Is a nudge enough to change user behaviour?

In 2010, the UK government set up a “nudge unit” to look at ways the public could be persuaded – “nudged” – into making better choices for themselves without force or regulation.

This should be of interest to software designers and Technical Authors, because perhaps the same techniques could be used in the field of User Assistance.

Yesterday, The House of Lords Science & Technology sub-committee reported on the results so far.

According to The Guardian, the theories behind the current work have a long history, but came to prominence in 2008 with a book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, by the Chicago Business School economist Richard Thaler and Chicago Law School professor Cass Sunstein.

According to the Belfast Telegraph, One experiment (prior to the nudge unit being set up) involved HM Revenue and Customs secretly changing the wording of tens of thousands of tax letters. This led to the collection of an extra £200m in income tax.

The paper states the unit’s approach centres on the acronym “mindspace“:

Messenger (i.e. he who communicates information affects its impact); Incentives; Norms (what others do influences individuals); Defaults (pre-set options tend to be accepted); Salience (revelance and novelty attract attention); Priming (sub-conscious cues); Affect (the power of emotional associations); Commitments (keeping public promises); and Ego (the stroking of which encourage positive action)

So is it working?

Unfortunately not in trying to get us to live more healthily, according to the House of Lords report. Committee Chair, Baroness Neuberger, said:

for the most important problems facing us at the moment, the science says that “nudging” won’t be enough.

That doesn’t mean nudging should be rejected out of hand – it might work in other areas, such as software usability. We’re unaware of anyone using nudge theories in developing software or User Assistance. It would be interesting to know if anyone has tried to apply it in that sphere – and whether it has worked or not.

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