How Shopify uses priming to change behaviour

Replacing a hot water service because it had too many buttons was just one of the decisions taken by Shopify CEO and founder Tobi Lütke.

“I ask everyone to build world class software”, said Lütke, “…but if you arrive in an office where the first thing you do is get hot water…and you are faced with some sort of insane user experience …where the obvious thing to use the device feels like an after thought…then I can’t really ask (my team) to do better. (If I do) I’m fighting gravity.”

Shopify is the world’s largest successful ecommerce platform, with 4,000 employees and 600,000 customers, and founder Lütke was recently discussing his approach to business in the excellent podcast, “The Knowledge Project” with Shane Parrish.

Time and again the use of environmental primes, or nudges, in the Shopify offices were mentioned as a way to shape employee behaviour. As Lütke points out, asking employees to create beautiful, effortless products is incongruent with a workspace that is ugly and full of friction. For the same reason, their floor plan is intentionally maze-like in places to prime staff to explore and have fun. Rationally, these things shouldn’t make a difference. Behaviourally, they do.

Aside from replacing the hot water and microwave with more effortlessly functional variants, Shopify also overhauled the way it encouraged staff to keep the cafeteria clean. Their first inclination was to educate staff by placing posters around the room. No effect. They then used a social norm on the poster to shame staff into correcting their behaviour. A small but fleeting effect. Finally, they just put a tray next to the exit of every lunchroom where people could deposit their dirty dishes. Problem solved!

Primes, subconscious cues in the environment, can be applied to all types of spaces, even the bathroom. In my interview for the Behavioural Grooves podcast recently, co-host Kurt Nelson mentioned toilet paper primes.  Yes, that folded triangle of toilet paper in your hotel room is sending an important message; “relax, your room has been thoroughly and carefully cleaned because we care about you.”

Lessons for business effectiveness

Priming plays a significant role in how your staff and customers will feel and act. If you need more proof:

  • a car insurer was able to increase sales 11% by varying the pitch of background traffic noise;
  • a hotel used priming in its Wi-Fi password;
  • handwritten typeface increased crisp bread sales from 5.6% to 30.4%; and
  • Will Smith was able to fleece a high-stakes gambler in the movie Focus using number primes.

Lessons for personal effectiveness

Priming doesn’t just affect others, it affects you too. To prime yourself, set up your home and work environments to support your goals. Change your computer login to something positive, surround yourself with plants and light to stimulate your energy levels, remove temptations from line of sight, use smaller bowls and spoons if you want to eat less, remove your smartphone from your office if you want to be more productive, and use “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” when refusing a treat.

You are already priming, but in the right direction?

By the way, you are already priming yourself, your customers and staff, whether you realise it or not. The key is to prime in way that serves your objective. According to Lütke, “people are so much more affected by their environment than we like to believe.” Indeed.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany

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