Brand Experience

Understanding human behavior: The softer side of experience management

Discover why universal human behavior traits are key to a successful XM activation.

Experience management (XM) is becoming increasingly vital to organizations’ long-term business success. Understanding human behavior – how and why people act the way they do – can help you design and execute more emotionally engaging experiences.

Why human behavior is important to XM

Customers. Employees. Partners. Suppliers. What do these groups have in common? They are all made up of people. Everyone who encounters your organization is a person, and how they think and feel about their experiences with your business is going to affect their loyalty to your company and, ultimately, your bottom line. Consequently, neglecting the human-side of XM is a huge and costly mistake.

Before you can effectively manage experiences, however, you must understand the needs and preferences of people across your ecosystem. This means embracing how people actually think and feel, catering to their needs and preferences, and then translating those insights into engaging experiences.

Understanding the basics of human behavior

Experiences are how human beings interface with the world. They can be as boring as responding to a work email or as life-changing as having a child.

This means that whenever someone interacts with an organization, they will have an experience. And that experience - whether it’s mundane, transformative, or something in between - is going to generate an emotional response, which in turn will influence their attitudes and inform their future behaviors. Like whether they purchase more products, recommend the business to friends, or stay late at work.

So if organizations want to drive profitable behaviors, they need to recognize the ways in which people’s experiences affect how they think, feel, and act toward their business. Just recognizing this connection isn’t enough, however. Organizations actively need to shape how people process and respond to their experiences by managing the five elements of the Human Experience Cycle.

  • Experiences: What actually happens to a person during an interaction.
  • Expectations: What a person anticipates will happen during an experience.
  • Perceptions: How the person views the experience based on their expectations, which are evaluated against success (whether they could achieve their goal), effort (how easy or hard it was), and emotion (how they felt).
  • Attitudes: What opinions and sentiments someone holds about the organization.
  • Behaviors: How a person interacts with an organization, which is heavily influenced by their attitudes.

How human behaviors are formed

While recognizing and managing the relationship between experiences, emotions, and actions is critical, to forge lasting emotional bonds, organizations also need to understand why people feel and behave the way they do.

This can be tricky, however, as human beings are incredibly complicated. We’re not completely rational decision-makers who act solely on cold, hard logic. There’s a lot of other hidden factors that influence our behavior. If organizations don’t understand and address these underlying - often unconscious - determinants, they’ll struggle to create consistently engaging experiences.

Fortunately, all people share some fundamental characteristics.  Recognizing and embracing the Six Key Traits of Human Beings will allow organizations to make deep and lasting connections.

  • Intuitive: People have two different modes of decision-making: one that’s slow, logical, and deliberate and one that’s fast, automatic, and based on biases and mental shortcuts. The latter, known as Intuitive Thinking, is the primary method people use to make decisions – especially during times of stress or crisis. Unfortunately, most organizations spend too much time trying to appeal to our rational side, instead of catering to our intuitive side.
  • Self-centered: Everyone views the world through their own unique and personal lens. This reality makes it difficult to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. As you work on your XM program, remember that employees and leaders are more familiar with your company’s processes, products, and services than your customers, prospects, and suppliers. These knowledge gaps can create miscommunications or a lack of empathy. Recognizing this innate self-centeredness can help you identify and mitigate resulting issues.
  • Emotional: People remember things based on how the experience made them feel, particularly during the most extreme points and at the end of an interaction – a phenomenon known as the Peak-End Rule. As you design experiences, proactively think about which emotions the experience will likely generate during these critical junctures.
  • Motivated: Human beings have four intrinsic needs they strive to fulfill – a sense of purpose, control, progress, and competence. Make sure you’re designing customer experiences and employee experiences that address these intrinsic needs, instead of focusing on purely extrinsic needs like monetary compensation and price.
  • Social: People want to connect to others who are “like them,” and they tend to trust those people or institutions more than they trust others. Recognize that people’s social groups are an important area of influence, and find ways to help employees and customers build meaningful connections between themselves and each other. Learn more about emotion-infused experience design here.
  • Hopeful: Humans thrive on hope and positivity and respond well to feeling good about the future. Effective organizations motivate the people in their ecosystem by painting a picture of future success that addresses their individual needs and aspirations.

Human behavioral research has many definitions and theories, but generally, it is considered the study of how individuals interact with each other and the environment around them. Findings from behavioral science show that our brains usually rely on heuristics – or mental rules of thumb – to make swift and satisfactory (though not always optimal) decisions. However, sometimes these heuristics fail and lead to cognitive biases, which are systematic errors in our thinking.

When creating and managing experiences, organizations need to anticipate and design around these heuristics and biases as they will significantly impact people’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. While behavioral research has identified more than 100 different heuristics and biases, they can be grouped into six general categories:

  • People are more affected by losses than by gains. We do not make decisions based on a rational evaluation of the final outcome, but rather based on an unconscious evaluation of potential gains and losses of each choice.
  • People prefer simplicity over complexity. People tend to choose options that are easier to mentally process, even when a more complicated option is better. And that applies to communications too – we like clear and simple language more than corporate jargon and confusing buzzwords.
  • People are heavily influenced by those around us. This goes back to one of the six key traits of human beings – we’re social creatures. As a result, people often defer to the wisdom of the crowd (“jumping on the bandwagon”) or to individuals we consider to be “experts.”
  • People’s current emotional and visceral states affect their actions. How people are feeling during an experience influences their behaviors. For example, when people are hungry, they behave more impulsively. When they’re experiencing strong emotions, they are more reliant on Intuitive Thinking. Knowing this can help you take steps to defuse angry customers before asking them to process a logical statement, such as a solution to their issue.
  • People make decisions based on context. Decisions are not made in a vacuum; they are extremely dependent on context, such as the physical environment in which a person makes a decision, the unconscious priming effects a person encounters, how a decision is framed, or what other choices are available for comparison.
  • People misjudge our past and future experiences. Our memories are not videos looping in our heads; instead they’re more like a series of snapshots that we use to retroactively judge our experiences. We also struggle to make accurate predictions about ourselves or future events.

When organizations are able to create experiences that reflect how humans actually think and behave – rather than treating people like entirely rational, logical thinkers – they will build deeper emotional ties with their audience, ultimately resulting in stronger loyalty and higher profits.

Connecting human behavior to XM

By combining your understanding of human behavior with Experience Management skills and capabilities, you can identify experience gaps, uncover opportunities for improvement, and make systematic change throughout your organization. Keep these tips in mind as you develop, refine, and execute your XM program.

  • >Remember, people usually make decisions based on Intuitive Thinking. Tap into this mode of thinking as you design your experiences to nudge people in the right direction, assist them with accomplishing their goal, and enhance their positive feelings about their experience.
  • >Design your experiences based on how people actually behave – and look for small changes that can make a big difference. For example, often when faced with a complex decision – even filling out a form – people will choose to do nothing.
  • Don’t forget: People make decisions based on how they remember experiences, not on how they actually experienced them. Improve your understanding of how people construct memories and focus your efforts on creating positive and lasting memories.

We learn by understanding why people make the decisions that they make and why people behave the way they do.

Bruce Temkin, Head of Qualtrics XM Institute

Taking action

Businesses that transform into XM leaders design their experiences around a deep understanding of people’s real goals, desires, and beliefs, which they then translate into opportunities for the business. They design with Intuitive Thinking, not just their Rational Thinking. They create positive memories by focusing on the moments that matter most and ending experiences on a high note. They put aside their fear of discussing emotions to get to the heart of what people truly want and need. And they manage experiences across the Human Experience Cycle.

From activating to embedding XM into your organization

Many organizations heavily invest in technology to measure experiences, but you must also have a grasp of the human side of XM in order to create real change. Businesses that recognize this, use behavioral science insights to shape their XM programs, and nurture an XM culture will be able to truly embed XM into the core of their entire organization.


Find opportunities to design more compelling experience with our free design worksheet

Isabelle Zdatny // XM Catalyst

Isabelle is an XM Catalyst with the Qualtrics XM Institute. She helps large organizations design and operate successful experience management (XM) programs by producing industry thought leadership, developing and delivering training, consulting with companies, and speaking on key XM topics and trends. She currently leads the XM Institute’s research into how companies identify, design, and deploy innovative new experiences. Other areas of expertise include digital CX design, metrics management, consumer psychology and emotions, and behavioral economics. Prior to its acquisition in 2018, Isabelle spent five years working at Temkin Group – a research, consulting, and training firm dedicated to helping many of the world’s largest brands accelerate their experience transformation efforts. Isabelle is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP) and a graduate from Wellesley College.

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