Inside The Nudge Unit – How Small Changes Make A Big Difference:

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Have you read Inside the Nudge Unit – How Small Changes Make a Big Difference?

A majority of people understand the basic principles of an experiment as they probably had to conduct one or two when they were at school. Unfortunately once people leave school most of us abandon this approach and instead follow our herd instinct. People are encouraged to learn the way it has always been done because that seems to work most of the time. Confirmation bias often makes us ignore information that contradicts this. However, this doesn’t tell us why something works or if there is a better way.

Inside The Nudge Unit

It is a fascinating book which explains how the use of experiments has helped government policy makers base decisions on scientific evidence. Rather than doing things the way it has always been done. Using insights from the behavioural sciences, the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is at the forefront of this scientific approach to decision making.

Written by Dr David Halpern, head of the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). The book draws on the many achievements of the unit which was set up in 2010 by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron.

The Nudge Unit was given the task of transforming the approach of at least two major departments. Improve the understanding of human behaviour across UK government and deliver a return on investment of ten times the cost of the unit. The BIT was initially given just two years to prove its worth. It is now part of the cabinet office.

What is EAST?

Despite a lot of scepticism and resistance from civil servants in Whitehall. The BIT has demonstrated that small changes can have a large impact on human behaviour. Apart from conducting many experiments the team developed a framework for behavioural change called EAST (EASY, ATTRACTIVE, SOCIAL, TIMELY). This framework is used by many behavioural change practitioners. It helps design interventions to encourage the formation of new behaviours.


Use defaults to minimise the friction of making a decision. In 2012 the law for joining a company pension scheme was changed from individuals having to actively choose to join a scheme to automatic enrolment. Within six months of this change over 90 per cent of eligible employees chose not to opt out. By 2015 this meant that an additional five million workers were members of company pension schemes. The proportion of people in such schemes risen from just over 60 per cent to over 80 per cent.

Experiments have also shown that tax breaks and subsidies only encourage a small minority of savvy savers to join pension schemes. Changing the default is much more effective than financial education.

Simplifying and reducing the volume of text in communications can also help improve their impact. The BIT found that tax letters using plain English, with a clear, simple call-to-action at the start, could make the letter between 200 and 300 per cent more effective than the control. Click-through rates on emails to businesses could be increased by 40 to 60 per cent by cutting the amount of text in the email.


Attraction comprises two elements. There is the ‘attentional spotlight’ which refers to the fact that the brain can only consciously focus on information from a narrow field of vision. Our brain then automatically processes and constructs a more complete picture from fragments of information. Most of our wider visual field is ‘monitoring only’. This is why it is good practice to create a call-to-action which uses a high contrast colour. It easily stands out from the rest of the page.

Image of call to action buttons and hyperlink

Once something gets our attention our brain then almost instantly categorise it on two dimensions: positive or negative emotional response and competence. These reactions appear to be part of an evolutionary process. It allows us to quickly identify threats and opportunities. Brands use these reactions to communicate attributes and associations that create a more positive and/or competent image.


Making a communication relevant to the audience can have a dramatic impact on how much attention you get. Research by Adam Alter has shown the psychological power of our names over our behaviour and outcomes. People even display a preference for the letters that make up their names. A study of people donating money to Atlantic Ocean hurricanes found that people were significantly more likely to donate if the name of the hurricane shared their initials.

Work by the BIT for the UK tax authority (HMRC) targeted doctors and medics who often earn extra income by working in the private sector alongside their NHS employment. A generic letter (i.e. no mention of them being doctors or medics) reminding them to declare extra income had little impact (only 4% responding). However, a letter to doctors and medics having additional earnings. resulted in a fivefold rise in the response rate (21%). They also sent a follow-up letter that made reference to doctors and medics. But also pointed out that the HMRC would treat the previous lack of response as an ‘oversight’. However, ignoring this letter would be seen as an active choice. This letter resulted in a nine fold rise in the response rate (35%).


Many of our choices are the result of social influence (Mark Earls, Herd, 2007) and social norms. People are highly social beings and will often jump on the bandwagon to avoid missing out. People also conform when they want to associate with a particular group or person, or because they are in a new or uncertain situation.

In one experiment for an investment bank, the BIT tested the efficacy of a number of different approaches to encourage employees the equivalent to a day’s salary to a charity nominated by the bank. A generic email with some information about the scheme resulted in 5 per cent of bankers donating a day’s salary. Getting a minor celebrity to come into the office increased this to 7 per cent. Giving a tiny tub of sweets together with a leaflet pushed this up to 11 per cent. An email from the CEO was even more effective (12 per cent), but combining this with a tub of sweets raised this even further (17 per cent).


Timing is always critical with trying to change behaviour, but what has become clear from the work of the BIT is that interventions are much more effective. Especially if they are implemented before habits or repetitive behaviour become habitual. Working with the UK tax authority the BIT found that interventions designed to get people to pay their taxes on time were around two to three times more effective among those who had normally paid their tax on time. Compared to those who had previously been late paying their taxes.

Further, in the US Dan Ariely and Max Bazerman found that people were less likely to cheat if they were asked to sign a declaration of honesty before. Rather than after an opportunity to lie. In an experiment with car insurance applicants were asked to estimate their annual mileage. As the higher the estimated mileage the higher the cost of the insurance there was an incentive to cheat. However, when the signature was moved to the top of the application form. On average drivers increased the number of miles estimated by around 2,428 miles or 10 per cent more miles.


In work with the UK police force the BIT found that adding a few sentences to an email before an online test improved the past rate for black and ethnic minorities by over 40 per cent. The sentences improved motivation and changed expectations by asking applicants to consider why they wanted to join the police force and why this might be important for their community.

Due to our desire for instant gratification, which is linked to hyperbolic discounting, people’s preferences are time inconsistent. Numerous studies have shown that future preferences are very different from what our present-self desires. In a study of Danish workers around three quarters chose fruit over chocolate. However, a majority selected chocolate when the choice was at the time of delivery.

This means that people are often more willing to donate money they have won or inherited if they are asked before they receive the money than after they got it. When this is combined with social proof (e.g. most of our customers …) this can in some cases more than treble the response rate.


Inside The Nudge Unit demonstrates the power of taking an experimental approach to finding better ways of changing behaviour. The BIT have shown that properly run experiments help us avoid falling into the trap of continuing with what “we’ve always done”. It challenges confirmation bias which is a constant problem. Our brains are great at creating narrative fallacies based upon tiny fragments of incomplete evidence. The best way of countering this aspect of human nature is the controlled experiment or A/B test.

The Science

The scientific approach is especially relevant to marketing. Without behavioural change marketing is just noise. Furthermore, EAST provides businesses with a simple and practical framework to design interventions without being experts in behavioural sciences. There are other behavioural change frameworks available. But for many non-behavioural change practitioners EAST is ideal. It avoids the complexity of some of the more established behavioural change frameworks. Perhaps EAST is a bit simplistic. But it is up to the user to put the effort into looking for evidence and develop hypothesis for testing. A poor workman shouldn’t blame their tools.

The book covers a lot more than the EAST framework. David delves into the history of Nudging. Behavioural insights as a policy tool and the risks and limitations of nudging. The book is a must read for anyone interested in using the behavioural sciences to design interventions to change behaviour.

Inside The Nudge Unit book

Why Do Most Attempts At Behavioural Change Fail?

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Behavioural change is not easy. Have you ever tried to change a long-standing habit or create a new habit? Perhaps you tried to give up smoking, eat fewer sugary foods, start taking regular exercise, or just spend less time on social media. It’s often difficult isn’t it and the same is the case when we try to change the behaviour of website visitors. Indeed, studies suggest that most attempts at behavioural change fail.

Why do most attempts at behavioural change fail?

BJ Fogg’s Stanford Persuasion Lab conducts research on behavioural change using technology. The BJ Fogg Behaviour Model explains how three elements must converge simultaneously for a behaviour to occur. The model highlights that for people to complete a task they need the necessary motivation, the ability and a trigger to prompt the behaviour. When an action does not occur, at least one of these three elements must be missing.

How can we use the model?

The Fogg Behaviour Model has been created to help designers understand what stops people from completing a behaviour. For example, if users are not completing a target behaviour, such as a quotation request form on a price comparison site. Then we can evaluate the user journey using the BJ Fogg model as follows:

Fogg Behaviour model

Image Source: BJ Fogg

Motivators – Psychological drivers:

Fogg highlights three key motivators; Sensation, Anticipation and Belonging. Each motivator has two sides; pleasure/pain, hope/fear and acceptance/rejection. Although this is a simplistic model of motivation, these core motivations can be applied to all uses. They get us to consider psychological drivers of behaviour.

Ability – Making things simpler:

If you want someone to do something they must have the ability to do so. It might seem obvious, but we sometimes wrongly assume everyone knows what we know and that they have the same skills as we do. We have two options here. We can either train people to improve their skills or we can reduce friction by making the target behaviour easier to complete.

Training or on-boarding is the more difficult route as people are generally impatient and lazy. As a result users will often avoid having to learn new skills. Designing an intuitive interface is normally a much better option as this fits much more closely with human nature.

Simplifying an action to make it easier to complete should be your preferred option in most cases. Ease of completion is a function of our scarcest resource. This is often either our time or money. Users are very impatient and so a behaviour that requires more than a few seconds may fail because the user is not prepared to sacrifice the time needed to complete it. This is why it is sometimes a good idea to inform users how long an action will take to manage expectations and encourage them to allow the necessary time for the task.

Money is another scarce resource. If a behaviour needs £25 to complete and you don’t have £25 to spend, then it’s not easy is it. This is why a free trial can be an effective way of reducing friction to undertaking a behaviour.

Prompts for behavioural change:

Congruence bias can result in us testing just the things we decide are a problem rather than looking at other things

Prompts or triggers remind us to begin a task. Without a prompt the target behaviour will not occur. There are lots of different names for prompts; reminders, call-to-actions, requests and cue to name but a few.

Prompts can be an external reminder, such as a mobile phone push notification or a pop-up message on a website. On other occasions our daily routine or habits may prompt a behaviour. For many people in large cities going to work prompts them to buying a coffee or checking Facebook may remind us to upload our latest photos. Some of the most powerful prompts though are major life events such as starting work, marriage, moving home, birth of a child and children leaving home.

Prompting an action for behavioural change:

I sometimes play poker on Facebook with Zynga the online gaming company. I haven’t played for a week or two and so Zynga sent me an email offering me the chance to win some free chips. The prompt is a simple call to action of Open Now. The motivation involves scarcity as the offer expires within 24 hours of receiving the email.

Although the target behaviour is to get me to sign in and claim my prize, Zynga’s larger objective is to get me playing a game of poker. The use of loss aversion is an effective way to motivate me to click on the call to action and as Facebook remembers my login details the behaviour is very easy to complete.

How to apply the Fogg model to digital marketing:

The Fogg model is a powerful resource for evaluating how to encourage behavioural change in digital marketing as it has been specifically constructed for use with technology.

What is motivating visitors?

People buy benefits rather than features and so it is important understand your customer’s needs and what they want from your product or service. Marketers need to communicate a compelling value proposition that includes implicit (psychological) goals and more rational (explicit) goals to motivate users. This needs to be sufficiently appealing to justify changing their behaviour and perhaps switching to a new supplier.

So before designing a page or website first consider what need your product or service is solving and how important is it to your prospects. Make sure you identify the most important needs so that you don’t make the mistake of promoting something that is not salient to your customers. Use the implicit association test to identify psychological motivations as people don’t have full access to our deeper, emotional drivers.

Evidence of social proof can further enhance the perceived value to prospects because of our natural herd instincts. However, perhaps most crucially is that your value proposition is communicated with engaging imagery and compelling copy to persuade visitors that it will deliver on your brand promise.

Rewards can be used to provide a further motivation to complete a task. However, make sure the reward is something people want and be careful to adjust the frequency of the reward to optimise its effectiveness. Read my post on the psychology of rewards for more details.

Evaluating ability:

If your target behavioural change that is not easy and simple for visitors to undertake it will create friction which can prevent even the most motivated user from completing a task. Apart from being lazy, people have limited attention spans and are often interrupted when browsing. This is what it’s important that the user experience is intuitive and there is a clear visual hierarchy.

To get an assessment of how much your site suffers from friction try undertaking usability testing. Observing visitors trying to navigate and complete tasks on your site is much more insightful than asking them direct questions. Your analytics can tell you where there may be a bottleneck, but usability testing tells you why there is a problem.

Browser replay tools, such as Hotjar can also help identify where problems may occur. Session replay recordings are like undirected usability tests as you don’t know for sure what visitors are trying to achieve. However, by encouraging people in your organisation to spend time watching session recordings it is surprising how frequently usability problems are identified.

I find a heuristic evaluation with the help of WiderFunnel’s Lift Model is also very useful at highlighting potential shortcomings with a screen or user journey. This begins with the value proposition and how compelling it is to your prospects. Use the model as a check list of what to look out for and you will soon come up with a long list of items to consider.

Frequent sources of friction:

There are some elements of web design that consistently cause friction and result in a poor user experience. Friction can reduce both our ability to complete a task, but the anxiety it creates can also harm motivation. So, if you have any of the following friction generators on your site I would recommend that you remove them if it all possible.

Using registration as a landing page:

Let me say this once. A registration page is not a landing page! Sending off-site visitors directly to your registration form is lazy marketing. Use a dedicated landing page that is designed to inform and persuade. If you have a very short sign-up process you may be able to include it on your landing page, but don’t use a standard sign-up form as a landing page.

Registration pages should not have to be designed to inform visitors about your value proposition. They should be focused on getting visitors through the sign-up process and not to persuade them that your offer is right for them. It’s also a poor user experience as it doesn’t conform to visitor’s expectations.

Sign up forms with a pop-up before the first page:

When a user clicks on a call-to-action button to launch a form to input information for a quotation or open an account the expectation is very clear. The visitor anticipates being taken directly to the form. Given this strong expectation it is not advisable to interrupt the user journey with a pop-up or interstitial to offer users another choice. launch a pop-up to promote their comparison service immediately after the user clicks on “Get a Quote” CTA. This is a poor user experience as it is confusing for the visitor. The risk with interrupting the user journey in this way is that it’s not meeting customer expectations and can be perceived as too aggressive. It would have been better to offer the price comparison service as the primary CTA on the home page and made the existing option of getting a single quote a secondary CTA.

Dont’s use CAPTCHA:

Forms are a common source of friction and so it is important to take care when designing them. Use use recognised best practice for web form design. However, CAPTCHA fields are notorious for annoying and frustrating users. They are often implemented by IT security teams to protect a site against bots, but there many other better ways of achieving the same aim without causing friction.

Allow users to decide when they are ready:

When a user lands on your site many will not be ready to convert. If they have never been to your site before they need to establish your credibility and may want to browse to find out more about what you offer. However, many sites wrongly assume that visitors are ready to convert on their first visit and offer no secondary call to action.

To build visitor motivation it is necessary to design user journeys that allow for establishing credentials (e.g. customer testimonials and awards), information gathering (e.g. white papers or blogs) and lead capture (e.g. newsletter sign up form).

Always include a secondary CTA as people like to have a choice and you need to allow for those users who are not yet ready to commit. The above homepage from prominently displays a primary and secondary CTA to give users the choice. This helps behavioural change because relevant triggers are clearly visible for most visitors.

Homepage Sliders/Carousels:

So many websites have auto-sliders or carousels on homepages. You would be forgiven for assuming that they must be an effective means of communicating multiple products or value propositions. Management love them because they can allow them to avoid making difficult decisions about what should be on their homepage.

Here is the carousel on which changes every few seconds as the user is reading the text. This can also be annoying to visitors if they are not fast readers.

However, the vast majority of A/B tests and usability studies have shown that few users interact with sliders and they often harm conversion rates. Because carousels often look like adverts they are frequently ignored and have few clicks on calls to actions. In addition, even fewer visitors click on second, third and other panels that are included in a carousel. This means that prime real estate on your homepage is not performing effectively and so should be removed.

Welcome screen:

When a visitor successfully completes your registration process, don’t dump them into a blank page and expect them to work out where to go next. Make sure you provide a suitable welcome message and provide on-boarding information or cues. It’s an important stage in the user journey, and so make sure you take advantage of it with suitable content.

Deezer, the music streaming app, has a simple and easy on-boarding process. When a user completes a short sign-up form they are first asked to select music genres they like. Users are then asked to indicate their preference for a series of artists. Once this is complete the user is presented with a unique play list called “Flow” which reflects their music tastes.

By demonstrating how easy it is to create a play list Deezer also hope to encourage behavioural change by making the process very easy. Data has shown that customers who create their own play lists are much more loyal and less likely to cancel their subscription.


BJ Fogg’s behavioural change model is a powerful framework for considering how we can nudge visitors towards their goals. Most attempts at behavioural change fail, not because people can’t change, but rather because at least one element is missing. People need a prompt, but also the ability and motivation to change. Use this framework to identify which elements are missing in your user journey and address these deficiencies to improve your chance of success.