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To Change Employee or Customer Behavior, Start Small

Psychology, productivity, wellbeing

Across industries, organizations can greatly benefit from making tiny changes in their processes to take into account how employees and customers really behave — including not liking being told what to do. Our research and that of others has discovered that even some small tweaks can have a big impact.

For example, consider what Google does in its cafeterias to encourage employees to adopt healthier eating habits. When “Googlers” reach for a plate, they encounter a sign informing them that people with bigger plates are inclined to eat more than those with smaller plates. The sign doesn’t tell them what to do, but it does guide them to move in a healthier direction. The result: Small-plate usage has doubled, to 32% of all plate traffic.

Google also switched the way dessert is offered to employees. Instead of having Googlers transfer dessert from the serving platter to a plate on their own, Google prepares plates with three-bite desserts. Those who want more dessert have to return to the line for a second plate, a structure that makes people think twice before over-indulging.

As Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, there are many opportunities to “nudge” people’s behavior by making subtle adjustments to the decision-making context. This approach to improving outcomes is a central theme of behavioral economics, the discipline that combines lessons from the fields of psychology, judgment and decision making, and economics to generate insights into human behavior that are more accurate and robust than any one of those fields could provide on its own.

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