Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Nudge, motivation and the design of systems


The concept of “nudge” seems to be trending in the public consciousness of the UK at the moment. But why do some people find it morally questionable? And how can it be used in the effective design of systems, processes and working practices?

The idea of structuring situations so certain actions or choices are easier to make has been discussed and debated in relation to a number of different issues. The government’s championing of the idea has contributed to its popularity. It has established a behavioural insight team to find cost savings in service delivery through, in Nick Clegg’s words, “making the better choice the easier choice”. That quote demonstrates the reason that nudge can generate a fair amount of controversy: who decides what “the better choice” is? Isn’t this just an example of at best paternalistic policy-making or at worst cynically manipulative behaviourism?

Do things with people not to them

To move past this question we need to recognise that the basic concept as I outlined it earlier isn’t complete. A more accurate version would be: structuring situations by working with the people affected so the choices that they want to make are easier to make. This change makes all the difference, resolving the ethical issues and making any “choice architecture” much more effective. The change rests on the idea, central to disciplines such as organisational development and change, that you don’t do things to people, you do things with people.

Nudge and the design of systems

This is how we apply the idea within our work. When we’re designing systems or helping users, groups and businesses change working practices and processes, we first spend time with them to understand their work, what they’re trying to achieve, the ecosystem of technology they use and its centre of gravity. We can then work with them to structure technology, processes and practice to help them achieve their goals. We take advantage of social dynamics to amplify positive behaviours (an approach we term Social Experience Design). We alter how systems are linked and where information is surfaced, guided by knowledge of individual goals and behaviours, to ensure that the actions that people want to perform are easy to perform.

For example, in a recent strategic project for a large engineering-based company we looked at how we could update their pioneering but aging knowledge management infrastructure from being email-based with web archives to having more emphasis on the web-based part of the solution. Instead of recommending a social platform, termination of the email-based system and a communication and marketing plan to broadcast the new development, we recommended tighter integration between the email aspect and web-based aspect of the system. By allowing users to discover the usefulness of the updated web-based system in the flow of their existing work we could help them achieve their goals – better access to both people and information – more easily.

Only human

We’re only human. We watch more TV than we’d like, we don’t save for our pension when we know we should and we find it hard to cope with the multiple sources of data that we each have to contend with on a daily basis. But mandating certain behaviours or conditioning them in us through rewards and punishments is morally dubious and ultimately ineffective. Simple, smart, more human design of systems and processes that sees people as driven by the need for meaning and community in their work and that works with them to achieve change is a far more cost-effective and rewarding approach.

2 Responses to Nudge, motivation and the design of systems

  1. By Samuel Driessen on January 25, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Oof, was wanting to read this long ago… Nice post, Mike! I don’t know of the discussions around nudge in the UK, but the point you are making is clear. And I like the way Headshift is addressing the complexity of human interaction instead of pushing technology. Looking forward to more posts on this topic!

    • By Mike Thompson on January 28, 2011 at 10:15 am

      Thanks Samuel, you’re a man of your word 😉