Beyond the Mad Men
How communications design is being revolutionised by the science of behaviour change
The ‘Liquid Times’ we live in means the job that communications have to do is rapidly changing. Our lives are ever more subject to permanent change and operating without fixed, solid patterns. This means that our thinking and planning about how to navigate the world are less able to depend on intuitive behaviours, as they reflect a mastery of a past that increasingly no longer exists. Instead, we must learn to be flexible and adapt constantly to rapid change. We now have to think in terms of behaviour change.
This is reflected in the work we do to support the design of messaging and communications. Instead of being used to reinforce and incrementally shift behaviour within narrow parameters, comms now has a much tougher job of helping people to navigate fundamental change. To do this effectively, this involves a shift in thinking, away from the more familiar tools used by advertisers and marketers, and towards operating as a behavioural scientist.
Designing for behaviour change
While we make frequently make the point that behaviour change ‘interventions’ can involve many different approaches, much of the time the key ‘delivery mechanisms’ that organisations have available is communications. These might take many forms including TV commercials, print media billboards, pack, social media and so on.
We are involved in the design of comms in a number of ways:
Inputting to the design of new communications
Auditing existing communications: this might be early versions, previous copy or competitor comms
We are also involved in testing of comms (which we wrote about previously).
So how do we design comms for behaviour change?
Given the behaviour change role of comms is getting tougher, we really need to make sure we have the right tools in place. This points us to using a behaviour change framework to structure the approach (we typically use MAPPS). The reason for this is simple: if comms is the vehicle used to change behaviour then surely we need to reference the discipline, to optimise the design and make sure the comms can do the job as well as possible.
The first step is to ensure the comms is leveraging the right behavioural mechanisms. To explain, we this entails a ‘Diagnosis’ of the mechanisms that are responsible for shaping the behaviour we are seeking to change. So we may wish to encourage people to choose a more sustainable product, such as a refillable system for deodorant. Our ‘Diagnosis’ of the behaviours relating to this (using familiar market research approaches) may reveal that the behavioural mechanisms of ‘Identity’ (how people see themselves) and ‘Capability’ (which includes what people understand) are both important in enacting purchase behaviour for our refillable deodorant system .
So how do we then use this insight for designing comms? We need to ensure that these behavioural mechanisms are properly pulled into the comms itself. For example, we may simply offer people knowledge about the way the deodorant refill system works - it seems this is part of the solution. But maybe they do not see themselves as the kind of person who would be doing the behaviour (an identity issue), in which case the comms needs be designed in a way to specifically address this point. There is specific design guidance for each behavioral mechansim.
So why not use a standard framework for intervention design such as EAST? This framework helps us understand if the comms is Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. We consider these design principles may help to support more intuitive processing, helpful if you are attempting to reinforce existing behaviours (or incrementally shift them). But the this is less helpful when trying to enact a more substantial behaviour change as we are seeking to change these intuitive patterns.
The sort of guidance from these generic frameworks is less helpful in these instances. It is a little like having standard guidance on how to bake a cake: mix the ingredients, put in the oven, bake and then take out. What we need is a recipe that tells us what the specific ingredients are, how they need to be mixed, how long it needs cooking for and so on. This is what a behaviour change framework such as MAPPS offers – a recipe that allows us to understand the ingredients and how to mix them, in order to shape the behaviour, and ‘make the cake’.
Leverage what matters
Of course, ideally we will have access to research that identifies the mechanisms at work for the target behaviour. For example, if we are working on encouraging vaccine take-up (we do a lot of work in this area) then we want to understand the behavioural mechanisms at play that either encourage or discourage the behaviour.
Given these tend to include behavioural mechanisms such as Capability, Routines, and Identity then we will advise using these to inform the design of the advertising. Or we may also use them to audit existing comms to assess the degree to which they reference these mechanisms. Again, for example, if the comms simply gives knowledge to assist Capability and does not mention the way in which vaccine are part of their normal health schedules (routines) or how ‘people such as them’ (identity) typically do this behaviour then surely the comms is missing a trick.
Of course, if we are working in a new area, or with a new target audience, then we will not always know precisely what the important mechanisms are that drive behaviour without doing some research. Nevertheless, we can make some proposals based on what we know from adjacent areas (e.g. from health protection to financial protection) as well as guidance from past research and the academic literature.
Another consideration is that inspecting the comms of a competitor will tell you something useful about what they have assumed about the category dynamics at work. This is a little like reading the non-verbal cues of someone you are talking to – they tell you something about what they are thinking by the language used, body language and so on.
Reviewing competitor advertising using a behaviour change framework as an auditing tool tells you about their assumptions concerning the important mechanisms to be influencing. Their choice of mechanisms may not be something they have deliberated on – indeed people often don’t think in these terms: but while they do may reflect on these issues, their assumptions will be nevertheless be shaping their design of the comms. Undertaking this type of forensically diagnosis allows you to understand how and why a competitor campaign succeeded or maybe failed.
The ‘Liquid Times’ we live in mean that behavioural science and more specifically behaviour change principles will play a critical role in comms design as we move forward. Brands, NGOs and governments are seeking to encourage ever greater change, meaning that comms needs to work harder than ever. And while comms is not the only intervention that we use, it is at the heart of much behaviour change activity. Hence the way in which we perhaps need to think more in terms of Behavioural Science and less ‘Mad Men’ when using comms to change behaviour.