the day, producers retain the creative power and determine the functions and flexibility of the technologies we use in the day to day. Just think of Facebook and its constant interface updates. We have all felt the wrenching need for that 'dislike' button to make our interactions a tad more honest, yet we have no power to create it or change Facebook's format to one that enables our needs better.

So far, we have explored information from different angles: as activism, as visual design, as stories; and how digital technologies have been used strategically to disseminate it. However, our analysis is lacking a better understanding of the digital. We have been focusing on citizens as technology 'consumers', and we have not looked at whether digital infrastructures are accessible enough for users to become 'producers'. The question is: how do we do this: how do we engage different users with different digital literacy levels, skills and aptitudes in the production of digital content? With this post we bring a new topic into our series: accessibility and Information infrastructures. This one will focus on design and the role of behavioural science. Our interview with Amruth Bagali Ravindranath, brought a very unique perspective into the conversation, from which I would like to highlight three points:

a) The importance of behavioral science for design. Amruth stressed why we need a thorough understanding of behavioral and cognitive science in the design of digital technologies and how crucial it is to investigate the decision processes and communication strategies of humans to make technologies user-friendly and context appropriate.

b) How public relations and social marketing concepts can also provide insight on how to target and engage potential users more effectively. This point starts to answer some of the questions we raised on the Information Design post: thinking about the citizen as a consumer. This point also works as an alternative take on how to target civic engagement through technology.

c) How to engage different type of users: not only the digital native, but also digital immigrants[1]

 who still play crucial roles as information gatekeepers in fields such as education or urban governance.


Vita Beans

We interviewed Amruth Bagali Ravindranath, Founder of Vita Beans to answer some of these questions. Vita Beans’ mandate is to create inspiring, easy-to-use applications in areas of education and human resources, to share knowledge in innovative, fun an effective ways. The logic behind their technological framework is trying to mimic the profile of the human brain linked to decision making -including economic, evolutionary, emotional, and psychological elements- and design their applications based on these patterns. Some of the products they offer are cognitive skill development applications, game based learning applications, educational technology research, among others, and their latest educational product: Guru G was chosen by the Unreasonable at Sea program (by Unreasonable institute & co-founder of Stanford as one of the 11 companies changing the world.

"We are trying to adapt to how the user wants to use something, rather than expecting the user to learn. This is essential in the education space to make things work".

Guru G is a "gamified teaching, teacher training & open certification platform", that aims to democratize access to technology for quality teachers. Rather than focusing on the student as most education technologies do, Guru G believes that teachers are the most important element of the education system. Enabling teachers, means quality education will reach the lives of hundreds of students during their professional life time, and with this in mind, Vita Beans designed a platform that is engaging, easy to use and intuitive, designed specifically with teachers, schools and governments in mind.

Unreasonable Barcelona: Anand Joshi, Guru-G from Unreasonable Media on Vimeo.


"Teachers don't use and don't like to use technology" 

The idea came from the products Vita Beans had already developed for the education space, such as their text2animation & text2game prototypes. They had produced over 80 collaborative games teachers were using in the classroom. Students play together in teams and learn about different topics through the process of gaming. However, suddenly they realized teachers had great ideas they didn't know how to translate into a digital form because they did not have the knowledge or the skills to create digital content. This is, according to Amruth, the crisis they are trying to solve in the education space: the quality of teachers, access to good teachers and the difficulty for teachers to adopt new technologies were the biggest challenges. "

The design challenge

Their initial prototypes were designed with assumptions based on their gamification experiments with students. "We miserably failed with teachers and we discovered what a good gamification system for teachers looks like by prototyping with teachers and looking at the small things. It was an interesting learning experience."  They identified two common reasons why they hesitated to adopt anything new in the classroom.

  • Teachers don't want to feel like they can't use something a student can.
  • Teachers can't visualize themselves using that tool, this there is an element of uncertainty and lack of confidence. 

It was imperative for Vita Beans to switch focus: "Any tool you design, you expect to train the user to understand your tool, and if they refuse to do that; you blame them." They used their behavioural science background to come up with infrastructural solutions that solve the limitations from the outset. 

The solutions

They started prototyping with natural language processing for their text2animation & text2game projects. NLP is a branch of computer science concerned with the interactions between computers and human languages. Teachers articulated their ideas in simple English and the program used NLP to take what they said, try to understand what they were trying to visualize and convert into programming language to build an animated movie out of it (like what we used to open this article -but with hopefully better results). Amruth was very confident about the potential of this prototype and shared with us that UNICEF might take it up and implement it as an open source animated video and game creation tool in Africa.

They also developed an adaptive navigation engine for one of their game based learning platforms; a tool that adapts to what you are trying to do: "There is no fixed way to navigate from one task to another. It tries to learn the closest action that each teacher is trying to do and it executes that. It tries to learn how the teacher wants to use it."' This was a success. They incorporated touch screens to make the product more intuitive and the teachers picked it up quickly. 

Amruth claims they are the first in the world to develop a gamification platform specifically for teachers and the reason was their solution to the navigation issue. This experience also indirectly helped in designing Guru-G.


"Amruth Bagali Ravindranath talks about text2animation & text2game prototypes"
Amruth B R, at TedxMcGill. Courtesy of YouTube

These design solutions and the learnings from each project inspired the team to come up with products which have been adopted commercially across 10 states in India, reached 4000+ schools & over 3 million kids internationally through partners in India & North America. They have helped education companies build their primary and secondary school education products, (including one of India's top classroom technologies), have been covered by the media and won several entrepreneurship awards. More information here and on their website. Our question is: what is it about behavioral science that helped Amruth's team arrive to this epiphany in tech design? 

Behavioral Science and Social Marketing

Comparing marketing to advocacy is bound to be met by resistance and perhaps controversy. I raised this question when we interviewed Maya Ganesh for the Information Design post, and stated the following in our conclusion: "Our consumption habits in the market are shaping how we process and interact with information in the public space. The possibility of 'consumer behavior' permeating modalities of activism, reinforces the need to explore more interesting strategies for information dissemination." Now that we are starting to look closely at the infrastructure supporting information, I will stubbornly return to the same question: to what extent should we borrow tactics for advocacy from marketing? and add: how much of it should permeate the design of digital technologies?

Amruth made a casual reference during our interview that triggered this thought. We were discussing the importance of understanding behavior patterns, when he brought up Edward Bernays. This man used psychoanalysis, psychology and social science to design public persuasion campaigns and could get masses to choose what he wanted them to without them realizing it. While this sounds awfully dangerous and manipulative, I would like to rescue the idea of understanding human behavior well enough to design technology around it and I will entertain this thought in the context of social change -please, don't judge.

Pillip Kotler, S. C. Johnson Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, wrote a paper bringing marketing and social change together: “Can social causes be advanced more successfully through applying principles, concepts and techniques of marketing?”. He defines marketing as:

"a sophisticated technology, that draws heavily on behavioral science for clues to solve communication and persuasion related to influencing accessibility. [...] Most of the effort is spent on discovering the wants of a target audience and creating goods and services to satisfy them" (Kotler, 1971)


This definition is a useful bridge to link marketing with accessibility of digital technologies. G.D. Wiebe wrote an influential paper on social marketing, that coined the question: "Why can't you sell brotherhood and rational thinking like you can sell soap?", that later influenced public information campaigns by USAID, the WHO, and the World Bank [2] . While he recognized how these models can to an extent commodify human behavior and social principles, he stressed that knowledge of behavioral science is a useful framework for product planning, that must be given a socially useful implementation. He developed the following criteria of considerations:

Force The intensity of the person's motivation toward the goal -a combination of his predisposition prior to the message and the stimulation of the message
Direction Knowledge of how or where the person might go to consummate his motivation.
Mechanism The existence of an agency that enables the person to translate his motivation into action.
Adequacy The ability and effectiveness of the agency in performing its task.
Distance Estimate of the energy and cost required (by the user) to consummate the motivation in relation to the reward

Considering this framework is part of recognizing how knowledge circulating market networks affects our behavior. Nishant Shah addressed two ideas along these lines in the thought piece. First, he suggests us to recognize the negotiations that take place in the state-citizen-market ecosystem, and how they affect our rights, demands and responsibilities in society. Second, how this leads to a different understanding of the citizen as an "embodiment of these state-market negotiations". Keeping consumer behavior, and the forces shaping, enabling and constraining it in mind, is an interesting framework when we think of ourselves as information consumers -and as Yochai Benkler posits in The Wealth of Networks- in an ongoing transition to information producers. This also depends on how we think of information. We usually define content as information, but the structure and infrastructure are also pieces of 'information' we continuously shape through our interaction with technology. Hence, when we talk about making information accessible, we are also talking about producing legible and intelligible infrastructures. 

Linking it back to digital technology

I am aware that the relationship we are trying to draw seems little far-fetched, but Amruth and the Vita Bean's team experience shows this behavioral-science approach, not only has a lot of potential, but is seldom explored in the education technology market. He told us about his success story with a behavior simulation engine. They used neuroscience as a base to build computer based activities and games to predict the behavior of its users on specific situations. They had an accuracy of 86%, which according to Amruth, is larger than every known psychological framework, and according to their testimonial, above most behavioral tests in the market (which only yield 20-40% of accuracy). Amruth said: "That was the first behavior research connection that brought us into the start-up space. Exploring games, exploring human behavior."

Design challenges in
mobile applications**
  • Make it noticeable 
  • Make it useless if not shared 
  • Manufacture peer pressure
  • Easy to personalize 
  • Must evolve constantly 
  • (static stories die)

    We can also link these ideas back to storytelling. Amruth and I discussed what is the best way to use technology to engage users with digital stories. He made a good point at pairing up both processes: "What makes a storytelling session effective is how you contextualize a story for the person you are sitting with. As kids we are used to a one way process. As adults, stories are more interactive, so you may bring a new dimension, and the story might go in a very different direction. The technology must enable and reflect that." Compelling narratives must motivate the audience to interact with the stories, and digital devices must perform the same function. The infrastructure and interface of technologies must be intuitive, familiar and persuasive enough to sway users into interacting with it. 

    A way to do this is by pairing up technologies with the criterion above. In terms of functionality: provide them with a mechanism that translates the users ideas into action, that is efficient at enabling them, and that reduces the 'distance (the cost or amount of energy needed) to perform a task -as has been accomplished with Guru G in India. As for the force and direction of motivation, Amruth brought up some design challenges when discussing adoption of mobile applications [**"by analysing what increases the probability of a solution / campaign growing organically by word of mouth, going viral, and specifically what make something fashionable". See box on the left]. These challenges may vary from one application to the other but, at the end of day, the analysis and conceptualization of the product must be persuasive and empathetic with its users.

    Making Change

    To close our interview, Amruth and I talked about what it means to 'make change' through digital design. He believes 'making change' is composed of three elements:

    • Empathy: Your attempt to make change will depend on the amount of empathy you feel towards the people you are trying to create change for. "We spend time interacting with teachers, classrooms, just to get an idea of how the teacher thinks, empathize with prospective users".
    • Imagination: How you translate this empathy into solutions. "Imagination helps you think of as many solutions as you can to solve the design and adoption challenges"
    • Action: The most challenging stage according to Amruth: "If your technology is too hard to use, you will lose audience. If it's not impactful enough, it is trivialized. How do you reach a balance in making it effortless and yet, impactful?"

    This post took a step back in our analysis of citizen action, to uncover a less visible space where change is also taking place: the intersection of the user with the machine. We seldom look at the relationship: producer-machine-consumer (and its multiple combinations) and how  our behavior is being reconfigured by new digital technologies (in this project). The pace at which we need to upgrade our own operation systems, requires a degree of digital literacy that is not being facilitated by the state, the market or even civil society. Vita Beans, is one of the few examples of market actors working towards cutting the middle-man between users and digital technologies. If widely adopted, this model has the potential of re-organizing the state-citizen-market dynamic: from how citizens interact with the technology market to how new ways of producing and using technology might shape citizens' negotiation with the state.

    This was also a set of explorations. It is a fairly new area in our research that will lead to more conversations with people who understand technology as an infrastructure and as material, as opposed to us- who often understand it as a practice, a space or an actor. Our goal is to bring content and infrastructure closer together, and make a stronger emphasis on inter-disciplinarity and multi-stakeholderism as a strategy to leverage change. 


    [1] Refer to Marc Prensky's Digital Native, Digital Immigrant, for more on the limitations of digital immigrants in the education space; "It‟s very serious, because the single biggest problem facing  education today is that  our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated  language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language". Access it here: 

    The CIS book : Digital Alternatives with a Cause, is also an interesting and comprehensive read of what comprises a digital native or digital immigrant today:

    [2The World Bank makes reference to G.D. Wiebe's thinking on their blog: Also refer to: Baker, Michael (2012). The Marketing Book. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann. p. 696 and Lefebvre, R. Craig. Social Marketing and Social Change: Strategies and Tools to Improve Health, Well-Being and the Environment\year=2013. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. p. 4. for examples of these interventions. Finally, the Wikipedia page on Social Marketing explains the role of G.D. Wiebe in the field:


    Kotler, P., & Zaltman, G. (1971). Social marketing: an approach to planned social change. Journal of marketing, 35(3).

    Shah, Nishant “Whose Change is it Anyways? Hivos Knowledge Program. April 30, 2013.

    Wiebe, G.D. (1951-1952). "Merchandising Commodities and Citizenship on Television". Public Opinion Quarterly 15 (Winter): 679.