Move Over, Product Manager: Introducing the Behavioral Product Manager

May 21, 2024  |  By: Kristen Berman
behavioral product manager

Have you ever wondered why some apps and websites feel like they’re almost reading your mind? This doesn’t happen by accident; it’s the work of good product managers. Traditionally, they’ve relied on their instincts when designing products. But instincts are often wrong.

Now, imagine a different kind of product manager who doesn’t guess. Meet the behavioral product manager (‘Behavioral PM’ or ‘BPM’). They use the science of human behavior and experimentation to figure out what people actually want from their technology. It’s a shift from a guessing game to relying on solid evidence about human behavior.

The results of this new approach are changing how we view product management. Here are just a few impacts that behavioral product management has driven in our work:

  1. A 14% increase in retention rates for Google Ads users
  2. An 18% increase in recurring transfer setups for CreditKarma
  3. $1M+ in savings for Digit users through our SMS-based interventions 

Those stellar results? They wouldn’t have happened if we had taken a traditional PM approach. We know this–it’s why these companies hired us in the first place. Their traditional approach had failed to deliver.

Now that you know the benefits of being a behavioral PM, you’re probably wondering: ‘What’s different about them?’

Let’s find out—and also explore how you can leverage the behavioral PM approach in your own company or work.

Traditional Product Manager vs. Behavioral Product Manager: What’s the Difference? 

When you look closely, you’ll see a number of key differences between traditional PMs and behavioral PMs:

Designing for Ideal Customer Behavior vs. Actual Customer Behavior

  • Traditional PMs build for a persona or ‘ideal customer behavior’. This is not the same as actual user behavior. Traditional PMs don’t fully internalize the power they have over the user and see them as an engine to drive product metrics.
  • Behavioral PMs know that their users do not have fixed preferences. They know their users make different decisions depending on the design and context of an experience.

Assuming Users are Rational vs. Optimizing for Irrationality

  • Traditional PMs develop solutions based on economic theories that assume users are completely rational. For example, traditional PMs assume users are logical and do not acknowledge that people have difficulty making choices that benefit their long-term self-interest. (Skeptical? Consider your last e-commerce buy.) For this reason, traditional PMs miss out on the power of framing and context to drive behavior change.
  • Behavioral PMs know that human behavior often differs from the perfect scenarios described in economic theories. Behavioral PMs understand that humans have systematic irrationalities. They seek to understand these irrationalities and build for them. For example, behavioral PMs know that users decide differently when thinking of today’s self (now) than when thinking of  tomorrow’s self (future me). 
    Another example: behavioral PMs understand that habit formation is extremely tough. They know it’s much easier to have a user make a one-time decision that automates their usage and value extraction than to insert their product into the user’s life on a daily basis and ask them to log in/perform a new action every day.

Burdening Users With Choice vs. Being Choice Architects

  • Traditional PMs flood users with information or features, without helping them decide. They assume users have enough time and expertise and also want to make most decisions by themselves. They believe users prioritize their product as much as they do.
  • Behavioral PMs, on the other hand, are not afraid to be paternalistic. They understand that giving users all the choices and information can be burdensome instead of welcome. They believe it’s their job to make decisions easier—which sometimes means making decisions in the user’s best interests.

Focusing on Short-Term Metrics vs. Key Behaviors

  • Traditional PMs focus on generic, short-term product measures over behaviors. They value the act of logging in or spending time—not what users do when they log in. For example, traditional PMs often say they want users to view their dashboard. Traditional PMs prioritize exposing users to information over having users act on information.
  • Behavioral PMs are ruthless about identifying and prioritizing a key behavior — what uncomfortably specific action they want the user to do (rather than a generic action like ‘log in’). For example, if they are building an online education platform, they may define the ideal key behavior in concrete terms like, ‘Add online course schedule to their calendar, right after signing up for the course’ or ‘Get to minute 30 or 40 in their first online course.’
    A behavioral PM ensures that all team members have input and agree with this specific key behavior. They ensure that everyone is actively using it to drive their priorities. A behavioral PM develops a research plan around this key behavior and has appropriate data-tracking metrics for it. If the key behavior stops driving business growth as expected, they’re open to changing it.

Designing for Personas vs. Applying the 3B’s

  • Traditional PMs create arbitrary personas like ‘soccer mom’ and segments by demographic rather than mindset. A traditional PM does not facilitate a behavioral mapping process with the team. They think about changing attitudes and beliefs over changing the details of an environment in which someone makes a decision.
  • Behavioral PMs apply the 3B Framework for Behavior Change. They create a behavioral map of all the decisions that a potential and current user must do to reach the key behavior. The map zooms into each step and every detail of the whole process:
    • They use their detailed map to gain a shared vision of the problem and prioritize product and feature opportunities.
    • They meticulously document the barriers that users currently experience. They do this with a combination of observation, the behavioral map and data.
    • They constantly ask the team what barriers can they remove and what benefits can they amplify.
    • They are deeply worried about small frictions within the process and ruthlessly remove them.
    • They build and articulate powerful benefits that increase a user’s motivation to overcome hurdles.
    • They prioritize features that add immediate, concrete and hedonic benefits to using their product—as long as these also align with positive long-term value for the customer.

Solving from Scratch vs. Reviewing Existing Research

  • Traditional PMs do not do a literature review prior to writing product requirements. They prioritize features on the roadmap based on their own qualitative research and their instincts.
  • Behavioral PMs, in contrast, assume they are not the first person to identify a customer insight or product opportunity. When investigating a new problem, they start not with original research or new features, but by seeking out existing academic literature/case studies to not reinvent the wheel.What’s more, behavioral PMs question their own—and their team’s—intuition on the problem and solution . When someone says ‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’, they ask to see data. They don’t justify feature requests based on their their personal experiences. While behavioral PMs listen to customer interviews and focus groups, they remain skeptical that people’s attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions translate into actual behavior. Behavioral PMs are constantly thinking about the ‘say/do’ dilemma, or the intention-action gap.

How Else Can I Spot a Traditional Product Manager?

Here are some other distinguishing characteristics to look for in a traditional PM:

  • They don’t sweat the details: Traditional PMs don’t print out designs when reviewing them. They scan them for the aesthetic but don’t ask the designer to defend the copy, visual elements, or benefit framing of their designs.
  • They underuse data: Traditional PMs don’t use data-driven insights to drive their research agenda or product prioritization.
  • They don’t build testing frameworks and capabilities into the core functionality: Traditional PMs reference their own or their network’s experience as proof that a feature or idea is worth prioritizing. They get surprised when the logging doesn’t work or the key outcome can’t be measured without more engineering work.

  • They compromise on the experimental control: Traditional PMs favor short-term business results. They keep a test running until it gets to statistical significance vs. declaring a target sample size.
  • They don’t distinguish correlation from causation: Traditional PMs frequently misattribute feature changes to causation (‘The new feature worked because of our design’) when there was no controlled experiment to show this.

  • They test in silos: Traditional PMs don’t share the experimental conditions and detailed hypotheses with the design and engineering team. This results in multiple revisions and meetings (and possibly future resentment of experimentation given how much time it takes).
  • They don’t celebrate null results: Traditional PMs consistently prioritize short-term growth metrics over saving the company money on building ineffective features.

How Else Can I Spot a Behavioral Product Manager?

There are other ways to recognize a behavioral PM, too. Here are a few:

  • They don’t treat copy as an afterthought: Behavioral PMs understand the role of copy in driving mindset and framing. The product must work hand-in-hand with the copy. They instill in their designers an unwavering aesthetic for simplicity and ease. They ask designers to justify every additional step, choice and decision a user must make.
  • They understand that behavior is hard to change: Because of this, behavioral PMs seek proof that a feature/change will produce the intended results. They are fanatical about experimentation. They use experimentation to understand why something works or doesn’t work. This gives them confidence to build a long-term roadmap and strategy from the results.
  • They prioritize logging and testing infrastructure  over new product features: Behavioral PMs will delay launches to put in testing systems. Behavioral PMs promote a team culture that relentlessly seeks data integrity. They test methodology and track user’s actions in the product. Behavioral PMs meticulously quality-control data/logging. They always test that the data collection works as specified before launching.
  • They’re ruthless about the experimental control condition: Once a behavioral PM decides to invest resources into experimenting, they’re uncompromising on the experimental design. They insist that the control must isolate the key variable, even if it degrades the customer experience. They understand they are trading off a small number of current customers for an improved experience for future customers.
  • They avoid self selection: Behavioral PMs know that everyone in the experiment should be equally likely to end up in the control group. When relevant, they ask their data team to double and triple check the randomization to ensure it’s truly random.
  • They document the experimental conditions such that design and engineering understands the key question and hypothesis: Behavioral PMs publish the team’s hypothesis on which version will win, their assumptions on sample size, conversion, effect size and how long the experiment will run. They ask the data team to publish their data analysis plan prior to launching.
  • They embrace failure: Behavioral PMs package and promote both successful and failed experiments so the rest of the company (or public) can learn from the investment. They believe in systematic results reporting and aren’t afraid to loudly share lessons learned from failures.
  • They use their powers for good: Behavioral PMs seek to bring positive value to their customers’ lives. They use behavior change to deliver on the company’s mission for customer wellbeing (assuming the mission is positive—tobacco companies need not apply!). Behavioral PMs differentiate between short-term and long-term value.For example, if Zynga gets me to play games for five hours a day, they may have provided short-term value (otherwise I wouldn’t keep playing) but haven’t necessarily provided long-term value. A good behavioral PM would measure the long-term impact of heavy game play and whether it promotes users’ positive wellbeing. 

Next Steps: How to Become a ‘BPM’ or Leverage Behavioral Product Management

Summing up: behavioral PMs (BPMs) are a significant value-add to product teams. They bring a behavioral science perspective to product design and have been trained to rigorously experiment.

Try our free 3B Framework Miro Board!

So, are ready to become a behavioral PM? Good news: we have a wide range of resources to kickstart your journey:

  1. Explore our case studies to see behavioral design in action.
  2. Discover our 3B Framework for Behavior Change. (Pro tip: Try our 3B Template Miro Board!)
  3. Join one of our 8-week, on-demand online bootcamps:
  4. Hire us to train your team. Our behavioral scientists have worked with leading companies like Google, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Uber, Intuit, and hundreds more. Join their ranks.
  5. You don’t have to do it yourself. Most companies prefer working directly with us to solve their challenges. Curious? Let’s chat.

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