The claim that every organization, be it a for-profit business, a not-for-profit, or a government agency is in the business of behavior change is perhaps uncontroversial. Whether it’s increasing market shares of products, improving take-up of programs, or maximizing compliance with laws and regulation, all organizations can benefit from the ability to understand and work with the forces of human nature, rather than against it.
Despite its clear value-add, we believe that behavioral science has still not reached its full potential within organizations. We have a highly relevant and well-developed science of human behavior, but we do not have a science of how organizations can embed insights from behavioral science into their operations.
We believe that we need to better prepare organizations to effectively use behavioral science. Within The Behaviourally Informed Organizations partnership—an international team of 18 researchers and 17 partner organizations housed at the Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR) Research Centre—one question we’re focused on understanding and answering is: what are the different roles that a behavioral scientist can play within an organization?
In this article, we outline four different roles for behavioral scientists within organizations, the types of problems they could solve, and how they add value. We will start with the problem solver role, which has been widely used by organizations in the past decade to improve user interaction with products, programs, or services. We will then move up to the value-creation chain (as shown below) to explore the roles of auditor, designer, and strategist, which can be used to add value to an organization before a product goes to market.
The problem solver harnesses behavioral science to better align the delivery of the product or service with the desired outcome in the marketplace. In this role, the behavioral scientist is tasked with solving problems like low take-up rates, poor sales, or low conversion rates, where there is divergence between what the organization expects one of its many stakeholders (customers, employees, advocates, patients, clients) and what they actually do. For example, imagine a government creates a program for individuals living with low incomes to access free, healthy food, but has trouble getting people to participate and use the service. In this case, the problem solver would use insights from behavioral science to unpack why individuals aren’t using the service and design a solution—such as timely text message reminders to enroll in the program or placing enrollment forms in grocery stores, where buying food is top of mind.
In the value-creation chain of product development, the problem solver role is critical in the last-mile in product or program delivery—the place where end-users first interact with the organization. Last-mile issues often arise when the delivery mechanism or the supply chain hasn’t fully anticipated and planned for behaviors of the end-user. For instance, a financial literacy agency might offer the most comprehensive programs and games for teaching financial decision-making, but it still needs a good last-mile strategy to ensure that citizens actually engage with these products and services.
Rather than waiting for behavioral problems to occur, organizations can work with a behavioral scientist in an auditor role to identify potential problems before they happen. The auditor role is particularly helpful when an organization is preparing its product to go to market. At the end of the design process, the auditor evaluates the delivery system for human centricity with an eye toward key questions like, is the relevant information available at the time of making a choice? Is it framed appropriately? Will it be delivered at the right time?
The auditor evaluates the delivery system for human centricity with an eye toward key questions like, is the relevant information available at the time of making a choice? Is it framed appropriately? Will it be delivered at the right time?
Auditing is an important way to avoid the large, negative impacts of small frictions in systems—often referred to as sludge. When in the auditor role, behavioral scientists remove sludge across a wide variety of forms. For instance, an auditor may streamline clunky and needlessly complicated processes that increase the number of potential drop-off points. An auditor can also clarify confusing and incomplete communication that misleads the end-user or creates a sense of disengagement. Importantly, auditors also look to dissemble psychological barriers, like embarrassment or shame, that could deter someone from using a valuable product or service.
Our work with the Canadian federal government’s Impact Canada unit to increase women in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) showcases how a systematic process for identifying sludge, measuring it, and developing recommendations can increase success. The project team started by identifying places to increase clarity and understanding in the armed forces application form, as well as minimize pain points in the appointment booking and recruitment process. Using experimentation, they conducted a social media marketing trial to understand how to use the right channel to attract Canadian women to a career in the armed forces. Finally, the team used behavioral insights to audit Canadian Armed Forces’ current policy and guidelines to identify areas for improvement in gender equality. As a result, the Canadian Armed Forces was able to meet its goal of increasing the percent of women in its ranks over a multiple-year period.
In this role, the behavioral scientist is actively involved in the design of a product, service, or program. While the auditor role tends to focus on an understanding of the decision-making context, the designer role allows the scientist to embed insights into the design of the product.
In the designer role, the behavioral scientist builds solutions by combining principles of behavioral science with those of design thinking to enable an organization to better identify the needs for the product before developing it. The behavioral scientist is involved from the very beginning of the product design stage, observes the actual users in a natural setting, identifies both an actual customer journey as well as an ideal customer journey and compares the two to hypothesize on what potential drop-off points might be.
One particularly compelling example of this role is in the growing realm of self-control products. Products and services are being created to enable customers to close the intention action gap. Examples include Clocky, an alarm clock that runs away when the user attempts to hit the snooze button and stickK, a website that uses incentives and social reputation to encourage people to stick to their goals.
One government agency used a behavioral scientist in a designer role to raise awareness of financial consumer protection issues. The behavioral scientist improved the website for this agency by using plain, easier to understand language. In addition, the behavioral scientist used research to determine the psychological impact of risk-related terms such as “hazard”, “risk”, or “unhealthy” to ensure that the resulting anxiety does not drive the viewer away. They also conducted rigorous testing of the balance between visual and textual information to ensure that there is no information overload. As a result of all of these improvements, there was a significant increase in public discourse and discussion on the website, and greater public reporting of marketplace frictions.
In this role, the behavioral scientist embeds the scientific method (testing, adapting and customizing) in all processes within the value-creation chain. This includes defining goals, strategy and operating principles, designing and developing product, preparing to go to market, solving the last-mile problems in the marketplace, and creating a culture of experimentation and finding ways to lower the costs of experimentation.
In the strategist role, the behavioral scientist embeds the scientific method (testing, adapting and customizing) in all processes within the value-creation chain.
Ultimately the success of behavioral science within organizations hinges on the understanding that human behavior is highly context-dependent, and therefore solutions that worked elsewhere for other entities might not translate successfully within the organization. The only way in which we can overcome context-dependency is through continuous testing of behavioral interventions in the context where they will be launched. Continuous testing requires both a culture of experimentation and humility, and also keeping the costs of running experiments low. This includes having the capacity to overcome institutional fear of failure, seek appropriate approvals, and respond quickly to new information.
If organizations can successfully embed experimentation in their operations, they can indeed be more human-centric in everything they do because all of their actions would be guided by empirical evidence on how human stakeholders actually behave in the appropriate situation.
When can an organization be considered “behaviorally informed”?
A behaviorally informed organization is a scientific organization. It recognizes that its stakeholders are humans and not rational, self-interested, maximizers. It is driven by empirics and not by conventional wisdom, rules of thumb, or by simply replicating what others are doing. It is flexible and agile in the sense that it can respond quickly to changes in human behavior that it learns through ongoing experiments.
Just as the optimal amount of water in an irrigation cascade depends on the specific needs of the crops, the optimal role of behavioral science will vary by organization. For some organizations, using the science to solve last-mile problems can help them to score quick wins and get buy-in from top management for advancing further. Later on, they might decide to move up the value chain. For other organizations, starting off with the behavioral scientist as a designer may lower the pressure on their roles as auditors or problem solvers because the need for quick wins is lesser.
In our view, behavioral science can and should play a key role in important societal domains such as the environment, business sustainability, preventive health, diversity and inclusion, poverty, and financial well-being. It can only do so if organizations can successfully embed it in every aspect of their DNA.
Disclosure: Dilip Soman and Bing Feng lead the Behavioral Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR) Research Center, which is a 2021 Supporting Partner of Behavioral Scientist.