• Q&A
  • April 30, 2019
  • 11 minutes
  • 0

Behavioural science can help governments design services like Google

Tech giants know how to build habit-forming products. It's time to learn from them

Let’s face it: tech giants are simply better at building products and services that people want to use. Many citizens dread visiting government offices to apply for a driver’s license, register to vote or replace a birth certificate — but they’re happy to scroll through Instagram or Facebook for hours a day.

It’s time for government to take a cue from these tech behemoths, argues Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. In his best-selling book, Eyal — whose background is in advertising and gaming — gives a step-by-step guide to designing engaging products and services: ones that users will come back to, again and again.

From Estonia to Denmark, ever more countries are focusing on digitising public services, making them easy (and even enjoyable) to use. At the heart of Eyal’s book is a four-step design process — trigger, action, reward and investment — that nudges user behaviour and encourages habits. Here’s how he believes you can use habit-forming product design in the public service.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In your Ted Talk, you said that government services “just plain old suck”. Why is that?

The broader context of that quote was that we shouldn’t be so scared of the tactics that tech companies use to make products more engaging. People fear how Facebook and Twitter and Instagram suck us in — well, what we should really fear is how many products and services out there don’t use these techniques. In fact, they just make products that suck.

“People fear how Facebook sucks us in — what they should really fear is how many services don’t use these techniques”

Think about games: gameplay is manufactured to be engaging: something you want to use, as opposed to something you feel you have to use. Now, I don’t think we’re going to make doing your taxes as exciting as playing a video game. But there’s a heck of a lot that we can do in government to help people do the things that they themselves want to do, but for lack of good product design, don’t.

So, how can public servants use hooks to design better services?

There’s been example after example of using what the Richard Thaler [and Cass Sunstein] called nudges to prompt certain behaviours. Nudging isn’t about manipulating or coercing people; it’s about getting people to do things that they themselves want to do.

A good example of this is when you apply for financial aid. There have been several states that show that something as simple as sending a notification can get people to apply. In the Hook Model, that’s called the external trigger: it reminds you by saying, “Hey, don’t forget to take this action”. Sending someone a well-timed notification can dramatically change their behaviour.

Some governments are great at making public services more accessible and easy-to-use. But in most countries, citizens still have to do things like apply for a driver’s license or register to vote in person. Is the Hook Model still applicable to analogue services?

Absolutely. We know that young people, for example, have a lot of energy when it comes to participating in politics and yet, if you look at statistics of how many young people vote, it’s abysmal. The popular perception is that they don’t care enough to vote, and that’s completely wrong. What they lack is the ability to vote.

Why? [One reason is that] young people tend to move more in early life, between going to college and getting their first job — and they don’t change their address and register to vote when they move.

This is a problem that can easily be solved by technology. We jump to the conclusion that when people don’t do something, it’s because they don’t want to do it. But more often, people don’t do something that’s in their interest because it’s too difficult to do, not because they lack motivation.

What steps should governments take to overhaul voter registration?

Simple things, like making it the default. When you change your address with the postal service, they should automatically update voter registers.

A big part of the Hook Model is the idea that the more steps we can remove, the more likely the behaviour we want will occur. In the tech industry, companies like Google and Facebook literally remove one or two clicks, or one or two taps, and it makes a dramatic difference in follow-through.

“Google and Facebook literally remove one or two clicks and it makes a dramatic difference in follow-through”

Another really good example is social services. The burden, the paperwork, the stress of having to do all this work to get your benefits extracts a huge cognitive cost. That should be a focus for government regulators: how can we make these things dramatically easier? Of course, technology is a huge part of the answer to that problem.

What other government services could be reformed using the Hook Model?

In America, we have such a messed up healthcare system. In the investment phase of the hook, the user puts in data, content — or something into the system that makes it better with use. It’s a travesty that we have this fractured healthcare system, with information silos all over the place. We don’t have record-keeping that allows the system to improve over time.

Systems that are habit-forming should be a requirement for any government service. That should be a mantra for government services: the more data we have on you, the easier — not harder — it should be to get what you want from this service.

Makes sense. In the UK, they’re getting better at this: the National Health service uses text message nudges because missed appointments were costing $900,000 per year. The texts cut missed appointments by 31%.

We fail to appreciate that people don’t show up to their appointments because they have malicious intent. It’s just because they’re human beings and they forgot.

They need a little reminder — a little trigger — that helps spur that action. The beautiful thing is that a generation ago, to send someone a reminder in the mail costs a lot of money when we’re talking about billions of citizens. But today, to send someone a text message costs pennies!

Do you think that governments can use hooks to better engage their own employees?

If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to use most [government computer software] — you’ll know it’s designed for functionality, not usability. The poor person who has to use this software that is bombarded with an explosion of triggers. They look at these screens bursting with options.

“We’re wasting people’s cognitive abilities, which could be used for other purposes — like doing their job better”

Products like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Slack use the idea of progressive disclosure, which means you don’t put everything in front of the user right away. You use forethought to ask yourself what a user needs and when they need it, and you only show options when they’re the most useful.

It can be exhausting, hour-after-hour, staring at these terrible interfaces. We’re wasting people’s cognitive abilities, which could be used for other purposes — like doing their job better.

What advice would you give to someone working on designing government services?

Look beyond your industry to find out what lessons you can learn. So if your problem is user engagement, look at the people who understand user engagement better than anyone else. Don’t focus so squarely on how it’s done [in government]. —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash)


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