Nudging people for a smarter use of the office

May 27th, 2019

Technology should adopt to the user, not the other way around.

We’re not a tech company – we’re a workplace technology company. Workplace comes before technology. And this is a small but important distinction.

And as such, we’re not in the business of putting more technology into the workplace. Our goal is to make the workplace better, and we use technology to achieve this goal. At first glance, this might sound like a simple statement, but unpacking the implications brings us to a sometimes-overlooked component: human beings.

At the end of the day, it’s not the number of tools and gizmos in the office that matter. The only thing that really matter is whether the solution have made life easier for the end-user. And to get there, we have to start with the user.

A model for human behavior

Dr. BJ Fogg of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford has created a framework to understand behavior, and how it can be used to improve people’s lives. According to the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM), three elements must be present at the same time for a behavior to occur: motivation, ability and prompt.

Here’s an example of the FBM at work. I’ve added a few simple examples to illustrate.

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Motivation and ability

Let’s start by looking at the vertical and horizontal axes, motivation and ability, and the connection between these two concepts. From his behavioral research, Dr. Fogg notes that there seems to be a relationship between our motivation and ability to do something. For example, when our motivation is very high, humans can do very hard things (i.e. things which we normally have a low ability of doing). And conversely, when motivation is low, it can be difficult to do even simple things (i.e. things which we definitely sufficient ability to do).

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The relationship between motivation and ability is represented by the Action Line. For behaviors above the Action Line, in the green area of the graph, there is sufficient motivation and ability. Let’s call this a motivation-ability match. Making a morning smoothie is well in the green above the Action Line since it is both easy to do and delicious to drink.

On the other opposite side of the Action Line, there is no match between our motivation and ability; either there’s not enough motivation, not enough ability, or both may be lacking. For example, even though one might be highly motivated to stick to a new healthier diet, if it’s hard to do (low ability) it’s unlikely that we’ll do it. For these reasons, a certain behavior in this area is very unlikely to happen.

Triggering a behavior

Now, just because there’s a match between motivation and ability doesn’t mean a particular desired behavior will happen. It needs to be triggered. In the FBM, this is called a prompt, but the concept is similar to a request, cue, or call to action.

There can be external prompts, for example a kitchen timer sound to take the bread out of the oven. Or it can be a routine-based prompt. As an example, leaving the house might prompt us to check that we have our keys and wallet with us. Nevertheless, these prompts are necessary facilitators for a given behavior.

If there’s no match between our motivation and ability to do something, no conceivable call-to-action will ever help us do it. On the other hand, if we already possess enough motivation and ability, if there’s a motivation-ability match, a prompt can successfully trigger an action.

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This is similar to nudging, a concept in behavioral science that has become popular over the last decade (and even warranted a Nobel prize). Proponents of nudging hold it as a more effective way of achieving compliance than education, legislation or enforcement.

Now, you might ask, what has all this got to do with the workplace?

In a way, what technology does is that it makes things easier to do (increases our ability). In other ways it can also stimulate our motivation to do certain things. In addition to making things easier to do and increasing our motivation to do them, technology can help by providing us with the right prompts and stimuli at the right time. As you can see, with the aid of technology, we can move or influence all three major components of the FBM, to promote a certain desired behavior.

Example from an office

Let’s look at a simple example common in large offices. An employee, Person A, has booked a meeting room for 2 hours. Finishing an hour earlier than expected, the meeting is wrapped up and the colleagues leave the room. The meeting room is now empty but still booked for another hour, effectively preventing anyone else to use it. The behavior that would benefit the community as a whole, would be for Person A to cancel the remainder of the reservation, freeing up the room for other co-workers who might need a place to meet. Let’s examine this desired behavior with the model above.

Person A has a low motivation to cancel the reservation, as he or she has little to gain or lose no matter if its canceled or not. Firing up Outlook and canceling the reservation, although it would only take a few seconds and a couple of clicks, feels like a chore with no apparent benefit. Additionally, the ability to cancel the room is relatively low as Person A have never done it before. Last but not least, there is no prompt to act what so ever. With the meeting wrapped up, Person A is off and away to the next task at hand and releasing the room for the benefit of some unspecified colleague is the last thing on his or her mind.

If you think of this scenario as highly improbable, consider the last time you canceled or shortened a meeting room reservation which you didn’t need.

Using the FBM chart, I would place the behavior of cancelling the room booking somewhere in the lower left corner. We’re probably looking at a low motivation-medium ability behavior, and as such the model predicts it would rarely occur.

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Technically, even if we were in the green, i.e. if Person A were motivated enough and able to release the room, without a prompt it would still be an unlikely behavior. As you can see in the next chart, moving into the green area can be done by either (a) increasing the motivation, (b) increasing the ability, or (c) a combination of both.

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Nudging people for a better use of the office

Senion at Work is designed to nudge employees to small, effortless actions that together improve the day-to-day for individual employees as well as the efficiency of the entire workplace. By increasing the ability and motivation of desired behaviors, Senion at Work moves them across the action line, and then drives it home with a timely prompt. Let’s take a look at how Senion at Work acts in that particular situation.

As the meeting is wrapped up and Person A leaves the meeting room, Senion at Work notices that he or she has left the room, and also notes that the room is still reserved for another hour. Through his or her smartphone, Senion at Work sends a push notification (a prompt) to Person A asking whether they want to keep the reservation or release the room so others may use it. With a tap on the phone, the employee can cancel the remainder of the reservation, or choose to keep the reservation if needed. There’s no need to unlock the phone or open an app – it’s all done from the lock screen in just a few seconds.

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In the example above, it has clearly gotten easier to do it. The push notification not only serves as a prompt to remind the user why it’s beneficial to release the room – it also enables the user to complete the task with a simple tap.

The example above of releasing unneeded meeting rooms is just one of many situations where Senion at Work help employees. For meeting rooms, a similar scenario is played out if the user is on work related travels and is far away from the office. But in that case, instead of prompting when the user has left the room, it can be done several hours in advance to increase the possibility of someone else using it. A booked desk in an agile office can be handled in a similar way while other functionality makes it easier to get to know more people in the office, hence improving collaboration.

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We’re confident that there are huge organizational gains to be made by small changes in behavior. Enforcement and rules, or technology alone will not facilitate the type of long-term change where everyone wins. We believe that helping the user by increasing their motivation to change and making it easier to change is the way to achieve it. Technology is the means to do that, not the end.

In every product decision, in every feature, in every design decision we make, we start with the end-user and his or her situation. From there, we push the technology and design to its limits in order to create the right conditions (motivation and ability) for change. To make it as easy as humanly possible to make the day at the office more productive and enjoyable.


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