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Interview with Connor Joyce

Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisations, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Connor Joyce.

Connor is a product developer and behavioral scientist currently building in the generative AI space. He is the CEO of the consulting and speaking firm Desired Outcome Labs, where he has impacted products across numerous firms and industries. Connor is a writer and speaker, a familiar voice on LinkedIn, and has a forthcoming book published by New Riders in October.


How did you get into behavioral science? 

Behavioral science has been a passion of mine for really a decade now. I'm actually in the midst of writing an article right now because as it's been 10 years that I've been in the field! It started when I was a student.

In my undergrad I did a double major in industrial organizational (management) and psychology. Through the latter I came into touch with behavioral science and was really fascinated by the field. The more I read, the more I heard about this new field, the more I knew I wanted in. I really remember reading Nudge and just being like, “oh, this is actually what I want to do”. It wasn't IO psychology, it was behavioral science.

So over the last decade, I just worked towards the pursuit of figuring out what behavioral science is, doing it as much as possible in the jobs that I have, which have varied. I’ve called myself a behavioral scientist in some. I've called myself a researcher in others. But I have carried along a path of the pursuit of building products that work for people. And I believe that the way to really do that is through the use of behavioral techniques and the application of behavioral science.


So what would you say is the core behavioral skill set that you need to be able to leverage these kinds of behavioral insights?

Behavioral science a field filled with a lot of different techniques that can be applied in a lot of different ways. And so I think the skill set that one needs to have is three-fold:

  1. To be able to stay current with the research. And so one has to be literate with academic literature, while also knowing the sources and knowing how to stay on top of the developments of the field. And as more applied work comes out, it's just as important to stay on top of what's working and what's not working in the applied field as it is in academia.

  2. The second piece is figuring out what the right technique is for the right time. All you've got is this giant toolbox as a behavioral scientist. The difficult part is that there's a lot of different approaches and so it is starting with the best option. Again, this should be easier if you know the literature.

  3. The third and the final piece really is this kind of triage that I think is really important, which is experimentation and doing something with that final outcome. So you have this big toolkit, you picked a tool for your problem. Well, now you have to go and use that tool and see whether it works and if it works great! But then you need to go figure out what that means. But you have to be just as ready to realize that it’s not the right tool and have a way of recognizing that quickly and then going back into that toolbox and finding another tool that one can use to ultimately get to the final outcome of finding that best behavioral technique.


Let’s take a step back and really map out if someone were to be interested in this in the field of behavioral science now, how would you advise them to get into it? And realistically, looking back on your own journey, do you think that's something that they could replicate and that would still work today?

That’s a really great question and I talk about this all the time. There's a pipeline problem because there's both a supply and demand problem. And I think that that is what is probably one of the most challenging aspects.

It’s easy to think about the demand side and say, we need to get people to be in behavioral science. We need to equip people to have behavioral science skill sets. But by the fact that the question that you just asked was ‘how does one do that?’ shows we have a demand problem. Because you don't ask, how does someone become a good manager? Well, we have this thing called an MBA that does a pretty good job to do that. It’s the CPA for accountants, the bar for lawyers etc. There is a structure to those fields. And that's something that behavioral science still to this date lacks. And so that demand side does make it very challenging.

But on the flip side But we do have multiple educational programs in behavioral science. We know many people, including ourselves, that have gone through behavioral science or behavioral science adjacent training, and quite rigorous tertiary training as well. Is that not enough of a fix? Are you not convinced that will fix a large chunk of the problem? 

It's a great question, but I would say no. Do I know every, every program? Have I seen every route? Obviously not. But the reality is, and I would ask this question back to you: but where do these people wind up after these programs? It is extraordinarily varied. I see maybe 10-20% of my fellow UPEnn students taking on a behavioral role (I'm using air quotes). The other 70-80% go and take that toolkit and they bring it to another type of job.

Alright, so we've discussed the demand problem. We don't think education is fixing this to the same extent. We may still not end up as behavioral scientists. Tell me about the supply problem.

Thank you for the transition, because I wanted to make sure we touched on that. I think that the supply problem is the other main driver and why these good program are not placing at the same rate that equivalent programs are placing MBAs into management consulting (among many other examples). Companies don't know what they need; they know they need more research capabilities and they get excited by this field of behavioral science. Then they go and build something. And when that something doesn't pay dividends in a year or two, a lot of them ultimately dissolve the team. Every behavioral science team I've been on, even the most successful ones, are no longer in the same form than when I was on them. They have either turned into product analytics teams, they have been completely dissolved, or they've been folded into some greater research team, some sort of insights team. And so the supply side problem is that companies know they have a need, but they don't ultimately know how to build out a behavioral science team. And so what that ultimately means is that there are these people floating around with these skill sets, but the companies don't know how to actually go out and get them. And then, even if they do, there's no support structure for those people to truly build out a behavioral science team. And so we're left with maybe a hundred people. who are highly skilled at building behavioral science teams and have successfully done it at organizations. And most of them are consultants now because they found it's better to go and try to do that rather than be leaders at organizations.

And so the supply side problem becomes cyclical because there's no one to really stay and build out something. And the new people struggle to get the investment and the organizational support to build out something that's lasting.


That is a very fair point. But then I'm also wondering, doesn't the field in general then not just lack the ability to sell itself properly? Is that one of the core challenges that we have now and that we may continue to have if we don't fix it? 

It's a very fair question. Having spent the majority of my career in tech, it's one that not only behavioral science is asking. It's a question that user research is asking, and data science as well. It's a question that really any group whose main role is the generation of evidence and insights is asking themselves right now. If someone isn't building something, and they're not selling something, instead they're on the sidelines helping those people do their jobs better - they are an additional resource. They are a cost centre would be another way to put it. So I do think that you're onto something with that behavioral science has a problem of selling itself to a degree, but it's not a unique problem. It's a problem because we are a support function. In a crisis we might get pulled in, but we might equally well just get cut, which is why people become consultants; because then, at least when people come to them, they know for a fact they want to work with them seriously.

Let’s take a look to the next five to ten years, do you think there's a couple challenges that are going to come up for behavioral science and uniquely for behavioral science? Or do you think we have a very smooth ride ahead towards our beautiful sunset future?

Maybe in my optimistic youth, say 10 years ago when I joined the field, I’d say that the field of behavioral science Is ultimately a part of the greater field of applied research in most organizations. Now that I’ve been in the field 10 years, I think there are certain groups that will do this much better. I think that the glimmer of hope right now is financial services and healthcare; as a by-product of those two having the most academic research behind them, and the most specific measurable outcomes.: Did someone save more? Did someone lose more weight?

I do see behavioral science for this reason, ultimately becoming more towards a part of just a general applied research function.  We are in a downturn in the sense that companies are trending towards downsizing for the most part (again, I'm biased because I've worked in tech), but I've, I've seen that for the most, most part across the market is that when you are operating as an applied research team and you are working on these more obscure projects, that there is this trend long term projects yielding longer term outcomes, and no one wants that in a market like this. And so for me, I think the biggest challenge facing the overall field is retaining valuable evidence. Building projects that actually do make an impact. Behavioral science work takes time, just like any other good research where everyone is demanding quick fixes. Companies just are not as interested in investing in those longer term projects, which if we don't have that investment, we as a field don't really exist as much.


That’s really doom and gloom! Tying this back into the question of ‘how do you actually get into behavioral science?’ Do you recommend that people get into behavioral science? Or should we maybe fix some problems first. Is the recommendation, ‘Go do an MBA, see you in a couple of years.’

I think that, at this point, where I stand, I would not recommend that someone goes and tells themself, I am going to become a behavioral scientist. I think that it is instead, one wants to build a behavioral science skill set. And if they're lucky, mixed with really being the best of the best of whatever class that they graduate from, or whatever program, or however they build their education, they may become a behavioral scientist by the nature of the right time, the right place, and the right skill set.

I think the majority of people, though, will use a behavioral science skill set in a profession that is more established. Being a data scientist that understands behavioral science. Being a product or a project manager that utilizes behavioral science. I would say that it is a 90:10% ratio of the people who I'm talking to graduating from these programs or wanting to get into them that that's the split that I'm seeing of even having behavioral in their title. Even if their job actually isn't a full behavioral scientist, the huge majority are going more into traditional roles. Even things like customer solutions managers. Those are people who follow along after a product is sold. They're the ones who really make sure that it's working. That is a great job for someone who likes behavioral science. Because you're almost like an anthropologist. You're getting really deep with one specific customer to really make sure that they're getting that product to work and helping that team change to ultimately make sure that value is created from a product. It's a great role. It pays well, and it's in demand in a lot of companies. It's also not a behavioral scientist to just be totally frank. It is a customer solutions manager who can be much more effective with a behavioral science toolkit.

And so as much as I would love to sit there here and say, join me. Follow a journey like my own. I was in a lucky place in a lucky time for the fact that I found something interesting and joined the field during a boom time. And during boom times, companies take risks. They build teams that they're excited about. They try to push the envelope, but until we hit another boom time, the reality is that most people should be thinking about ‘how do I get into an established career field, but make myself different through a behavioral science skill set?’.


A question I always like to ask, especially if we're looking back, in your case on being in the field for a decade, what are you really proud of having achieved as a behavioral scientist?

My time at Microsoft will always be what I look at as being a huge success just because I was Microsoft's first behavioral researcher. I was able to support a team that really didn't know exactly what they needed. They knew they needed someone to help transition all of the data that they had into being able to create behavioral change. And I laid out the insights to actions framework, which is the basis of really how I personally go to market with my message now in this field. So I think that was a great achievement for me. Because insights are not enough to get behavioral change.

And that segways nicely into what I’m still hoping to achieve: I’m publishing my book ‘Bridging Intentions to Impact’, and it's about ways to take insights to actions. It's a book especially for anybody building digital products, about the reality that a lot of companies build products with a very faulty underlying assumption. And that is that usage and satisfaction equate to impact. So they say if somebody uses something and if they like using it, then it must be working. The reality is that is not true. You have to actually measure the behaviors that it changes and the outcomes that those behaviors yield to really know if something is working. That's the core of the book.


Amazing! Now let's do a bit of a sliding doors moment. How would your career trajectory have developed if you hadn't found behavioral science?

I used to tell this story a lot, because it was supposed to be an inspirational story for why people should get in the field. And I don't tell this story anymore, because of what we previously talked about. I am extraordinarily grateful for the path that I took and that it actually paid off because I’m recognizing now it might not have had I done it today. This said, I started my career at Deloitte. I was a human capital consultant there, and I got told by a partner there that I was on partner track. I had gotten multiple certifications implementing a large data systems (Workday for anybody who's familiar). I was both functional and technical, so I could code, but I could also go and do interviews and implement it effectively. I was told, ‘as long as you just keep doing this, you got a career here’. I remember distinctly walking with my parents and saying this exact thing and then saying, but I really don't like this. And I really don't think I can do this. So ultimately, I left to try out behavioral science. So there's another world where I didn't take that risk. And I'm either still at Deloitte or another consulting firm.

How much behavioral science do you really apply to your own life?

I do it a lot with habit formation, and really trying to craft my life around two primary aspects:

  1. One is daily expressions of gratitude, really trying to own and respect and appreciate. And I think to really give gratitude, one has to be as much in the moment as possible, which is achieved through meditation, mindfulness.

  2. The second aspect is agency and having ownership over my actions. Which I try to achieve through commitment and acceptance type work, where I'm leading my actions based upon my values. I am doing things for my intent, rather than trying to pursue someone else's outcome.

Tell me, who else would you recommend that they check out in the field of behavioral science?

  • Matt Wallaert is a friend and a mentor to me. I couldn't give a list without, without him. I always like to say, I was Microsoft's first behavioral researcher but he was Microsoft's first behavioral scientist. He's got a lot of great takes including a very realistic take of the field also. He's definitely more optimistic than I am.

  • Steve Wendell is another person who I, I really admire and I admire him because he built a team that survived and there's actually very few of those. If you look very few behavioral science teams survive after their first main leader. But his team not only survived, but has continued to grow at least the last time I checked in this was about a year, year and a half ago at Morningstar, and then he left to go and join Busara. And he wrote an amazing book too!

  • And then the last person that that I have to plug, although I just know her work which is tremendous, is Amy Bucher. Her book ‘Engaged’ is the best book for anyone trying to apply behavioral science in a digital sense.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Connor!

As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews!

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