Tips for designing social and behaviour change projects

Social and behaviour change (SBC) is an evidence-based, theory-driven process that identifies factors that influence people’s behaviour and addresses these by using approaches that are most likely to produce positive changes in behaviour. There is increasing recognition of how an SBC approach can benefit global development programme design. Incorporating a behavioural lens to development programming has been one of the reasons why we have been able to achieve difficult things like reducing HIV infection rates and increasing the number of people who use insecticide-treated bed nets, even if challenges still exist. Other sectors of global development like child protection, education and migration can also benefit from behavioural design. The key lies in the approach that is taken from the outset to designing projects. If a systematic, behavioural approach is followed, it is likely that the quality of the projects will be high.

If you are in the beginning of your journey to incorporate behavioural thinking into your project design, I will share some tips to help you along the way. Incorporating behavioural science does not have to be a taxing process and can be done with systems and tools that you already have at your disposal.  

Tip 1: Get the right people in the room.

When designing new projects, diverse perspectives are important. You will want colleagues who have worked with communities, government, service providers and in partnership with other civil society organisations. Additionally, it is crucial to have a subject matter expert in the room. It is always recommended to have a colleague with some understanding of behavioural science around. This could be the SBC advisor, the person who just completed a course in human-centred design or someone who has worked on communication for development projects. If you do not have team members with this expertise, hire an applied behavioural scientist or SBC consultant from the outset. They will provide excellent direction on the overall approach of building your project. The team should not be too big – a maximum of six or seven people is ideal.

Tip 2: Mine your data and existing research for behavioural insights.

Most NGOs have a plethora of data that, with the right skillset, can be mined for behavioural insights. Some of the best documents to get information from include:

  • Needs assessments for projects targeting the same groups and thematic areas.
  • Recent stakeholder analyses.
  • Routine monitoring and other project reports.
  • Recent external or internal evaluations.

A key aspect is being able to match behavioural determinants with their theoretical construct equivalent. For example, survey questions asking about confidence or skill level in conducting a task will give insight on the degree of self-efficacy the target has in carrying out specific tasks. Questions around trust in service providers or infrastructure can give insight into structural barriers. Insights on cognitive biases can also be mined if you have information on who people seek information from most often (messenger effect).

The next step is to do a semi-systematic review of the literature to get information on what factors research has shown to be most salient in your area of interest. As far as possible, search for meta-analyses and reviews first before delving into individual studies. Third party data or datasets may also be available from resources such as the Demographic and Health Survey Programme. It is tempting to commission new research right away, but it is much more valuable to first take stock of all the information available to you, so that whatever research you commission next is focused on filling key knowledge gaps.

Tip 3: Use behaviour maps.

Before building your logical framework or results framework, get in the habit of using behaviour maps first. Behaviour maps are a conceptual representation of the steps that need to be taken to reach a desired goal or behaviour. They are a great tool to help you:

  • Focus on key behaviours to change (at the individual, interpersonal, community or societal levels).
  • Map out all the crucial steps an individual or a group of people have to take to reach the desired change.
  • Identify at which point of the process your project is likely to have the most impact.

The Manoff Group offers an excellent guidance template on how to develop a behaviour map (they call it a ‘Behaviour Profile’). It also helps designers interrogate what has to happen around the person or group of people to facilitate the behaviour.

With your team in place, some key questions to ask are:

  1. What is the exact behaviour you want the person/people to do?
  2. What positive existing things do you want to promote?
  3. What inhibits the behaviour?
  4. What can you do about these inhibitors?
  5. What are the empirically verified tactics you can use to influence the behavioural determinants?

Tip 4: Identify relevant theoretical frameworks and build a theory of change.

Once you have a good idea of what factors are influencing your behaviours of interest, you want to start building a model of how the determinants you identified work to influence the behaviour. The complexity of global development work means that you need to take a multi-theory approach, that is, no one theory will be able to sufficiently explain everything that is influencing the behaviour. For example, if you are designing a programme on how to engage parents to read more with their children, you may find relevant determinants from the Theory of Planned Behaviour, Learning Theory and Behavioural Economics. Once you land on the key determinants and understanding the theoretical parameters, you can build your theory of change and logic model. This will also make it easy for you to build your logical and results framework.

Tip 5: Plan for some form of testing.

A high-quality SBC project requires some form of pre-testing. Do this with whatever means are available to you. While randomised control trials are often viewed as the gold standard, they are not the only way to get good quality evidence for how and under what conditions your intervention works. A quasi-experimental design, such as some form of comparative effectiveness, where you compare how your target group who received the intervention compares with another group that is as similar as possible on a set of key criteria, and was not exposed to the intervention, is a widely accepted good quality approach. The World Bank for example applies quasi-experimental designs, which they call ‘nimble evaluations’. If this is too complex, then the standard qualitative and quantitative methods will do. The bottom line is, do not roll anything out without testing it first!

These five tips are central to the design of any good SBC project. Please check out my other articles for additional resources to help in your behavioural design journey and feel free to get in touch if you have questions!