Choice Architecture: Designing Experiences that Influence Behavior

Well-designed experiences influence behavior.   A well-designed customer experience can influence customers to return for additional purchases, spend more money during each purchase, and tell lots of other potential customers about the experiences they’ve had with your business, etc…    In addition, a well-designed customer experience can influence customer behavior in a way that decreases the cost of service.   For example, the experience can be designed to increase the likelihood the customer will place an order or look for service on the web rather than calling the call center.  Additionally, I’m doing an increasing amount of work with energy companies who traditionally haven’t paid much attention to customer experience.  However, many of those companies are now focused on designing services and experiences that influence customers’ conservation and consumption behavior.

In order to keep things simple, classical economics has always assumed that people act based on a relatively stable set of preferences.  However, in real life, this is far from true.  People typically don’t know what they want until they see it… they construct their preferences and work through decisions as they understand their alternatives in context.  Subtle differences in the design of that context can have a significant impact on the decisions customers make.  In fact, research in the areas of cognitive psychology and behavioral economics has shown that…

…small and seemingly insignificant contextual details have a major impact on people’s behavior.

For Example….

…How Including an Irrelevant Choice Can Influence Customers to Spend More?

One of my favorite recent examples comes from MIT Professor Dan Ariely.  (See Dan’s great book:  Predictably Irrational)  Dan came across the following advertisement for The Economist:

The Economist Subscription Options

The Economist Subscription Options

The ad offered three subscription options:

  • Electronic Only: $59
  • Print Only: $125
  • Electronic and Print: $125

Which of these options do you think people would choose?  Why would anyone choose the “Print Only” option rather than opting for the additional “FREE!” electronic subscription?  It seems very unlikely!  In fact, Ariely conducted a test with 100 Sloan School students and only 16 chose “Electronic Only” while 84 chose the “Electronic and Print” option.  No one chose the “Print Only” option! On the surface, this option seems totally irrelevant.  Why would you even offer it?   It turns out that something very interesting happens when this seemingly irrelevant option is eliminated.  When another 100 students were offered only two choices: “Electronic Only” and “Electronic and Print”, 68 chose “Electronic Only” while only 32 chose “Electronic and Print.”   

The presence of an irrelevant option influenced a more than 250% increase in customers choosing the more expensive alternative!!!

Ariely observed the following, “Thinking is difficult and sometimes unpleasant.” Cues that allow us to establish the relative value of various offerings, then, reduce the cognitive load or effort required to think about your options.  What the Economist offered was a no-brainer; while we can’t be certain that the print subscription is worth more than twice the electronic version, the combination of the two was clearly worth more that the print version alone.

Choice Architecture:  Designing Choices that Influence Customer Behavior

Customers always have choices.  Choice architecture is the deliberate design of both the choices and the context for those choices in order to influence a person’s behavior.  The most obvious, classic examples of choice architecture come from the design of retail stores and merchandise displays, restaurant menus and buffet lines, print and online catalogues, etc…  I got my start in customer experience 25 years ago designing store layouts, merchandise displays, signage, and promotions that increased customer profitability.   I’ve learned that there are three components that need to be addressed: 1) the Choice Design (the customer options including the information provided about those options), 2) the Choice Pathways… the sequence or placement of those choices in time and space, and 3) the Choice Environment including peripheral cues like signage, lighting, other people in privacy/public space, etc…

Let’s look at a simple illustrative case.  A well-designed restaurant menu can be a great example of choice architecture based on sophisticated menu psychology.   It turns out that there is a predictable Visual Choice Pathway people typically follow when they read a menu.  For example, when most people open a four page menu, their eyes go first to the top of the page on the right side.  A smart menu designer generally places one of the highest profitability items at the top of this page.  Then, most people’s eyes will move down towards the center of that same page.  An even smart(er) menu designer will put the most expensive item towards the center of the page… not because they think the customer will order it… but because it will tend to prime the customers’ expectations about what they’re likely to spend.  In most cases, customers will then look at the items immediately above and below the most expensive item.  Those two items immediately above and below the most expensive item are deliberately two of the most compelling selections on the menu… and are the most commonly ordered items designed to generate the most profit on the menu.  There have been numerous examples of restaurants that have been able to significantly shift their average ticket size based on the design of the menu.  (See:  Reading Between the Lines: The Psychology of Menu Design or Basics of Menu Psychology).

A similar thing happens in high end retail boutiques.  The sight of those $295 jeans (I still can’t believe it!) subtly prime the customer to feel that $125 jeans are a bargain.   The $295 jeans sell a lot more $125 jeans.  We’ve seen the same sort of thing in jewelry stores, hospitality companies, and many other diverse situations.

Although these examples are intriguing, it’s important to recognize that examples of choice architecture are literally everywhere.   For example:

  • The design of an election ballot is an example of choice architecture. Experiments have shown, if a candidate is listed first on the ballot, he may well get a 4% increase in votes.
  • When a doctor describes alternative treatments available to a patient, it is also an example of choice architecture. Research has shown that if a doctor says 90% of patients are alive five years after a certain procedure, far more people opt for that procedure than if the doctor says 10% of patients are dead five years after having it.

Choice architecture applies just about any product or service company that offers alternatives to their customers.   This can be anything from insurance companies that offer coverage options, banks that offer different financing or deposit products, business services firms that propose alternative approaches to their clients, etc…

Unfortunately, most companies don’t think about choice architecture effectively… actually in most cases, they don’t think about it at all.  Often a company will just throw a bunch of alternatives at their customers and count on the customers to sort it out.  As a result, they miss significant opportunities to drive additional revenue and profit.  The most important starting place is to understand much clearer how customers make decisions and design an experience that fits the way customers think (i.e.,  Design from the Mental Model of the Customer).  See:  Optimizing the Most Critical Elements of the Customer Experience: Customer Choices and Cognitive Ergonomics: Framing and Priming the Customer Experience.

This is an area that is getting an increasing amount of academic attention. Richard Thaler, Director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and Cass R. Sunstein are authors of the excellent book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (see also:  Designing Better Choices (LA Times Commentary) by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein).  Thaler and Sunstein provide several interesting examples of how organizations can improve the decision making effectiveness for their customers and employees.  This includes:

  • If we want to increase savings by employees, employers might … enroll them automatically in a 401k plan, unless they specifically choose otherwise.
  • If we want to increase the supply of transplant organs in the United States, we could assume that people want to donate, rather than treating non-donation as the default.
  • If we want to increase charitable giving, we could give people the opportunity to join a plan, in which some percentage of their future wage increases are automatically given to charities.
  • If we want to respond to the recent problems in the credit markets, we could design disclosure policies that ensure consumers can see exactly what they are paying and make easy comparisons amongst their possible options.

Thaler and Sunstein describe three key elements that are important to designing a choice architecture that leads to better results for individuals and society:

  1. Default Design. Whatever you chose as the default option has the highest likelihood of being selected.  For example, the states that have organ donation as the default option when individuals get a drivers license have a much higher acceptance rate.  In fast food restaurants, highly profitable combo meals have become the default option… customers often need to explicitly ask for just the burger. Design architects need to pay careful attention to the default option.
  2. Providing Feedback. People respond to feedback about their decisions.  For example, in some markets electric utilities are starting to provide specially designed bulbs (called orbs) that glow red as homes use higher levels of energy.  These devices have influences customers consumption behavior and have proven to reduce energy use during peak periods by 40% in Southern California. (find reference and make sure I’m using the right terminology)
  3. Anticipating Errors. People make mistakes and it’s possible to design a choice architecture which anticipates these mistakes and thus leads to better outcomes.  Thaler and Sunstein have been promoting the example of “Save More Tomorrow” programs, which help employees set aside future pay hikes for retirement. “Save More Tomorrow is based on the same principle of expecting error,” he said. “We ask people if they want to commit now to saving more later, because all of us have more self-control in the future. The first company that adopted it tripled savings rates, and the program is now spreading.”  They also use the example of the Paris subway card, which allows users to insert it into an electronic turnstile in any of four ways to gain entrance to the subway.  Compared that to most payment kiosks in which there are 4 possible ways to insert your credit card… only one of which will work.

This is a topic with a lot of subtlety and power… if you’re looking for additional practical insights, feel free to post a reply or get in touch.  In summary…

If you offer customers options and you don’t think about choice architecture…

…you are almost certainly missing significant opportunities to improve profitability.


Great Customer Experiences are Music to My Ears…

Listening to music is one of the most meaningful experiences in our lives.  I’ve been spending some time thinking about how great customer experiences have a lot in common with the great music that makes a difference for people.  Here are some initial thoughts:

  • It Moves You. Great music is about the transfer of emotion not just the delivery of any kind of rational value.  If you’re like most people, music has a strong impact on how you feel; it gets you up, it makes you cry, it turns you on in other ways I won’t go into here.  Both of my kids are musicians and we are always discussing the difference between music that is expressive (influences how people feel) versus music that is impressive (well executed but sort of cold).  Similarly, great customer experiences are expressive; they have an effect on the way customers feel.  It’s most important to realize that what the customer feels about the company is secondary! Of primary importance is how the company makes customers feel about themselves.  If the experience makes customers feel great about themselves, then by association, the customer will feel great about the company.   You can be effective at executing customers transactions or efficiently and effectively answering their questions… but how you make customers feel about themselves is critical.  (See: Cognitive Ergonomics: Customer Experience and Our Search for Meaning)
  • It has a Melody. Most great music has a melody.  Even the most complex, improvised jazz has a “head” or theme that ties the whole piece together.  Not only does music have a melody, but it’s kind of important that everyone in the band actually knows what that melody is.   Great customer experiences have a melody too.  It’s intentional.  Everyone in the band (organization) actually knows what it is and plays it together.  However in the large majority of organizations, the customer experience just defaults from the bunch of stuff that people do.  There’s no deliberate Customer Experience Specification and, as a result, each individual just plays their own tune… and it sounds like crap.  (See: I Got a Song it Ain’t Got No Melody… I’m Gonna Sing it to My Friends).
  • It has Memorable Hooks. Think about your favorite songs.  You remember the hooks.  Sometimes you have a hard time getting them out of your head.  Do you think the songwriter left those hooks to chance?  No way!  Effective songwriters are very deliberate about the “signature” hooks they build into their songs.  Songs without those hooks may be pleasant enough to listen to but listeners will find them difficult to remember and will be significantly less likely to want to hear them again.  The same is true with great customer experiences; they have “signature” hooks.  These are the things that you do that get the customer’s attention and help them understand how your experience is different than all the other experiences they’ve had.  Think about the best experiences you’ve had as a customer.  In most cases, you remember a small set of signature hooks that got your attention and influenced your memory of the experience.  What are the signature elements of your customer experience?  (See:  Novelty Seeking and the Design of Differentiated Customer Experiences)
  • It Balances Predictability and Surprise. Listening to music resonates with the way our brains continuously predict what will happen, are comforted when things are largely predictable and are stimulated by the occasional surprises.   This is one of the reasons why music is so important to us.  How often are you listening to a song and anticipating the lyrics and melodic phrases just before they happen.   The songs that people are most drawn to (in addition to the factors above) are the ones they’ve come to know well enough to be largely able to predict what will happen next… but have not heard so often that the song becomes totally predictable.  Great customer experiences also resonate with the way people continuously predict what will happen, are easy to engage with since things are largely predictable, and are occasionally stimulated by surprises.  (See: Customer Experience and the “Element of Surprise”)
  • It is Naturally a Social Activity. This is the thing that’s most interesting to me at the moment.  For the overwhelmingly large majority of human history, music was a communal, social activity.  People gathered around the cave or campfire and made music together.  Everyone participated.  Something strange happened as we emerged from the dark ages.  For some reasons, the world divided into the musicians and the listeners.  Musicians were often trained “professionals” that would entertain groups of passive listeners.  Occasionally, the listeners would sing along but, unfortunately, this division started to make some people feel embarrassed about their inability to carry a tune.  During the same era, the business enterprises that emerged reflected a similar divide.  There were professional producers and passive consumers.  Today, we’re seeing a significant return to both music and enterprise as a social activity.  This is being driven by the emergence of prosumers and the enabling power of social media.  The music industry is in the midst of a major shakeup now that just about any reasonably capable person or group of people has the tools to create and distribute music.  In many cases, these people can create or just mash up music in a virtual environment… often incorporating publicly available loop or even pirated samples.   Similarly, prosumers are taking control of creating or personalizing the customer experiences they want to have… not just passively consuming the experiences that companies want to give them.   The emergence of these Next Generation Experiences is one of the most profound developments I’ll cover more in future posts.

So… there are a few initial thoughts.  I’d love to hear what you think particularly any suggestions regarding how great customers experiences are like music.  Cheers, Frank

Whatever You Do… Don’t Confuse Experience with Reality

“We don’t see things as they are.  We see things as we are.”  Anais Nin

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Many organizations have placed an increasing amount of attention on the quality of the experience their customers have.  However, the first mistake most organizations make is focusing on what the company does to deliver a customer experience rather than taking a step back and thinking first about how customers actually have experiences.  The second biggest mistake is the way most organizations listen to and react to customers’ suggestions about what to do to improve the experience.

So, let’s consider how people (customers or otherwise) “have” experiences.  Every waking minute of our day, we are swimming in an infinite sea of sensory information about the events unfolding around us.   In order to ensure our own survival, we’ve evolved very effective ways to subconsciously filter and react to virtually all of this information automatically… without even thinking about it.    This allows us to pay attention to the relatively small number of events that seem most important.  In dealing with the vast majority of the events in our lives, we just get the gist of the situation and respond with relatively automatic behavior. 

Our lives are not influenced as much by events, as by the ways we perceive and interpret those events.

Without understanding the idiosyncrasies in the way people perceive and interpret what happens around them, it’s very easy to invest a lot of time, energy, and money improving the reality of the events without having much of a positive impact on customers’ experience of those events.

When you get right down to it, there are always to strategies:  1) improve the reality of the events and 2) influence the way customers experience those realities.   My first understanding of this came about 25 years ago, while working with Dick Larson at MIT.  Dr. Larson, an expert in the psychology of waiting, told me the story of commercial real estate managers that we’re struggling with improving the service levels of elevators in high-rise buildings during peak hours.  People were frustrated by waiting too long for the elevators.  As in most situations, the complexity and cost of actually improving service levels is quite high.  It involves installing faster elevators, improving the optimization of elevator queuing, etc…   The simpler solution and more effective solution was to install mirrors in the elevator lobbies.  This allowed people to entertain themselves by fixing their hair, straightening their tie, and checking each other out in a much more socially acceptable way.  The perceived experience improvement was greater with the relatively low cost mirrors than with the relatively high cost technology required to improve actual service levels.  (Waiting time is an important aspect of many experiences, for more information about the waiting experience see: Helping Customers Lose Wait)

So, if you ask customers what they want, what do they tell you?  In most cases, they ask for the relatively obvious service level improvements that relate to the first strategy.  While it’s important to listen to customers’ feedback about their experiences and their ideas for improvements, it’s a big mistake to just respond to those requests.  Let’s take a look at why this is true.

One particularly useful way to understand how customers’ “have” experiences is to consider three levels of processing that get applied as people perceive, interpret, evaluate, and act on the events that occur in their lives.   At the reactive level, more than 99% of the sensory information that we are surrounded by is automatically dealt with in a way that is purely subconscious.  Our brain acts like a pattern matching and prediction machine… we are continuously sensing our environment and, as long as it behaves in a way that roughly approximates what we expect, we don’t have to spend our preciously short supply of conscious attention focused on it.  Beyond this purely reactive level of processing, we have a deliberative layer which allows us to get the “gist” of the situation and respond with learned or patterned behavior that allows us to operate on automatic pilot.  This is the capability that allows us to drive into work while talking on the cell phone or thinking about our upcoming meeting… or the capability that allows us to make dinner while talking to the kids about what happened at school.   At the highest level we can consciously reflect on our experiences.  However, what we are reflecting on is often just the gist of the situation from the lower levels.  Although we may believe we actually experience events the way they happened, the reconstructive nature of memory means that we tend to fill in facts that are consistent with our story about what happened rather than clearly and accurately recalling actual events.  (For further discussion see:  Designing for Customers’ Reactive, Deliberative, and Reflective Experiences.)

Three Levels of Experiential Processing

Three Levels of Experiential Processing

While it’s important to listen to what customers tell you about their experiences, it’s also important to realize that the “voice of the customer” is generally limited to the language customers can find… to express what they can remember… about how they think they felt… regarding an experience that was largely subconscious.  Customers are usually able to tell you about the obvious dissatisfiers in their experiences.  In most cases, however, it is more productive to look past what customers are telling you to find ways to influence customers’ experiences of the events that happen to them.  In general, the best strategy that we’ve found is to:

  1. Design for Gist Processing. At the base level, you need to understand the basic constructs that customers apply to navigate most of the experience relying on gist processing and automatic behavioral scripts.   When a customer enters a bank branch, checks into a hotel, enrolls with a health insurance provider,  etc… they have a set of constructs that they’ve learned from and apply based on their previous experiences.  Experiences that are designed based on these constructs, become inherently easy to do business with.   As Alfred North Whitehead said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”   We’ve been evolving a structured process of Experiential Construct Elicitation that I will cover in an upcoming post.
  2. Deliver Signature Experience Elements. This is all about getting the customers’ attention using a small number of highly differentiated “signature experience elements” that customers perceive as a difference in kind compared to what they expected or feel they could get from another provider.  If you listen to customers talk about the Starbucks experience, the Whole Foods experience, etc…, you’ll see that customers consistently refer to a small set of experience elements that stand out for them as being the defining components of the experience.  While you can spend a lot of time getting lots of details correct in the experience, having a small set of signature elements are the kinds of things that really stand out for and influence customers.

The Anatomy of Wow!

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to post a wide range of thoughts on the ways that organization’s can leverage a deep understanding of their customers in order to design and engage customers in experiences that drive the growth of their business.  I recently took the opportunity to step back and reflect on the most important things I’ve learned over the past 25 years.  This post summarizes those most important things.  I’ve tried to make this concise… but will provide links to other posts that provide more insight.

Designing Influential Experiences

Wow Experiences exert a powerful influence on how people think, feel, decide, and act… because they’re designed from the mental model of the experiencer not the mental model of the provider.  Wow experiences create a high level of commitment, energy, and “word of mouth” by improving peoples’ lives.

  1. Wow Experiences change how people feel and are designed from a deep understanding of what people desire.  People don’t buy products or services, they buy Desired States.  What Emotional Outcomes should the experience generate?
  2. Wow Experiences deliver Innovative Solutions to people’s underlying, end-to-end problems. Finding these solutions requires getting below-the-surface of existing touch points.
  3. Wow Experiences generate viral stories.  Prime the story people will tell around an influential Experience Storyline.
  4. Wow Experiences resonate with the seemingly irrational ways people decide.  Design experiences that shape Preference Construction and overcome Behavioral Barriers.
  5. Wow Experiences are pleasantly surprising.  Design a small set of highly differentiated Signature Experience Elements.
  6. Wow Experiences are engaging and personal.  Enable people to Co-create and Personalize the experience, as well as, Influence and Collaborate with others.
  7. Wow Experiences recognize everything communicates! Eliminate negative cues and align positive cues to influence the story and how you make people feel.

Delivering Influential Experiences

Customers’ experiences with any organization result from the behavior of a self-reinforcing, deeply entrenched organizational system.  Traditional approaches to defining and implementing a new experience fail because they underestimate limits imposed by legacy mindsets, processes, systems, and culture.

  1. Wow Experiences start with clear description of the intended experience – from the customers’ perspective. Align on an Experience Specification that describes the customers’ emotional & rational outcomes.
  2. Wow Experiences rely on Experience Value Management to focus improvements on fundamentally shifting the economics of customer relationships.
  3. Wow Experiences require shifting organizational behavior. Surface the Unwritten Rules that predispose the organization to deliver the current experience.
  4. Wow Experiences require specific employee experiences not just “engagement.” Diagnose how employee experiences reinforce Unwritten Rules and design specific Employee Experience Interventions to shift those Unwritten Rules.
  5. Wow Experiences require the holistic design of enabling Processes, Structures, and Management Systems.
  6. Wow Experiences have a limited shelf-life. Continually Refresh and Preserve a differentiated experience.
  7. Remember that, no matter what business you’re in… You’re in the Hospitality Business!

Here are a selection of links that provide some more insight into the points summarized above:

Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?

The Customer Experience Does Not Happen at Your Touchpoints

Cognitive Ergonomics: Designing Experiences that Fit the Customers’ Mental Model

Personae-Driven Customer Experience Design

Optimizing the Most Critical Elements of the Customer Experience: Customer Choices

Cognitive Ergonomics: Customer Experience and Our Search for Meaning

No Matter What Business You’re In, You’re In the Hospitality Business

Helping Customers Lose Wait

How Employee Experiences Drive Organizational Behavior

Behavioral Engineering and the Design of Influential Experiences: Example – Influencing Sustainable Behavior

Let me start this important topic with a few points that should be intuitively obvious:

  • The benefits associated with delivering an outstanding customer experience accrue from influencing customer behavior
  • Customers either deliberately or incidentally change what they do when they experience something that makes them feel or think differently
  • In most competitive markets, there are straightforward financial benefits associated with changing customer behavior. These positive changes in customer behavior lead to increased retention, wallet share, referral rates, etc…
  • The levers for changing customer behavior generally involve finding ways to understand and influence customers’ perceptions of the value they receive

Moving beyond these obvious points, things get much more interesting when the objective is design experiences that influence behavior towards more altruistic ends.  For example, many regulated utilities are launching energy conservation and demand response programs.  The objective of these programs is to shift customer behavior related to energy consumption and conservation.  While there might be marginal direct benefits (e.g., reduced rates, etc…) experienced by the customer as a result of changing their behavior, there are also environmental and social benefits the customer may not easily perceive.

As we’ve been engaged with clients working on this problem, it’s become clear that there’s a lot that any company can learn from this more challenging experience design problem.  For example, the airlines have done a good job of influencing customer behavior regarding online check-in and the use of kiosks rather than agents, despite initial customer tentativeness and resistance.

What Comes First:  Attitudes or Behavior?

While it seems natural to assume that customers’ beliefs and attitudes are precursors to their behavior, practical experience supported by numerous academic studies have demonstrated that the linkage is highly complex.  For example, many people have attitudes and beliefs consistent with environmental conservation yet do not exhibit any significant conservative behavior.  A person’s expressed beliefs and attitudes about environmental issues are not a strong indicator of how that person will act relative to those issues. In fact, you can’t even assume that a person who identifies themselves as an environmentalist will necessarily have either a solid understanding of the issues or be any more willing to modify their behavior to make it more environmentally friendly.

As discussed in Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s and William Smith’s book, “Fostering Sustainable Behavior,” a few illustrative examples include:

  • “Participants in an intensive 3 hour energy conservation workshop indicated greater awareness of energy issues, more appreciation for what could be done in their homes to reduce energy use, and a willingness to implement changes. However, based on follow up visits, actual behavior did not change. The only difference in behavior between participants and non-participants is that eight of the forty participants had installed the low-flow shower head they were given for free at the workshop.” Geller, E.S. “Evaluating Energy Conservation Programs: Is Verbal Report Enough?” Journal of Consumer Research, 8, 331-335
  • “Individuals who hold attitudes that are strongly supportive of energy conservation were found to be no more likely to conserve energy.” Archer, D., Pettigrew, T., Constanzo, M., Iritani, B., Walker, I. & White, L. “Energy Conservation and Public Policy: The Mediation of Individual Behavior” Energy Efficiency: Perspectives on Individual Behavior, 69-92.
  • “500 people were interviewed and asked about personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% indicated that individuals have a responsibility for picking up litter. However, when leaving the interview, only 2% actually picked up the litter that had been “planted” by the researcher.” Bickman, L “Environmental Attitudes and Actions” Journal of Social Pscyhology, 87, 323-324.
  • “An investigation of the differences between recyclers and non-recyclers found that they did not differ in their attitudes towards recycling.” DeYoung, R. “Exploring the Difference Between Recyclers and Non-Recyclers: The Role of Information” Journal of Environmental Systems, 18, 341-351.

There are several factors that contribute to a disconnect between a person’s attitudes and their behavior.  Each of the following reasons influence whether or not a person engages in any new behavior, despite their attitudes towards that behavior:

  1. Lack of Knowledge. Inconsistency between a person’s expressed attitudes and their behavior might be partially attributable to a lack of understanding of what to do or a lack of understand the implications of their actions.  While numerous studies show that information or education alone has little or no effect on behavior, it is still a critical enabler.
  1. Perceived Barriers. External barriers and constraints set limits on what can be accomplished by just changing a person’s attitudes.  The higher the barriers, including expense, inconvenience, and technical difficulties, the less the effect attitudes will have on a person’s behavior.
  1. Perceived Benefits. A person may have to incur immediate and well-defined inconvenience, uncertainty, and monetary costs in exchange for longer term benefits experienced by the broader population rather than the individual themselves.  This is related to Hardin’s metaphor of the Tragedy of the Commons.

In general, behavior competes with behavior.  People consciously or automatically make choices between alternative behaviors.  When they do, people naturally gravitate to behaviors that have high perceived benefits and few perceived barriers or costs.  In general, people also naturally pay the most attention to short-term benefits and costs.  While perceived benefits and barriers / costs vary dramatically by individual, there are usually common elements shared by customers within a given customer “personae.”

As a result, a behavioral engineering approach is often most effective.  It is generally more cost effective to try to change behavior directly than to do so via a change in attitudes across a large population.  We have found that attitudes are just as likely to be a consequence of behavior than the cause of behavior. Or, as we like to say, you often “act your way into a new way of thinking, rather than thinking your way into a new way of acting.”

As McKenzie-Mohr and Smith summarize, much of the practice involves influencing behavior in specific ways by:

  • Increasing the customers’ perceived benefits of the desired behavior
  • Decreasing the customers’ perceived barriers to the desired behavior
  • Decreasing the customers’ perceived benefits of the current or competing behavior(s)
  • Increasing the customers’ perceived barriers of the current or competing behaviors(s)

The high level steps include:

  1. Identifying Specific Perceived Barriers and Benefits.  This requires field-based observation and elicitation research (See:  Observation and Elicitation: We Like to Watch!) focused on surfacing:  What makes the desired behavior difficult/easy?  What are the perceived positives and negatives?  Who wants you to do it and who doesn’t care?  This qualitative research is used to clearly identify the ways that  customers experience the barriers and benefits.
  2. Clustering Perceived Barriers and Benefits by Personae.  The initial observation and elicitation research is generally followed by a more quantitative study that clusters and prioritizes barriers and benefits for different customer personae.  (See:  Personae-Driven Customer Experience Design)
  3. Designing Behavior Change Programs by Personae.  In general, program design starts by targeting the most “influencable” personae first.  Characteristics of effective program design typically include the following elements (See:  Influential Experiences and the Psychology of Escalating Commitment):
    • “Easy to get started” initiating actions and reinforcement
    • Gaining visible commitment (e.g. written commitments)
    • Creating meaningful incentives and penalties
    • Emphasizing personal contact
    • Encouraging development social norms and leveraging social pressure
    • Designing prompts / reminders for new behaviors.  Helping people remember – making it difficult for them to forget.
    • Measuring and reporting progress against individual and community goals.
  4. Piloting and Refining Behavior Change Programs.  It is very important that any programs be tested and refined in the field.  This can be done with a sample or segment of customers.  The purpose of this pilot is not just to evaluate the design but to improve it with observation and feedback gained from the participating customers.
  5. Rollout and Evaluate Results.

Here are a few situation-specific lessons learned:

  • Efforts to encourage people to conserve energy must provide information that can help them understand what the effects of specific changes in behavior will be. For example, the information on a typical electric bill is not detailed enough. These bills typically summarize overall usages. This doesn’t give consumers any clue as to the relative effect of various resource-conserving actions. As a result, misconceptions about the impact of various actions persist despite educational efforts to change them (e.g., the impact of turning off lights vs. making less frequent use of the clothes dryer).
  • Providing incentives can be effective. However, if incentives are significant, many people come to believe they are acting only for the incentives. They may begin to require larger incentives to do things that they might previously have done only with small incentives. In these situations, the behaviors often stop as soon as the incentives are removed. In general, people tend to sustain changes in behavior when they have chosen those behaviors without the influence of significant incentives or penalties.
  • Attitudes about specific threats are more predictive of behavior related to those threats than general concerns about the environment are predictive of general environmentally friendly behavior. For example, attitudes towards recycling are more predictive of recycling behavior than are general concern about the environment.
  • Stronger commitments yield more persistent behavior. A commitment accompanied by an agreement to promote target behavior among neighbors has more behavioral influence than just the expression of commitment by itself. Encouraging customers to commit to a more specific goal is more effective than more general goals to conserve energy.
  • Aligning consequences to behavior is critical. For example, having customers pay for trash pickup based on the amount of trash they produce is more effective than impassioned pleas to reduce trash.
  • While publishing typical customer behaviors can generate peer pressure, it is a double edged sword. It can encourage people who are already doing both better and worse than average regress to the norm. Publishing exemplary behavior is an alternative to publishing average behavior.

This is a topic we’ll continue to explore as we progress in our work with utilities on the design of more influential programs and experiences.

Whose Experience is it Anyway?

I’d like to emphasize a point I’ve made in earlier posts.  Your company does not have a customer experience… only your customers do. Although it might seem like this is splitting hairs, we’ve come to realize that the distinction is critical.  The moment you start talking about “our company’s customer experience” attention gets focused on what we do rather than how customers experience things.

Our working definition of experience is:  How people think and feel as they follow an end-to-end process intended to accomplish goals and satisfy needs that are important to them.

There are a couple of very important implications of this definition:

  • Understanding the customer experience requires an understanding of how customers conceive of what they’re trying to accomplish and what’s important to them.  There is almost always a significant disconnect between the customers’ perspective on their goals and a provider’s beliefs about the customers’ goals.  For example:
    • An automobile insurer might assume that customers buy insurance to “transfer risk in exchange for a premium.” However, the customer may really feel that the goal is to have the insurance company “erase an unexpected mishap.” As a result, the insurance company might do a brilliant job of transferring risk… but fall far short of meeting the customers’ emotional needs regarding erasing a mishap.
    • A jewelry retailer might assume that their customers are interested in an effective jewelry buying experience, while the customer might see their goals as “giving a gift that represents a positive and mutually satisfying investment in a relationship that I care about.” As a result, the retailer might do a great job of selling jewelry but miss the opportunity to really innovate a great experience around what the customer is trying to accomplish.
    • A moving company might believe the customers’ goals are to move their belongings from one place to another. The customer sees their goal as reducing the stress and uncertainty of relocating his family.
  • The customers experience does not just happen at a providers touchpoints.  This point was covered in detail in a previous post.  However, the short story is that the customer may have to navigate and integrate a wide range of activities in order to satisfy his or her needs.  Only some of these activities involve any contact with a given provider.  A provider that just focuses on their touchpoints with the customer is generally only able to make incremental improvements in the quality of the customers’ experience.  The more significant opportunity to innovate a significantly better experience comes from a deeper understanding of the customers’ experience at the non-touchpoints.
  • The actually customer experience is “how the customer thinks and feels” as they navigate their process in an attempt to address their goals.  An overwhelmingly important part of this is how the customer feels.  As Buck Rogers, VP Marketing for IBM between 1974 and 1984 observed, “People buy emotionally and justify with logic.”  If you want to understand the customers’ experience, think about how your business makes them feel.  How they feel has an overwhelming impact on what the customer ends up thinking and, ultimately, how they end up behaving

Outstanding experiences have much more to do with the transference of emotion than the exchange of rational value!!!

  • Finally, you can’t design the customers’ experience.  You can only design what you do in a way that positive and highly effective customer experiences emerge.  One of the best ways to think about designing for emergence is captured in the work of the visionary architect, Chris Alexander, who in his book “A Pattern Language” describes how an effective architect organizes physical space in a way that generates specific compelling experiences. For example, how an architect can create a town square specifically designed for the emergence of a “Dancing in the Street” experience or a compelling “Sidewalk Café” experience.  Similarly, the open design of platforms like Second Life, Facebook, and MySpace were effective because they created the conditions that allow for the emergence of positive and engaging customer experiences.

This can be summed up in one major point:

Creating the conditions for outstanding experiences results from… designing from the mental model of the experiencer… not the mental model of the provider!

Influential Experiences and the Psychology of Escalating Commitment

Would you decide to just go out and spend $15,000 on tools to do a little work around the house?  Are the improvements to your backyard worth the $12,000 you ended up spending?  Would you decide to invest $3,000 on repairs to your old, unreliable car, even though it was only worth about $4,000 in the first place?  Or, is your prize collection of beanie babies, figurines, watches, or ­­­­­________­­­­___ (fill in the blank) really worth the thousands you’ve spent on it over the years?

If these were single, rationally considered decisions, you probably wouldn’t have made them.  However, as psychologist Robert Cialdini observed, a person’s commitment to a particular course of action sometimes “grow legs.”   Once we become clearly committed, we have a strong tendency to gradually increase our level of commitment to that course of action.  In doing so, we often lose sight of the original reasons and justification for choosing that course of action in the first place.

For example, it’s not unusual for the owner of an old car keep incrementally spending money on repairs as things break down… first the brakes… then the muffler… then the transmission… etc… hoping that each of these repairs will be the last.  As the bills mount, the owner often becomes even more determined, “I’ve already spent more than $2,000 repairing this thing.  I’m not going to back down and, in effect, throw that money away.”

This very common pattern is called irrational escalation and describes situations in which people make seemingly irrational decisions in order to justify the decisions they’ve already made or the actions they’ve already taken.  Irrational escalation shows up in a wide variety of situations including:   bidding wars that occur during auctions or corporate takeovers; military strategy (consider the Vietnam and Gulf wars); corporate or market investments that wind up “throwing good money after bad;” “collector” behavior; or the escalating cycle of retribution and punishment that occurs when a husband and wife become locked into a contentious divorce.  In addition, clever salespeople or fundraisers often employ “foot in the door” techniques that take advantage of people’s tendency towards irrational escalation as small initial commitments eventually build towards large commitments.

Although much of the research on commitment has focused on this negative behavioral cycle, the escalation of commitment is not always negative! Whenever we commit our time, energy, hearts, and minds to a worthy cause, it can have a very positive influence on our identity and our future behavior.  Over time, under the right conditions, we eventually have a hard time letting go; our positive behavior becomes less about “what we do” and more about “who we are.”  The positive escalation of commitment can describe how people adopt healthy behaviors like getting regular exercise or engaging in wellness programs… or become involved charity work and community service.

Recently, I’ve been studying the process people go through as they increasingly commit to energy conservation behaviors or “green” causes.  It seems that people typically adopt a conservative or green attitude in baby steps.  As they take each step, it reinforces their focus and awareness, as well as, their sense of identification with an aligned set of underlying values and beliefs.

Many utility companies are starting to more actively promote energy conservation or demand management (shifting use to off peak times) programs.  The effectiveness of these programs is highly dependent on the careful design of offerings, communications, and feedback mechanisms that get a “foot in the door” and build customer commitment incrementally from there.  Effective programs make it easy for customers to get started and then carefully reinforce a gradually increasing level of association with being a conservative, ecologically and economically minded consumer.  These programs can amplify customers’ commitment by providing positive feedback and by making the customer’s commitment publicly and socially visible.

Effective design of influential energy conservation and demand response programs is highly customer personae dependent. Obviously, not every customer has the same beliefs, attitudes, priorities, and behaviors related to energy use, conservation, the environment, and social responsibility.  In many ways, the adoption of energy conservation programs is similar to the adoption of wellness programs.  Some people readily adopt these programs because they fit with the way they already think.  For example, some customers have an “independently healthy” or “naturalist” personae related to their health.  On the other hand, some customers will never engage in a wellness program; they might have more of an “avoider” personae regarding their health.  However, there are several personae that are more influenceable.  The most effective programs must be designed to resonate with the mental model of these customer personae.

Cognitive Dissonance… Driving the Escalation of Commitment

One of the factors that drives the escalation of commitment is cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance was first identified in the 1950s by psychologist, Leon Festinger (see:  The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance and When Prophecy Fails).  Since that time, it has grown to become one of the central theories of social psychology.  A great, more recent book on the topic is Carol Tavris‘ and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me):  Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person simultaneously holds conflicting ideas or beliefs.  Because holding two conflicting ideas or beliefs creates an unpleasant tension, people are naturally motivated to reduce it.  Dissonance reducing behavior is ego-defensive; by reducing dissonance, a person gets to maintain their positive self-image; an image that depicts them as a good or smart person.   Cognitive dissonance often produces behavior that is apparently irrational; although, to the person, it may seem very sensible.

Understanding and leveraging cognitive dissonance is a powerful tool for designing customer or employee experiences that positively influence a person’s thinking and behavior… and drive the escalation of commitment:

  • Justification and Filtering. Following a decision, especially either a difficult one or one that involves a significant amount of time, effort, or money, customers almost always experience dissonance. Did they do the right thing? The chosen alternative is seldom entirely positive, and the rejected alternatives including the “do nothing alternative” are seldom totally negative. After a significant decision, customers typically seek reinforcement that their decisions were good ones by seeking information that is reassuring. If at all possible, they try to convince themselves and others that it was a logical and reasonable thing to do. They avoid thinking about either the negative aspects of the choice they’ve made or the positive aspects of the un-chosen alternatives. In designing customer or employee experiences, it is important to arm customers with the story they’ll tell themselves and others. In many cases, it makes sense to continue marketing after the sale in a way that provides people with the ammunition they need to justify the decision they’ve made.
  • Responsibility. Dissonance effects are greatest when (1) people feel personally responsible for their actions and (2) their actions have serious consequences. If there is a significant amount of external reinforcement or incentives, we may not “own” the decision. For example, offering rewards to individuals for performing even the most pleasant activities decreases the intrinsic value of those activities and reduces the individual’s responsibility for having done it. This is why “incentive programs” not only don’t build permanent behavior, but may undermine it in some cases.
  • Consistency and Escalation. In the absence of strong conflicting signals, dissonance reduction will reinforce actions consistent with earlier commitments and behavior. In addition, once a small commitment is made, it sets the stage for ever-increasing commitments. The behavior needs to be justified, so attitudes are changed; this change in attitudes influences future decisions and behavior. When customers commit themselves in a small way, the likelihood they will commit themselves further in that direction is increased. This process of using small commitments to encourage people to accede to larger commitments has been dubbed the “foot in the door” technique. It is effective because having done the smaller favor sets up pressures toward agreeing to do the larger favor; in effect, it provides justification in advance for complying with the large requests.
  • Irrevocability and Inevitability. Two of the most important characteristics that effect cognitive dissonance are the relative irrevocability and inevitability of the decision. Irrevocable decisions always increase not only the dissonance but the motivation to reduce it. Once we’ve committed ourselves to an irrevocable course of action, it’s in our best interests to justify the decision we made and avoid conflicting information. In addition, research shows that a person’s dissonance is reduced with choices they see as inevitable.

In summary, designing influential experiences requires an understanding of cognitive dissonance and, in particular, how cognitive dissonance drives the escalation of commitment.   More on this in future posts.