Skip to main content

Article 3 min read

Make it easy: how companies could benefit from prioritising ease over motivation

By Richard Shotton, Guest Post

Last updated November 2, 2022

Richard Thaler, a Nobel prize winner in 2017, has a simple mantra about how to change behaviour. It can be summed up in three words:

make it easy

Thaler is one of the most illustrious behavioural scientists in the world so we should, of course, take his advice seriously. But what I love about this field is that no one is taken on their word alone. Everything must be proved experimentally. And there is certainly a lot of evidence to show the power of making it easy.

Perhaps the most relevant study comes from Peter Bergman and Todd Rogers, psychologists at Columbia and Harvard, respectively. It’s worth exploring their work in detail because of its counter-intuitive finding.

In 2017, they launched a project to encourage parents to sign-up for a new service that would help their kids to study. They launched the offering in one of three ways:

  • Standard – A third of parents were sent a text message outlining the benefits of the service and told that they could sign-up via a simple web form. All in all, enrolling took about 90 seconds.
  • Simplified – A third of the group were told about the same benefits of the service but the sign-up process was simplified. All they had to do was reply ‘Start’.
  • Automatically enrolled – The final group were sent the same text as before. However, this time they were told that they had been automatically enrolled but, if they wanted, they could opt out by replying ‘Stop’.

The sign-up rates varied radically by group: 1 per cent for the standard set-up, 8 per cent for the simplified, and 96 per cent for the automatic enrolment group.

That’s a 95 percentage point change in behaviour. Just as Thaler argues, small bits of friction have an outsized effect.
But that was just the first half of the experiment. Next came the clever bit.
The psychologists recruited 130 educational experts (such as teachers and policy makers) and questioned them as to what they thought the sign-up rates would be in each scenario.

The experts’ estimates were way out.

They predicted uptake of 39 per cent in the standard scenario, 48 per cent in the simplified and 66 per cent in the auto-enrolment. They thought there would be a 27 per cent-point swing in behaviour, but in reality, remember, it was 95 per cent points.

The experts knew that small barriers would reduce sign-ups, but they were wildly wrong about the scale of the impact.
The researchers argue that these experts are typical. Again and again, people underestimate the impact of friction. We think behaviour is most effectively changed by motivating people to want our product but, in reality, it’s often less important than making the desired behaviour friction free.

Think about the business implications for a second or two.

If we underestimate the impact of friction and overestimate the importance of motivation, we’ll invest our budgets in the wrong places. We’ll put too much effort and money into boosting the desirability of our product and too little into the technology required for a seamless customer experience. We mistakenly think that sales won’t be that impacted by a small delay in calls being answered, a disjointed customer experience, or the lack of a smart web chat function. But the evidence suggests otherwise.

According to the Zendesk 2022 CX trends report only 21 per cent of companies say that the ease with which customers can interact with their business is extremely strong. That’s a worrying figure. It seems plenty of companies need to heed the advice of Richard Thaler to make it easy.

Related stories

8 min read

Workforce optimisation: The ultimate guide for 2024

Workforce optimisation makes processes more efficient and employees more productive – and gives more flexibility to your bottom line. Learn more about it below.

3 min read

The AI-powered future of CX and EX is here – let us be your guide

The Zendesk Relate event is coming to Las Vegas from 16 to 18 April – you’ll see inspiring speakers, gain knowledge to take home and obtain best practice you can implement.

5 min read

Tech for good: How AI is empowering survivors of domestic violence

The fear of speaking out and asking for help is immense, and real, especially for the…

4 min read

The role of artificial intelligence in enhancing the festive season shopping experience in the UK

It’s no secret that the festive holidays are one of the busiest times for most retailers…