Espresso Ideas: Why we should celebrate the art of the small in behaviour change.

pexels-photo-30724I’m fortunate in my role to have worked alongside some very smart ad and communications folk. I’ve worked in an agency that, at times, created incredible award-winning TV ads, behaviour change programmes and entire digital transformations. I’ve never been dismissive of the pursuit of a Big Idea in creative agencies. A researched and planned bit of single minded creative communications that might appear to have developed in a spontaneous eruption from the creative crucible following client and agency briefings. It’s identifiable, expansive and almost certainly expensive. It’s piercing, distinct, emotionally resonant and hopefully award winning. Big Ideas are the consequence of a remarkably intransigent perception that big problems require big budgets and big messaging, it is – to an extent – why a President who sees a problem of the scale of immigration assumes the solution is a $15bn wall.

My interest in the psychology of behaviour and persuasive experience design however has found me happiest working with the small-but powerful idea, hereafter the Espresso Idea. In a recent piece in The Drum my colleague, Mark Bell (following his guest editorship of the APG) lamented the lack of progress in getting traction with Behavioural Economics and I’d add that this is, in part at least, down to the fact that much of what we do appears anecdotal, parochial – trivial. The fact is that many of these interventions are incredibly minor in execution but the change they create can be profound. Ergo, not trivial at all.  What we’re really not good at is celebrating the effects.

A few weeks ago I met with Jez Groom from Cowry Consulting, another collection of smart choice architects and persuasive design experts, and we talked about a number of under-the-radar pieces of work we’ve each been involved in that each resulted in genuine measurable change. These pieces of work might involve weeks of careful strategic research, testing and refinement, economic analysis and so on. They rarely involve a big film shoot, a vast media schedule and acres of billboard space and so they’re not the first thing you hear about in the pages of the advertising and communications press. In Mark’s recent piece he hinted at work Dare did for Standard Life, work which:

  • Increased the default amount people contributed to their pension each month
  • Reduced the age at which people started saving for their pension
  • Increased the number of people who automatically increased their contributions in line with inflation

All of which significantly increased the compounded value of pension pots. It was a consequence of small of changes to the online application form (and the pre-form pages) but the returns – and let’s be clear – consumer benefit were considerable. In response to my post on Pound Cost Averaging last week, another former colleague Darren (now with Share Centre) mentioned the measurable benefits that can be achieved in allowing customers to change the name of investment funds:

“Investors that use platforms where they can personalise the account name are significantly less likely to panic sell. So rather than ‘pension’ or ‘ISA’ they rename ‘My Financial Freedom Account’ or ‘Dream Holiday’. Better still, parents saving for children in a Junior ISA if they can have their child’s photo on the account they will invest more and for longer.”

Now that’s the kind of neat, concentrated and efficient idea I like and – as you can see – one that benefits the customer.

There are loads of these kinds of stories and partly we’re at fault in the industry for relying on such anecdotes, particularly as they often seem so anchored in the specific context. Take Rory’s example from Nudgestock in 2015, he mentioned that a Fire Safety team (somewhere in the US) were trying to get more people to install the three free smoke detectors they were being offered. A Big Idea would have involved some sort of comms push: leaflets, fire engine adverts, posters, local TV, radio broadcasts. No-one could understand why people were only ever taking up one of three free detectors when the Fire Service came to call. The Espresso Idea was to turn up instead with six. Residents felt ok at refusing six but were more happy to have three installed. A tiny change in reframing the offer resulted in hundreds if not thousands of extra detectors being fitted. It’s a great story, its a great idea but it’s easy to dismiss as applicable only in that context. For a while I would present talks on behaviour change with a series of slides titled “Have you heard the one about…” which would include a quick-fire playback of everything from tax return envelope testing, undergraduate vaccination programmes, stale popcorn, loft insulation, organ donation, sat nags with children voices near schools and flies in urinals. The smallest of these nudges are regularly and neatly captured these days on twitter under the useful #nudgesinthewild. What this serves to do is show that there are many many contexts for creativity based on behavioural principles.

To achieve this, some have become lazy, relying on heuristics and posterised lists of cognitive biases. It’s an irony that whilst I advocate a celebration of the parsimonious in execution, I am troubled by the over simplification of the psychology that underpins their success. These are biases that have been discovered (or at least better understood) through decades of detailed research. By all means use the codexes as your starting point but if you’re to use them in substantiation, you’d better be prepared to read the evidence and research and test your solution. So whilst I urge the development of more creativity and ingenuity in smart small ideas, I’d do so with the strong desire to see this informed and led by practitioners prepared to research, test and defend their work with empirical rigour.

Fortunately, in digital at least, we have a fantastic opportunity to explore the Espresso Idea at great speed and at considerable scale. We are, perhaps uniquely placed to deploy changes in processes, wordings, layout and visual cues. The reordering of a transactional flow, a multivariate test of a comparison table or the addition of some persuasive or helpful microcopy can effect the kinds of changes that previously might have taken months to achieve. Of course one must earn the right to this kind of intervention and convincing the keyholders of content and customer journeys of your hypothesis can surely be more successfully achieved if done with the kind of research and substantiation mentioned above.

Ultimately, as experience design professionals, our calling card benefits from the celebration of successful design interventions. At Cannes there is an unashamed veneration of the craft of advertising; at the EFEs it is the consequences of advertising that are awarded, again at scale. I’d like to see both these events take more notice of this fascinating intersection where creative ideas and effective behaviour design overlap and produce the kinds of concentrated, caffeinated results that typify small effort, Espresso Ideas.

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