What Enterprise Technologists Can Learn from Behavioural Science

I recently moderated the London Enterprise Tech Meetup which discussed behavioural science in enterprise technology. The headline speaker was Matt Wallaert, a behavioural scientist who moved from academia to work with a wide range of companies from small start-ups Microsoft. Having worked with folks in the enterprise space for almost a decade, I wanted to share some of the insights from the evening which I wish our customers could hear.

A bit about the speakers. Matt joined to talk about his book Start at the End and spent a considerable portion of the night talking about M&Ms (I’ll come back to how they’re relevant.) The event also featured flash talks from two other speakers: Oz Alashe (CEO of CYBSAFE) who discussed how behavioural science influences their security products, and Cian O’Maidin (CEO of NearForm) who talked about the role of behavioural science in the mass adoption of their COVID-19 contract tracing app globally. Both presenters also joined Matt for a fireside chat later in the event.

Whether you know it or not, your goal is to change behaviour — and you should own that.

“Think about a chair,” Matt said. “What is the purpose of a chair?”

That seems obvious enough. A chair provides a place for people to sit. Well, Matt had a slightly different take: “the purpose of a chair is to make someone sit.” When the chair has a purpose like this, he explained, it can now be objectively analysed — if one chair makes more people sit than another, then that first chair is objectively better than the other.

In order to create an effective product we must start with its purpose. The answer is all the more powerful if it focusses on behaviour. An example used by Matt was Uber — Uber’s purpose is to make people take taxis from A to B. Once you know that this is the behaviour you are looking to create, the whole process of product design becomes much simpler.

In Matt’s product design process, we must imagine a world where their new product exists. In order to design and market it they need to ask themselves two things: why would people want to live in this world? And why aren’t they already? If you can answer the first question, you have the purpose of your product; if you can answer the second question, you have its selling point.

You can’t change behaviour directly, but you can change pressures on behaviour.

Understanding that our products are meant to change behaviour is a start — but how do we actually do this? Matt argued the answer lies in promoting pressures and inhibiting pressures. This is where the M&Ms come back into our story.

The behaviour M&Ms are geared toward is making people eat them. Promoting pressures are the things that make you eat M&Ms: taste, brand, colour, etc. Inhibiting pressures are the things that stop you from eating M&Ms: health concerns, availability, cost, etc. In order to manage people’s behaviour and encourage them to eat M&Ms, promoting pressures must be strengthened whilst inhibiting pressures must be limited.

Returning to the exercise of imagining a different world, this time Matt imagines a ‘counter-factual’ world — imagine a world where M&Ms are the size of your head. In this world, size becomes an inhibiting pressure because those M&Ms would be difficult to consume. But this doesn’t mean that the real of an M&M is a promoting pressure. If it were, we would be more likely to want to eat anything of similar size to an M&M. So, the size isn’t actually a promoting factor or a selling point — the size is simply the lack of an inhibiting pressure: the M&M is not too big.

Don’t obsess about the promoting pressures. Instead, get the inhibiting pressures right.

Again referencing Uber, Matt demonstrated how the removal of inhibiting pressures is often where the focus needs to be. The promoting pressure of Uber is simply the need to be somewhere; this cannot really be strengthened or weakened by anything that Uber designers or their marketing team can do. What can be changed, though, are the inhibiting factors: cost, wait time, convenience. In other words, Uber’s success comes from removing inhibiting factors and making it as easy as possible to use their product.

The importance of removing Inhibiting Pressures for Enterprise Tech

The power of removing inhibiting pressures couldn’t be clearer than in Matt’s M&Ms example. Say you have the money to buy M&Ms, you’re not too worried about your health, and you know they taste good. You like M&Ms. Nothing is stopping you from eating M&Ms, other than one potential inhibiting factor: availability — you don’t have any M&Ms (feel free to correct me if you are eating M&Ms as you read this).

If there are M&Ms at the corner-shop at the end of the road, what is the likelihood that you’re going to make the effort to go and get some, compared to if they are sat, open, in front of you? You’re going to eat the M&Ms if they’re there — simply because there’s nothing stopping you. The same idea works with most products.

Cian, as the CEO of the company who designed the Irish track and trace app, knows well about removing inhibiting pressures. A track and trace app is literally designed to save lives; what better promoting pressure could there be? Yet the UK version flopped, so Cian’s team must have done something differently. Cian detailed that much of the work went into creating an app that could be trusted (i.e. removing the inhibiting pressure of distrust).

This is key for enterprise. Matt argued that the currency of an enterprise environment is cognitive load: the mental energy it takes to carry out a task. So, if your product asks to take to add to your end-users’ cognitive load, your product is at an immediately disadvantage. According to Matt, nothing is ever easy enough.

The importance of overcoming bias and prejudice

I was very encouraged to end the panel with a discussion on diversity and inclusion and their relevance to behavioural science and product design. At the very beginning of his talk, Matt made the point that many products around us are built for the rich, old, mediocre white men in the boardroom, rather than for the diverse range of people actually intended to use them. Products are often designed in homogenous teams without reaching out to the real, diverse pool of customers.

The panel shared their personal views on how to begin to overcome bias. Oz rightfully explained that overcoming personal biases begins with truly acknowledging you have them. He stressed the importance of surrounding yourself (and your product design team) with people who don’t look the same as you, think like you, or have the same background as you. Filling the room with different perspectives helps to reduce bias from the inside. Cian argued that the first step to breaking free of assumptions and constraints is to make it part of your mission and to work toward it, rather than just talk about it.

Ultimately, the event’s conclusion was one that’s worth repeating: people are at the centre of enterprise tech. The users of the product are what the product should be built around. Practically, a good place to start is to understand people’s current behaviour and the pressures that affect. And to do the hard work of avoiding the reliance on personal experience in product design.

After spending some time at the “Afterparty”, where the speakers mingle and discuss topics with members of the audience, I headed out for the evening.

The “Afterparty” — almost as good as going to the pub…

I have ordered a copy of Matt’s book Start at the End, and look forward to seeing what other insights it has in store that he didn’t cover in his short talk during the event.

A big thanks to organiser Ian Ellis and his team, the engaged audience who sent in questions, as well as the three speakers, for another fascinating event.