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Customer Behaviour by Design - Influencing Behaviour Beyond Nudging

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

Anne Van Lieren is a designer and a researcher for “Livework Studio” with a strong interest in human behavior and user research. She works on the crossroads of service design, human behavior and business to create meaningful customer experiences that deliver value to both the customer and business. At this year’s Service Design Global Conference held in Toronto in October, she focused on how service designers can use behavioral science to change people’s behavior. If most of the time people behave irrationally, how can we influence their behavior beyond nudging?

Lieren started her presentation with the so-called desire paths – the shortest routes that people take from point А to point B, the shortcut that people create themselves. “I think it is a beautiful example of how people tend to ignore the things that are put in place, the processes, and systems, organizations”. In this case, urban planners have thought about something, but people don’t follow the rules, she said. Lieren also explained that people tend to behave differently than organizations expect or want them to.

Organizations struggle to understand and change behavior. For instance, health organizations have difficulties when trying to help people quit smoking. It is the same with the financial who want to encourage young people to start saving money for their retirement because this is not something that they are thinking about at the moment. For the companies that use service design, it is natural to optimize customer and employee behavior, because they are in the center of service delivery and they will determine the value of the service.

But why do most organizations struggle? It is because they assume people make well-thought-through decisions, and they don’t. People don’t read or process the information you sent to them. If there is a package that needs to be delivered to them, they are usually not at home. People behave irrationally in many of the situations. But Lieren and her colleagues decided that they can bridge service design with behavioral science in order to resolve the consequences of irrational behavior. However, this was not as easy as it seems, because most people have trouble explaining why they did something, so they started using behavioral science to predict behavior – how will people act in different touchpoints, and then use the insights to influence behavior.

People have two mindsets that drive their decisions. They have a subconscious mindset which is really fast, intuitive and makes people do things without thinking – the autopilot. And there is the more rational conscious mindset which is slower, takes a lot of energy, but it really helps you to be consciously aware, to make a decision that is aligned with your best personal interest. It can even help you reach some of your future goals.

According to Behavioral science 95% of the time, we are on autopilot, we are actually subconscious. In that sense, 95% of the time when people move through services, through touchpoints, they are not really aware of what they are doing. Only 5% of the time they actually read the information, they process it and make a decision based on their current situation. This is very efficient because we don’t the mental energy and capacity to process everything we do on a daily basis on a rational level. In many situations, our subconscious mind gives us good outcomes, but in some situations, it is not that optimal.

If you do an experiment and you ask people to tell you what the color of snow, paper, and clouds is, and then you ask them what does a cow drink, their automatic answer will be milk, not water, because of the color white they have already envisioned. “This is how powerful our subconscious brain is. This is why our subconscious mind cannot overrule them in time”, Lieren says. This is happening in our everyday life, especially if we are under pressure.

On average we make 35 000 decisions on how to act. This means, we make a decision every 2 seconds, we are constantly making decisions on how we act. It is weird that we are subconscious most of the time, the designer pointed out. And some of the decisions that we make are not really beneficial for us, they are not really aligned with what we want to achieve. And this is what behavioral science has really recognized and designers are interested in understanding the subconscious mindset. The team have done a lot of research and have found cognitive shortcuts, which describe how the majority of people will act in specific circumstances. The nicest thing is that they are universally true throughout people. Everybody has the same patterns; everyone has the same shortcuts in their brain. In a general sense, our brains are wired in a similar way.

The Bandwagon effect is the name of one of those shortcuts which drives us to mimic the behavior of others. A UK behavioral insights team applied it in a letter, in which they wrote to people who haven’t played their taxes yet, that 9 out of 10 people in their area have already paid their taxes, which is a true statement. This move increased the responses from people who haven’t paid their taxes from 67% to 83%. The team has repeated this experience not only in the UK but also in the Netherlands and many other countries. And they have seen similar results.

This is an example of how nudges can influence behavior on a subconscious level. The insight team targets one of these shortcuts and they try to facilitate it’s autopilot, to take away as much cognitive friction as possible and guide people towards decided behavior. Designers can do it by making it really social, attractive and easy to do. Nudges can usually be implemented really fast with small changes to existing touchpoints and existing channels, the expert pointed out. But most of the validated nudging theories still sit within academic research, although they are used in marketing as well. They can be improved in labs, in a controlled environment. You try to scale them in a real-world context, but you cannot get similar results.

Lieren also shared some of her best practices on how you can improve as a service designer. The first is related to nudges influencing people on the subconscious level. But that’s not enough. Sometimes you can influence people on a conscious level. It’s very effective when it comes to resolving problems with adoption or for smoothing channel migration. But nudges only affect immediate behavior. “We are asking people to do something differently, we are asking them to change their behavior, but we are doing it on a subconscious level. So, people are not aware of the fact that they are doing something. They only do it when the nudge is present. So, the effect of nudging customers towards the desired outcome only has an effect in that touchpoint and we will not likely stretch beyond it”, the expert says. When it comes to services, this is a problem.

The design team introduced an alternative type of approach – the rational override. They incorporated it in a customer journey to slow people down, to let them take the time to become aware, wake up from that other pilot and switch to a conscious state. We can use the same shortcuts that people have in their brain to make people conscious, so they can decide what can fit my personal situation best. “Do I need to save for my future income, my pension, and how much?”, someone might ask. By adding some movable gates, you can make people aware every time they cross a railway.

Another project aimed to reduce complaints about penalty fares for the national railway in Norway. Especially, invalid claims around penalty charges. The design team looked at a complete customer journey and tried to identify the different behavioral factors. They didn’t only use nudges, they also used rational overrides to help them assess their situation, to come to ease that they had to pay this fine. They redesigned the digital complaint form. People would just go to it, write an angry complaint and click “enter” without even thinking about it, not really evaluating their situation. So the design team decided to add extra decision points, clarifying questions, a checklist to slow people down, to be calm, to reevaluate their situation. The complaints were reduced to over 70%.

It’s not only one metrical solution that will change people and their behavior, but it’s also about finding the right combinations over time and over different touchpoints to help people change that behavior. In a different case, they looked into existing channels, they inserted interventions in both interactive, digital and physical touchpoints over time, because the behavior of people develops over time. They did design tailor-made interventions and optimized them through prototyping. Many organizations simply copy and paste validated nudges from one context to another which is not effective.

“Behavioral change is in the details, it’s a tricky thing. You really need to understand the user, the organization and the process that people are in order to apply it well”, she said.

The design team finds proven nudging strategies within that specific context, takes them and then it is just тhe designer’s craft to apply them, find new ways to use them, make lots of different alterations and then prototype it. They go to their users, observe how they interact with it and get their feedback. And then they decide what is the best way in which they can implement it.

Lieutenant and her colleagues worked with an insurance company in order to help them reduce fraud in travel which was in about 10-20% of the cases. The team applied a proven intervention strategy in this context and designed it in a way where they can fit into this solution. With the questions of the digital complaint form, they started asking people if they are being honest. When they are almost done, a popup will appear asking them if they need any help and if they are including all of the available information.

The service designer believes it is natural for people to cheat once when they are in the moment, but not twice. This drastically changed the number of people who were dishonest. The design team tested their solution with more than 7000 users and they saw a reduction in fraud by 6% which was significant for the insurance company. The next step for the designers is to take similar practices, develop an approach to tackle big behavioral questions and help people make better decisions in the future around mobility or help them make decisions that are positive for the environment. Because Behavioral science offers endless possibilities.


It wouldn’t be possible to talk about the future of service design and concentrate so much energy on developing it without knowing anything about the past. Here's a summary of a talk by Daniele Catalanotto who talks about when does the notion of service design first appears:


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