Classical and modern economics suggest that humans are broadly rational; we stack rank our preferences, and then we're consistent in our decisions. It suggests we respond in predictable ways to incentives, rules, and information.
There’s just one problem. People don’t always behave as economists expect.
In contrast, Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman promotes the idea that we have two sides of our brain: fast and slow. The slow side is considerate and thoughtful; the side that responds to the traditional economic levers of rules, information, and incentives.
The fast side is more intuitive - it helps us make quick decisions in the moment. For better or worse, the fast brain is always looking for the easiest way out. This means it's often responsive to the environment around it.
That’s where nudges come in. Nudges are an aspect of the surrounding choice architecture that influences people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options.
Nudges aren't going to change all user behavior, but they're a useful tool that product managers can apply to help users make the best decisions for themselves.
Homo Economicus versus Homo Sapien
Let's take an example where you might want to discourage littering. You can use different tactics to try to achieve the behavior you want.
Incentives: Display signs that show that there is a $1000 fine for littering.
Rules: Make littering illegal.
Information: Highlight the impact of littering through leaflets and brochures or infographics.
These all appeal to our slow brains. However, nudges approach the problem differently.
Attractive: Adding basketball hoops over the rubbish bins or footsteps nearby to make the desired behavior fun.
It turns out, there are simple ways to change the choice environment to impact that fast decision-making part of the brain. The UK’s Nudge Unit (where I used to work) has even pioneered a very easy way to remember decades of psychology literature. If you want to change behavior make it Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely (EAST).
People will do the easiest thing possible. Consider a walking path in a park. People won't necessarily follow the concrete path; they'll take the shortest possible route. That's why you see areas of dead grass and mud from heavy off-path walking. People take the path they desire, not the inefficient concrete walkway.
Make the desired action as salient as possible. Why did Google win the search wars? Not only was it the best, but it was also the simplest and most attractive to navigate. You literally wanted to do the search. I'm not sure if people remember, but Alta Vista, Yahoo, and Ask Jeeves didn’t have the same focus on making the core action attractive.
Have you ever wandered down the street, seen everyone looking up, and then you do as well? Well, we're social animals. So having a social comparison and understanding what other people are doing makes you more likely to actually do that behavior.
Timeliness requires thinking about when is the best time to change behavior. Searches for P60 or employment summaries peak every April in the UK. So if you're selling tax products, guess when is the best time to nudge users?
Whilst this is all fun - an important reminder for all technologists is not to fall into the trap of sludge. Instead of helping people make better decisions, sludge restricts the choice environment and makes it harder for the user to achieve the outcome they want. Think of how difficult it can be at times to simply cancel a magazine subscription - that is sludge. Before we look at a practical example, I want to be clear that like many tools behavioral science can be used for nefarious ends. It is our responsibility as technologists to ensure we nudge and don’t sludge.
Nudges in Practice
Multiverse is a tech company building an alternative to university and corporate training through apprenticeships. Our apprentices learn on the job, guided by a professional coach, over a 12+ month course. We want our apprentices to consistently revise to make sure they understand the content. An element of our assessment are Knowledge Checks - short quizzes to help apprentices test their understanding of content.
Our goal was to increase the number of apprentices retaking those Knowledge Checks until they scored 100%.
So we asked ourselves, how might we use the principles of nudge theory to encourage apprentices to retake Knowledge Checks?
We tested whether a split screen with the question on the left and the answers on the right would work better than a typical approach where questions are often read vertically. We ran this via an A-B test. With the split screen, our users were more likely to both finish the quiz and retake it.
In the overall summary page, we also used coloring to encourage people to retake the “red” Knowledge Checks.
We gave our apprentices easy and timely revision points by instantly showing under each question why they got that question right or wrong.
We made it easy for apprentices to identify and revise topics they got wrong by highlighting them to users in their Knowledge Check summary via quick links and revision cards.
Whilst not a focus for this release, we could’ve implemented social nudges such as showing how many other people were taking the Check at the same time or what other people score in order to encourage that behavior.
The proof is in the results
The end result was a significant and meaningful increase in retaking behavior. The user impact was helping our apprentices stay motivated and ultimately learn by themselves.
In summary, if you want to change behavior, you can start by making an action easy, attractive, social, and timely. And, always remember, nudge for good.
I'm an applied behavioural scientist and product manager.
I've had a generalist career that includes experience managing large and agile teams, developing and deploying B2B SaaS, managing $m+ projects, launching new markets, and leading roadmapping, beta testing, customer research, human-centred design, and A/B testing
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