SAN FRANCISCO — A gold mine awaits anyone who can use mobile technology to change our lives. But how do you do it?

A diverse panel of experts debated the topic of behavior design at our MobileBeat 2013 conference today in San Francisco. Jules Maltz, the general partner at Institution Venture Partners (a venture firm that invested in Twitter, Zynga, and Snapchat), said on the panel that he believes entrepreneurs should design their products for the widest possible audience.

But Steph Habif, a behavior designer and a teacher at the Stanford University design school, disagreed. She believes that products should be designed for a specific user, with a complete focus on addressing all of the needs of that user.

“That’s where a lot of startups get it wrong,” Habif said. “They try to be all things to all people. They think of millions. We need narrow-use cases.”

The panel, moderated by behavior engineer Nir Eyal, a blogger on user interfaces at NirAndFar, also tackled product designs that suggest certain companies are getting it right.

Michal Levin is a senior user experience designer at Google, is on the Project Glass team, and is also writing a book on how people are using multiple devices in their lives now and how to design for that. She was wearing Google Glass in the panel and said she was excited about being on the team. But she admitted that the device makes the user tired after a certain amount of time. You wear it for a while, and then you want to take it off, since looking at the small screen takes energy.

Asked what she likes in terms of design, Levin said she felt that Fooducate is doing a good job with its web site, which highlights the nutritional value of food and how to adopt better eating habits. She also said that she believe that What’s App is doing a good job with its photosharing apps, changing the way people communicate on mobile devices.

Maltz said that he likes the way Yahoo designed its weather app. It’s simple, shows a picture of the city where you live, and the weather forecast. It’s simple and it changed the way Maltz thought about Yahoo as a company. Habif said she liked NOAA Hi-Def Radar. When it comes to changing people’s lives, she liked what the startup Sessions is doing in health care.

Sessions puts people through a 12-week program that gets them into better health. It gives you access to a human health coach for a consultation and then it inspires you to do more through text messages, e-mail, and phone calls.

“They see huge results,” Habif said. “They are getting it right. It’s about how we can design for behavior change for making people more active. The human element needs to be represented. We need more human integration into health care.”

Habif noted that in health care, designing for “need” and designing for “want” are two different things. She said she also liked Pocket Doc, which answers health questions via a mobile app. She says it enables the user to get things done in a small number of steps. That’s user-centric design. She said that if a 3 year old can use your mobile app, that’s a pretty good indication that you’ve designed it correctly.

“If your app makes access really easy, and it enhances something you are already doing, then you will get it right,” Habif said.

Levin said she didn’t like the fact that many companies take a single design for an experience, such as a web site, and then try to use it across all other platforms. That makes experiences consistent, but it does not take advantage of the differences among those devices. She thinks, for instance, that you could design a shopping list for the grocery store via a mobile phone app. You could use that app in the store as you shop, and then you could use the app at home as you do the cooking.

“You can think of devices in the context of how people use them in a flow of activity,” she said.

Asked how he distinguishes among big behavior changes and fads, Maltz said his company doesn’t just look at revenues as a metric for startups such as Twitter. It also looks at the fact that such apps are snaring tens of millions of users.

“If people are churning, that is a big warning sign for us,” he said.

Habif said she believes companies can design for behavior shaping. It’s like the trainers who teach dolphins to jump. They put a ball a little above the water for the dolphin to hit when they jump. Then they raise the ball. Then they raise it a little more. That’s behavior shaping. Companies should think about behavior shaping and behavior sequencing for getting people to change their behavior.

Levin said that many devices are designed to grab our attention and interrupt us. With lots of apps installed on phones, that means that users are constantly being interrupted by apps for what may be very small matters. She noted that one good touch with Google Glass is that is takes a video for just 10 seconds. That’s because it can be exhausting for a user to watch more than that on relatively mundane events.

“How do we deal with this interruption culture, or how to get people’s attention, without yelling at them all of the time,” Levin said.

Maltz said he was a fan of “geofencing,” as used by the site Retail Me Not. The site sends coupons to your phone, but only if you move within a close distance of the place where you can use that coupon. If you are at the mall, you will receive the coupon, but if you aren’t near, you won’t.

Eyal asked the panel if technology is making our lives worse. He said not long ago he saw that he and his wife were caressing their phones in bed. They decided to ban technology — TVs, phones, etc. — from the bedroom. He wrote an article about this dubbed “The Strange Sex Habits of Silicon Valley.”

Eyal said, “I can see how technology can have a detrimental effect on our lives.” Habif said she believes the “positive opportunity of the phone is to increase self-efficacy among humans, improving our ability to do something.”

Behavior design panel at MobileBeat 2013: Jules Maltz (left), Michal Levin, Steph Habif, and Nir Eyal.

Above: Behavior design panel at MobileBeat 2013: Jules Maltz (left), Michal Levin, Steph Habif, and Nir Eyal.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/VentureBeat

[Pictured left to right: Maltz, Levin, Habif, Eyal]