One Seriously Risky Assumption in Designing Behavioral Interventions

Many years ago, living as a care-free-single-young-man, I was ordering a lot of pizza to complement the endless supplies of beer that were in my fridge. At one point, I ordered pizza from a different company than the usual one and, with the first order, I received a fridge magnet with the company’s logo and phone number.

I placed the magnet on the fridge door and every time I went to get a beer, I saw the magnet. Since the day of putting the magnet on the fridge door, I ordered pizza only from this new company (other factors – e.g. fast delivery - contributed as well).

From a behavioral perspective, there are several beautiful aspects of the fridge magnet with the pizza order phone number:

  • it acted as a reminder to order pizza.

  • it was there when the need (internal trigger) was present – when I went to get a (another) beer (back in those days, the fridge had more beer than food).

  • it made it easy to order pizza – it had the phone number on it.

Some would call that fridge magnet a successful Nudge that increased my purchases from that particular pizza delivery company.

But why did the simple fridge magnet work so well?

Because I placed it on the fridge door.

I know! It seems trivial that a fridge magnet had its intended effect because it was where it was supposed to be – on the fridge. However, there’s an important behavioral lesson here.

Sometimes, when behavioral designers want to influence behavior, they give people objects that, if used, will likely lead to the desired change.

In the case of the pizza fridge magnet, if the magnet is placed on the fridge door, it increases the probability of someone hungry ordering pizza from that company (the desired behavior).

Placing the magnet on the fridge is relatively simple behavior and needs to be performed only once.

Other more complex objects given to users require more complicated and recurring behaviors. Take this (famous) example of the “Vittel Cap” which aims at solving the problem of reduced water drinking during the day. It is a timer that gives subtle reminders to drink water.

This gadget is well intended and addresses what, most likely, is the problem – people simply forget / get caught up in other things and don’t drink enough water. The fact that it gives silent reminders (i.e. the flag pops up) and not another alarm/ push-notification is also beautiful.

However, the intervention assumes that people will use the gadget on other bottles. This means that there are at least three additional behaviors to be performed by the user – (1) remove the gadget from the empty bottle, (2) remove the cap of the new (full) bottle and (3) placing the gadget on the new bottle.

Removing the gadget from the empty bottle and placing it on the new one are behaviors subjected to exactly the same problems as drinking water – forgetfulness, absentmindedness and getting caught in a swirl of other problems one needs to solve in a workday.

It goes similar with apps that promise to help people better manage their finances, lose weight etc. Even if the apps are well designed in what they are supposed to help people do, it is necessary for people to download them, create a profile etc. and then actually use the app. The changes (benefits) in terms of money saved or kg (pounds) lost will be noticed only after the app was downloaded, a profile was created and the app was used.

The seriously risky assumption in influencing behavior I’m referring to is that once you give people something (object/ gadget/ app etc.) they are going to use it (importantly!) in the way you intended them to use it.

If you’re trying to influence a certain behavior by means of giving people an object to use, you run the following risks:

  • People don’t use the object/ gadget / app at all. It gets in the trash or misplaced somewhere in the house.

  • People don’t use the object/ gadget in the way you intend them to use it. E.g. the timer to drink water can be used as an oven timer.

  • People, sooner or later, give up on using the object/ gadget/ app. The drink water timer gets thrown in the recycle bin with the empty water bottle.

The key learning is to understand that we need to be more specific in “step 2” (see picture below) – what happens after people receive the object aimed to bring behavioral change.

Cartoon credit: Sidney Harris

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