OPINION31 August 2021

Why making it easy is not the only option

Behavioural economics Opinion

There is a case for challenging the notion that ‘ease’ should always be at the centre of customer engagement; we may benefit from some friction or even difficulty. By Colin Strong and Tamara Ansons. 

Hurdle on running track

At the heart of much of the discussion about behavioural science is the way in which we ‘process’ information. There is much focus on the way we may do this more automatically or more deliberatively, famously captured in Daniel Kahneman’s ‘System 1’ for ‘thinking fast’ and ‘System 2’ for ‘thinking slow’. 

In many ways this is uncontroversial: if we were not able to operate in a more automatic fashion then we would find getting through the day hard work as we constantly deliberate over minor details. It makes much more sense to operate in a more routine way once we have established ‘what works’ and effectively mastered the situation.

Of course, this simple insight is sometimes in danger of getting a little over-stated: we may be able to do a weekly shop quickly without too much thought but I suspect we have yet to come back from the shops to be surprised to see what we purchased ‘non-consciously’. There is not a binary distinction, but instead a spectrum that characterises a range of different ways that processing may unfold, with the terms intuitive and deliberate reflecting the different ends of this spectrum.

While undoubtedly much of the time there is a need to facilitate more intuitive processes, there seems a case for challenging the notion that ‘ease’ should always be at the centre of customer engagement and in fact we may benefit from some type of ‘disfluency’, ‘friction’ or even difficulty in some specific settings. With slight friction, we are given reason to pause and reflect in a moment that encodes memories, as cognitive engagement deepens.

Looking at the flexible nature of processing – and the various influences that shape it – is at the heart of the Ipsos Dynamic Decision Making Model, which suggests we have adaptive control mechanisms shaping the degree to which we slow down and more actively process versus more automatically process.

Looking at behaviours through this adaptive processing lens means that we can explore the nature of processing in different ways. If working with clients that are brand leaders in a category, we might want people to continue with their fluent, automatic processes. But if working with clients that are a challenger brand, it might be to our benefit to add some disfluency, so people stop and reflect a little more carefully: we are trying to encourage change rather than reinforcing behaviour, which means a different strategy is at times required.

Much of the narrative in behavioural science is to do with automaticity. Indeed, Richard Thaler’s concept of ‘nudge’ is based on the idea of ‘make it easy’. But there is certainly a case for challenging this simple mantra. Of course, understanding when disfluency is helpful and how to create it is something that requires consideration and then testing to see if it has the right effect. While much of the time making things easy is the entirely right approach, we call for greater consideration of disfluency.

We have used this approach in a range of contexts – for example on the topic of vaccination. In many minds, Covid-19 aside, this is a form of health protection that is limited to childhood and is not considered for a range of other conditions such as whooping cough, shingles, and meningitis-B, to name a few. 

This leads to people simply not engaging with information about these potentially very dangerous conditions: we tend to think it does not apply, is not relevant, it’s simply not something we need to worry about. This means we need to find ways to disrupt their more intuitive processing, inserting ourselves into the conversation which can then lead to a more reflective, deliberative mindset. We have worked with brands on ways to do this, often looking at ways to spark curiosity or challenge the misplaced confidence they have in their current status.

Another area is that of fraud protection: many banks have deployed additional purchase checks for customers that includes questions that asks customers to state the purpose of an online transaction. These additional questions create friction and offer a way of helping consumers be more aware of and use techniques to avoid being victim of financial scams.

While there are specific functional gains from disfluency, there are also wider benefits for organisations to build deeper experiences through customer interactions: Craik and Lockhart ( 1972 ) suggest that we process different stimuli at different levels of depth and meaning. Superficial stimuli or experiences will be processed at a shallower level, leading to weaker representations and weaker retention, while deeper processing leads to stronger representations and retention (Craik and Tulving, 1975 ). 

When designing the engagement with the audience, overall, we want it to be fluent and easy to use. However, the goal is not always for it to be always frictionless. Often a smooth, easy and convenient experience is ideal, but it is also important to think through when friction is needed to disrupt more intuitive behaviours leading to deeper processing and a more engaging experience. 

Colin Strong is head of behavioural science at Ipsos and Tamara Ansons is behavioural science manager at NatWest.

Strong is speaking at the MRS Behavioural Science Summit 2021 in September.

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