Background: The importance of behaviour change in improving health is illustrated by the increasing investment by funding bodies in the development and evaluation of complex interventions to change population, patient, and practitioner behaviours. The development of effective interventions is hampered by the absence of a nomenclature to specify and report their content. This limits the possibility of replicating effective interventions, synthesising evidence, and understanding the causal mechanisms underlying behaviour change. In contrast, biomedical interventions are precisely specified (e.g., the pharmacological 'ingredients' of prescribed drugs, their dose and frequency of administration). For most complex interventions, the precise 'ingredients' are unknown; descriptions (e.g., 'behavioural counseling') can mean different things to different researchers or implementers. The lack of a method for specifying complex interventions undermines the precision of evidence syntheses of effectiveness, posing a problem for secondary, as well as primary, research.We aim to develop a reliable method of specifying intervention components ('techniques') aimed at changing behaviour.
Methods/design: The research will be conducted in three phases. The first phase will develop the nomenclature. We will refine a preliminary list of techniques and definitions. Using a formal consensus method, experts will then define the key attributes of each technique and how it relates to, and differs from, others. They will evaluate the techniques and their definitions until they achieve an agreed-upon list of clearly defined, nonredundant techniques. The second phase will test the nomenclature. Trained experts (primary researchers and systematic reviewers), equipped with a coding manual and guidance, will use the nomenclature to code published descriptions of complex interventions. Reliability between experts, over time, and across types of users will be assessed. We will assess whether using the nomenclature to write intervention descriptions enhances the clarity and replicability of interventions. The third phase will develop a web-based users' resource of clearly specified and nonredundant techniques, which will aid the scientific understanding of, and development of, effective complex interventions. Dissemination throughout the project will be through stakeholder meetings, targeted multidisciplinary workshops, conference presentation, journal publication, and publication in an interactive web-based platform (a Wiki).
Discussion: The development of a reliable method of specifying intervention components aimed at changing behaviour will strengthen the scientific basis for developing, evaluating, and reporting complex interventions. It will improve the precision of evidence syntheses of effectiveness, thus enhancing secondary, as well as primary, research.