Norms Decide User Behaviour

{ 👥 } –And How to Use Them to Design Better Solutions

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what he has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies “no”. The policeman asks “Then why are you searching here?” and the drunk replies “This is where the light is.”

Millions of years ago, on the continent of Africa, humans who survived and emigrated to other parts probably did so because when they saw many beings running in the opposite direction, they followed them. Herd mentality and conforming to group norms is almost always a positive approach for your survival. We survived because we followed and mimicked others. Just watch this video on how we subconsciously adapt to group norms:

And it doesn’t matter if you are the most intelligent person on the planet or not. It works on everybody. It’s an instinct trained by evolution. A similar case, as in the video, happened to me.

It Works on Everybody

I was at the airport, and an entire line of around 40 people was waiting at a gate that was closed and had the wrong number. But the correct gate to our flight was near us. And nobody moved until it was officially announced. But before that, I realised that it was the wrong gate but doubted it two times before moving to the right one. Somehow, inside my brain, I felt it would be wrong to do something different meanwhile everybody else was waiting. It felt wrong to get out of the line — but that was herd mentality. It’s called — norm.

A man generally has two reasons for doing a thing. One that sounds good, and a real one.

— J.P. Morgan

Norms Rule Your Day

In psychological terms, these influencers of our behaviour are referred to as Norms. There are a couple, but we will use only these four in the article — descriptive, injunctive, implicit and explicit norms — and how to apply them.

Descriptive Norm

You’re watching a concert and as the musicians stop playing, everyone else stands up and starts clapping. You most likely will stand up and begin clapping too. Why? Because that’s what everyone else is doing: It’s the descriptive norm.

Injunctive Norm

You leave the concert and walk into a library. You automatically lower your voice to a whisper as you ask the librarian for directions to a particular section. Why? Because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a library: It’s the injunctive norm.

Implicit Norms

These are not openly stated. They are not formally codified but emerge socially through the day-to-day interactions of the group. For example, a TV infomercial writer thought they were doing an excellent job for their show by saying “operators standing by”. The thought was that customers would recognise they won’t have to wait, so the experience would be painless.

But, this method didn’t work. Subconsciously, it implied the company was operating below capacity and so must not be popular. To correct this, they changed the line to “If operators are busy, please call again”. After this change, the number of phone calls they received went up. They used implicit norms to give the impression that lots of people were ringing in.

Explicit Norms

These are written or spoken openly. For example, “94% of our customers rate our service as excellent” is a way of explicitly communicating that other people have bought a certain product and are satisfied with it. This way creating brand trust.

Want People to Reuse Objects? Don’t Tell, Show Them

One of the most common problems hotels have is motivating people to reuse their towels. Or as the joke by Henny Youngman goes — what a hotel. The towels were so big and fluffy that I could hardly close my suitcase.

Psychologists in the US decided to experiment with the effects of Descriptive Norms by seeing if they could get more people to reuse hotel towels. They tested a Descriptive Norms message and also an environmental message.

The environmental message went along the lines of “Help save the environment, please reuse your towels”, while the Descriptive Norms message stated, “75% of people who stayed at this hotel reused their towels at least once during their stay”.

The Descriptive Norms message was more effective than the environmental message. If you want people to be better, don’t tell them to be. But show them where to go, and they will decide on the behaviour. However, when people were asked which message they believed would change their behaviour, they prioritised the environmental one over the Descriptive Norms.

Want People to Consume Less Energy?

Show them how much their neighbours consume. Another great example found that when people were showed their neighbourhoods average household electricity usage, it influenced them to use significantly less energy than consumers who were shown solely energy saving advice.

An experiment run by Opower in the US might give us a glimpse into a solution to that problem. Opower’s research involved sending Home Energy Report Letters to 600,000 families across the United States. These letters compared electricity used by each family to their neighbours. And people value how they look in front of others and how their behaviour differs from the “social norm”.

These programs led to an average reduction of energy consumption by 2%. While this does not sound like a major change, it is the equivalent of an increase in electricity prices from 11 to 20 percent. In fact its cost-effectiveness is similar to traditional energy conservation programs.

Again, people thought the Descriptive Norm message (average household electricity usage) was least likely to motivate their behaviour. For most of our decisions, we are blind to what is influencing it. The idea that simply sending a letter can cause measurable changes in demand is remarkable. This way, some combination of information, attention, and social norms can cause changes in consumer behaviour.

This shows that what most other do acts as a magnet for behaviour. People who deviate from the average tend to be drawn towards it. They change their actions to be in line with norms.

Motivating People to Pay Taxes

Officials in Britain’s tax system had a problem — many people weren’t paying their taxes on time or at all. For years, letters have been sent to the late payers, using traditional threats such as late fee charges, interest charge or even legal actions. But nothing worked.

Instead, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs changed the language in their letters and used the power of social norms. In one letter, they tried to appeal to people’s civic duty and wrote: „We collect taxes to make sure that money is available to fund the public services that benefit you and other UK citizens. Even if one person doesn’t pay their taxes, it reduces the services and resources that are provided”. Another letter used statistics: “9/10 people in Britain pay their tax on time”. Such small changes deliver significant benefits.

In 2008, HMRC collected £290 mil of £510 mil in one portfolio of debt — a clearance rate of 57%. In 2009, using the new letters, it collected £560 million of £650 million in a similar portfolio — a clearance rate of 86%. Overall, the new letters, combined with some best practices, helped HMRC collect £5.6 billion more overdue revenue in 2009–2010 than it had the previous year

— Harvard Business Review

People’s behaviour is largely shaped by others around them — social norms. People are often motivated by their desire to conform with the group, especially if it’s a group with which they identify.

Exercising in Groups to Work Out More

Using norms can go beyond default behaviour of staying in line or writing a text on a towel ticket. It can also help people exercise more. One way people can increase their motivation to exercise is to use Group Motivation. When we plan to exercise with a friend, it’s harder for us to skip the training day or even cancel the subscription.

A research compared gym attendance rates of married couples who worked out either together or separately. They found that half of the couples working out individually dropped out during the study. In comparison, only 10% of the couples working out together dropped out.

This is not only because the couples working out together didn’t want to let their other half down. One study has shown that when couples row together, they release more endorphins and have a higher tolerance for pain than when they row alone.

This means more motivation, more intensive workouts, and greater weight loss! People who attend group training or cycling classes are maybe familiar with seeing a screen in front of them and how much you rode or burnt calories in comparison with your team. This has shown to encourage longer and more intense workouts. By showing riders, the average metrics of the group against your performance is only going to motivate a person to train harder.

The Downside of Public Norms

With all the benefits, there are also disadvantages if you don’t use these norms carefully. For example, Facebook may be great for finding new friends but not for setting exercise goals. In a study, researchers explored how social media influenced setting weekly goals. And every time they shared it, their chances for doing a longer workout or even doing the workout went down. At the same time, sharing led to getting encouraged to continue with an exercise. This may help obese people that haven’t worked out before.

Sharing with family and friends is an excellent motivation. It encourages you to continue with your goal. The theory is that being accountable to, and encouraged by your friend and family — the social support system — it will increase your chances of reaching goals. But there is the other side of the story.

Public accountability is great but not for making commitments.

In a 12-week clinical trial, the researchers gave 165 obese people a FitBit device and access to website for tracking progress, whether weekly or daily. The study put the participants in three categories. For one group, goals and results were kept private. In anoter, any goals the participants made were shared on Facebook. In the third group, the system updated walkers’ Facebook feeds with both the goal and the outcome.

Walkers made fewer commitments when they knew their goals would be made public.

In the private group, participants committed 88% of the weeks, compared with 78% of weeks when the commitments were shared and 77% when both the commitment and the outcome was made public. So sometimes keeping your life in private and developing your character is more important and helpful than sharing every step of it.

Create Better Habits

When designing your service or product, it’s crucial to understand human psychology and what drives motivation and decision. There are countless factors, but understanding the basics can help us create better habits for our users. Whether it is to motivate someone to recycle, reuse their towels or motivate them to workout longer and more intensely.

The job of a designer is to be a translator. The goal is to translate the objective reality to create the right perceptual and emotional outcome — Rory Sutherland

If you want to learn more about Behavioural Economics, here are some great resources:

  • Nudge by Richard Thaler
  • Alchemy by Rory Sutherland
  • Think Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahenman
  • Predictably Irrational by Dan Arieli

Great podcasts to listent to:

There is more but these resources will give you a great foundation.

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Eugen Eşanu Avatar

Eugen Eşanu / Founder @

Designer and casual writer. Currently building