14 February 2014

Applying Behavioral Science in Service Design Implies Open-Minded Skepticism

Applying Behavioral Science in Service Design Implies Open-Minded Skepticism 

When we think of someone being “Open-minded” we imagine a person who is willing to try anything and who does not reject (from the start) ideas that are not perfectly aligned to her existing beliefs.

When we think of someone being “Skeptic” we imagine a person who is overall reluctant to trying new things and who is not very comfortable with ideas that have not been proven.

When applying Behavioral Science in Service Design one needs to be, at the same time, both Open-Minded and Skeptic. 

This apparently is (close to) impossible since our prototypes of “Open-minded” and “Skeptic” people are (almost) opposites. 

Nonetheless, both traits are essential when one wants to translate the scientific findings of behavioral sciences into practical insights.

We know that features of the physical environment strongly influence human behavior. 

However, this knowledge is for many people counter-intuitive. Take the following pieces of information:

A.  Diffusing the scent of lavender in a restaurant influences the time spent by customers in the establishment and their consumption – how much they order and pay. (see Gueguen, N., & Petr, C. (2006) “Research note Odors and consumer behavior in a restaurant”. Hospitality Management, 25, 335–339)

B.  Playing classical music in a restaurant influences the average value of an order across all categories of products (i.e. main course, desert, drinks etc.) (see North, A.C., Shilcock, A., Hargreaves, D.J. (2003) “The Effect of Musical Style on Restaurant Customers' Spending”. Environment Behavior, 35, 5, 712-718)

These pieces of information apparently make no sense. That is if one believes that time spent and what is ordered in a restaurant depends exclusively on the clients’ pre-existing and stable preferences and on deliberate decision-making. To someone who knows a bit of behavioral science, these pieces of information will seem less outrageous, but this is not fully relevant at the moment.

Now let’s imagine that at a state authority (e.g. city administration) there is a new boss who wants to improve citizens’ experience when having to deal with the authority. When thinking of improving people’s experience with state authorities, first come to mind things like simplifying procedures, the staff being friendlier etc. There are, however, some shortcomings with these things… many procedures can’t be changed very fast and quite often they depend on laws, regulations etc. that are set by other institutions than the state authority that has a new boss. The staff of the institution can’t be changed at the command of the new boss (there are laws, unions etc.). Moreover, the staff’s behavior depends, in part, on how the citizens behave with the staff. For example, if one has to deal eight hours a day with angry, irritated people will, most likely, fail to be very friendly.

So the endeavor of the new boss is not as smooth as it appeared to be…

How about applying the knowledge I mentioned earlier… the one on the effects of lavender scent and classical music in restaurants?

I know that for a lot of people the “gut reaction” goes something like “are you crazy?”, but I’m not crazy (or at least I like to think so)…

Of course, at first sight the proposition of diffusing the scent of lavender and (or) playing classical music in a public institution seems outrageous. 

Why in the world would citizens have a better experience in dealing with the public authority if the waiting room would be smelling like lavender and (or) there would be classical music playing?

Here is where being open-minded comes into play. 

The influences of the scent of lavender and of classical music on people’s behavior in a restaurant are real and there are some psychological mechanisms that power them. These mechanisms and many more are presented in detail in my Master Class Design Influence.

The same mechanisms may work in a public authority waiting room setting… So the new boss of the institution might succeed (partly) in his endeavor of improving citizens’ experiences with the institution by simply playing some classical music and (or) placing some scent dispensers in the waiting room. The new boss needs to be open-minded to accept this proposition.

Here comes the skeptic part… 

We know that lavender and classical music influence several types of behavior in various settings (e.g. restaurants, shops etc.), but we are not certain that they will have the same effect on the behavior and satisfaction of citizens who have to deal with a public authority.

Skepticism in applying behavioral sciences does not mean being reluctant to new ideas or to apparently outrageous propositions. Skepticism refers to asking relevant questions and testing (experimenting). In the situation described above, here are some very pertinent skeptic questions:

Does the scent of lavender / classical music have an influence on citizens’ experience with the public authority?

What is the combined effect of the scent of lavender and the classical music on citizens’ experience?

If, for example, the lavender scent does not improve people’s experience, would any other scent do a better job?

When applying behavioral science in practice, skepticism is necessary because there is a huge risk in going head-on into unknown territory… and spending lots of money on something that we don’t know if it works.

I am fully aware that bosses (aka managers) favor safe, tested, proven etc. solutions.  At the same time everyone “loves” innovations and thinking outside the box etc.

The particularity of behavioral science that prevents it from being a tested, proven, safe, sure “plug and play” solution is that behavioral science takes into account context. If anyone thinks that applying insights from behavioral science is similar to plugging a USB stick into a computer, I’m sorry to say that it is not so… contexts that involve people are not standardized computers and simply applying (plugging in) an insight from behavioral science can have different outcomes in different contexts.

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