Most major business challenges require us to alter human behavior

At some point, most major business challenges require us to alter human behavior

by Mike Walker • May 16, 2016

Here’s how to put the science of behavior change to work for you

We spend much of our professional lives trying to convince people to do something different or new – even if we don’t think about it that way.   To cite a few examples, software companies have to convince prospects to change the way they’re currently getting things done.  Health care professionals want patients to exercise, eat better, and take medications as prescribed.  Manufacturing bosses need employees to wear safety gear.  Every retailer and brand wants to reduce the number of products that their customers return.  And so on.

Our clients find it enlightening to reframe business challenges as a human behavior change challenges.  Why?  It puts people (customers, colleagues, or communities) at the center of the problem—and, therefore, the solution.  It demands that we more closely observe them.   Since we understand that simply making our customers aware of something doesn’t necessarily lead to behavior change (see my last post), we are forced to question what customers need to know, what motivates them, and how they make (or avoid) the decisions that drive behavior.   Reframing a problem as a behavior change challenge encourages us to re-think the design of our processes, products, programs, and services.  In short, it delivers new insights.

Once you’re thinking about a business problem as a behavior change challenge, you can leverage the findings of social science and behavioral economics to influence individual decision making and drive people to action. Fortunately, you don’t need to review several decades’ worth of scientific research to glean the necessary insights. You don’t even need to read these engaging summaries.  We’ve done all of that for you.  Based on the scientific literature—and our 15 years of experience—the most successful behavior change efforts do these three things exceptionally well.

1) Provide unambiguous DIRECTION.  

We need to understand exactly what we want our customer to do—and we need to articulate it in a way they’ll understand.  Remember that you are not your customer: you’ve thought about your product or service far more than they ever will.  My advice?  Don’t think big-picture—instead, think in terms of highly-specific behaviors.  For example, simply reminding food handlers to wash their hands may not reduce disease transmission if people aren’t washing correctly.  (This poster really spells it out!)

Ask yourself: is your “call to action” crystal clear? Is it specific? Is it asking people to do too much? Can it be simplified?  Is it assuming people know things that they might not actually know? It also helps for people to know why they should do something new.  Does your customer understand the desired outcome and why it’s important?  Be sure to point people to the destination and explain why their effort will be worthwhile.

2) Provide adequate MOTIVATION.

Knowing what to do isn’t enough to cause change.  We must appeal to our customer’s emotions, and make them feel something compelling.  We need to help them find the feeling that moves them to action.

Ask yourself:  can you change your customer’s frame of reference so they think about and identify with the possibilities—rather than the limitations—associated with the desired behavior?   For example, adult boaters are more inclined to wear lifejackets when they’re reminded that their kids are watching.  (Now it’s about being a better parent!)

It also helps to suggest that people have already made some progress towards the new behavior.  (E.g., you’ve spent good money on lifejackets!)  And, if the change has them feeling overwhelmed or intimidated, break it down into smaller, more doable tasks.  (E.g., hang your lifejacket on the back of your boat seat, so you’re reminded to put it on whenever the boat is underway.)

3) Alter the CONTEXT.

Customer decisions do not take place in a vacuum: the environment influences behavior far more than most people realize.  “Choice architecture” refers to the deliberate design of environments in which people make choices—say, a school cafeteria—and to the reality that there’s no such thing as a neutral design. Whether the cafeteria puts apples or Fritos at the front of the line, the placement will affect which snack is more popular.

With this in mind, can you change something in the environment to tip the balance in favor of the desired behavior?  Can you make the behavior easier?  Would prompts, checklists, or triggers help?  In our experience, the most successful behavior change initiatives focus relentlessly on removing barriers to—and facilitating—desired behaviors.

These suggestions may lead you to take a second look at your product design or service offering, customer-facing or back-office business processes, incentives, and/or supporting technology.  That’s a good thing, but I’ll acknowledge it isn’t easy.  Remember, this is an iterative process.

Has thinking about a business challenge as a human behavior change challenge shed new light on your work?  I’d love to hear about it. You can reach me directly at