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

Traffic noise increased car insurance payments 11%

That background hum your customer hears may be impacting whether they buy from you. New research investigating the impact of background noise on willingness buy car insurance and try new foods has found that low pitch sounds trigger customer anxiety, which leads to greater risk avoidance.

The power of environmental primes

The environment in which a decision takes place plays a large, and often overlooked, role in shaping the outcome. I’ve written before about how music, smells and shapes can impact customers, and this latest research reiterates the importance of paying attention to how you shape your customer’s environment.

Hypothesising that low pitch subconsciously primes people to perceive threat, Lowe, Loveland and Krishna (2018, forthcoming) were interested in whether this would result in greater risk avoidance. Across a series of seven studies, the researchers varied the pitch of background noise between low (below 250 Hz) and moderate (between 250 and 1000 Hz) levels.

In one task, participants were asked to complete a computer survey on financial choices. Sine waves were played through a hidden speaker at a level they could not consciously hear.  Those in the condition where the waves were at a low pitch took significantly fewer financial risks than those in the moderate condition.

In another, participants were asked to listen to and evaluate a 35 second ad for car insurance. In the ad where background traffic noise was set at a lower pitch, customers expressed a willingness to pay $98.98 for the insurance, reducing their perceived risk. When the background traffic was set at a moderate pitch, this dropped to $88.63. An 11% difference based on imperceptible sound levels!

Moving out of the lab, the researchers set up an experiment in a self-serve yogurt store, inviting people to sample as many flavours as they wished before making a choice. Those in the low pitch environment tried 1.26 flavours on average before committing to their preferred, whereas those in a moderate pitch sampled only 0.9 flavours.

I don’t know about you, but I’m both excited and terrified of research like this. Excited because it shows how we can more effectively engage our customers, but terrified for the ethical boundaries it dances along.

What gave me some comfort is how easy it can be to counter balance these effects. Across the studies in which the researchers pointed out the background noise and gave a benign reason for it (e.g. “you might notice a hum because our speaker is broken”), any perceived, non-conscious threat was removed and the differences between low and moderate pitch levels, attenuated.

Implications for you

As the researchers note, “background sound in retail environments and marketing communications can alter a customer’s comfort level, and value placed on products that have the potential to reduce risk and their desire to try products before purchase to decrease risk.”

In other words, priming anxiety can be advantageous if you are in the business of risk reduction, like insurance and healthcare, but problematic if you are trying to get your customer to commit to something they cannot try first.

As this latest research affirms, priming is one of the most powerful tools of behavioural influence. You are susceptible, I am susceptible, and your customer is susceptible. Please use it responsibly.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Focus on how not what to change behaviour

Like most big cities, Oslo has an emissions problem. With a rapidly increasing population, the local council in the Norwegian capital therefore decided to take a big step to reduce its carbon footprint – they decided to ban cars. It didn’t go well.

Businesses complained customers would go elsewhere, and residents resented their right to drive being infringed upon.

So the council changed tack. No longer would they ban cars, now they would ban car parks.

To change behaviour, change the context

As we all know, driving a car to your destination has certain advantages over other forms of commute – say bike riding or catching public transport. Chief among them, you can work to your own timetable and avoid interaction with strangers.  So how can a government wean people off their cars without inciting mutiny?

Ban car parks. In a bold first move, Oslo council restricted the number of available car parks in the city, severely reducing the attractiveness of driving. After all, what good is your car if you can’t park it? And second, they invested in better public transport and bike paths, making the alternatives to driving much more attractive.

What captured my attention about the approach in Oslo is how they bypassed convincing people to change, and headed straight for changing the behavioural context. In other words, they focussed less on the “why” of change and more on the “how”.

Four behaviour change strategies

There are four ways you can approach behaviour change, two “why’s” and two “how’s”.  You can:

1.     Increase someone’s motivation to change (a “why” strategy)

2.     Decrease their motivation to stay the same (”why”)

3.     Make it easy to change (“how”)

4.     Make it difficult to stay the same (“how”)

1. Increase motivation to change

Motivation is someone’s desire to change. This is an attitudinal state that comes from how they feel about what you are suggesting.  If you want them to change their behaviour, you can increase their motivation to change and/or decrease their motivation to stay the same.

To increase motivation you would point out the advantages of the change, such as lower emissions, a better environment and the being able to relax while on public transport, bargaining on the rationale persuading them to act differently.

2. Decrease motivation to stay the same

Decreasing motivation to stay the same means pointing out the disadvantages of sticking with the status quo, for example, the cost of owning and operating a car. Your task is to hone in on the downsides of what they do currently.

While stimulating motivation using either strategy 1 or 2 can ignite the desire to change in some people, just because someone is charged up about the change one day doesn’t mean they will be in a week’s time (New Year’s resolutions are testament to that). As Stanford University’s BJ Fogg has stated, motivation is not stable. That means we can burn a lot of energy and resources trying to get people motivated to change, only to see their motivation fall away as soon our efforts are withdrawn.

3. Make it easy to change

Thankfully we don’t need to rely on motivation. Instead we can focus on someone’s capacity to act – their ability. This is about what they actually do rather than how they feel about it.

In this case, by making it easier to commute by public transport or bike, people will be more inclined to do so.

 4. Make it difficult to stay the same

The fourth strategy is the genius of the Oslo car park ban plan. By taking away the utility of driving – i.e. that you can park your car – they have made the option to stay the same unpalatable. It’s difficult to keep doing what you’ve always done if that no longer provides any benefit.

The lesson from Oslo is that sometimes you have to be a little more lateral in your attempts to influence behaviour.

  • Want people to stop smoking? Restrict where smoking is permitted.
  • Want customers to switch banks? Set up their direct debits for them.
  • Want to check your phone less often? Put it on a sound dock out of arm’s reach.
  • Want customers to renew? Pre-populate their forms.

It may feel natural to try to motivate with rationale, but as Olso council are proving, focussing on how you can adjust the behavioural context may be much more effective.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Too pretty to use

Australian singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers sang “Am I not pretty enough?”, but sometimes you can be too pretty, particularly when it comes to products.

Fancy toilet paper and extravagantly decorated cupcakes have more in common than we would hope. Researchers from Arizona State University have found people are less willing to use products if they are pretty. It seems the nicer the aesthetic, the more effort people believe has been put into the product’s production and the more loath they are to consume it.

In one study the researchers placed plain toilet paper in a fitness centre’s bathroom one week, then switched it for Christmas themed paper the next. In theory the same level of paper should have been consumed, but that’s not what happened. When the toilet paper was plain, people used an average of 6.7 sheets, but when it was “pretty”, consumption dropped to an average of 3.7 sheets.  In total the club went through 21 rolls of toilet paper when it was plain, but only 10 when it was emblazoned with festive pattern.

In another, people were given a vanilla cupcake with either plain or fancy icing. It turned out that people who were hungry ate less cupcake if it was extravagantly frosted, and said they enjoyed it less.

People don’t like to destroy effort

Why are people less willing to consume something that looks good? It has to do with perceived effort. The prettier a product, the more effort is presumed expended in its production, and the harder it is to “destroy”.

In the words of the researchers, “highly aesthetic products elicit greater perceptions of effort in their creation, and…consumers have an intrinsic appreciation of such effort. Because the consumption process indirectly destroys the effort invested to make the product beautiful, people reduce consumption of such products…”

Further, the act of consuming the product (like a magnificent dessert) destroys its beauty before your eyes, reducing enjoyment even further.

According to the researchers “the decrements in beauty that aesthetic products inherently undergo as a result if consumption, combined with concerns that one has actually destroyed effort, underline these effects.”

Lessons for you

The key take away is that a beautiful product might attract customers, but may also reduce their propensity to use it. If you have any products in your house that you are “saving for good”, you’ll know what I mean.

If yours is a highly aesthetic product, the lesson is to make your customers feel ok about consuming it because people “likely consume highly aesthetic disposable products more slowly”. That means repeat business may be compromised.

In a sense, Instragram culture is helping here (particularly with food) because people have a record of how good the product was before they consumed it. Normative messages along the lines of “good enough to eat” could also be useful.

Alternatively, if you are interested in people consuming less – for instance helping people manage their weight or better support the environment – it is worth considering making the products look pretty. As the researchers point out, unbleached environmentally-friendly toilet paper may inadvertently cause people to consume more of it.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Study: Freeman Wu, Adriana Samper, Andrea C. Morales, Gavan J. Fitzsimons; It’s Too Pretty to Use! When and How Enhanced Product Aesthetics Discourage Usage and Lower Consumption Enjoyment, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 44, Issue 3, 1 October 2017, Pages 651–672,