At the IPMI Institute HR conference in Miami we sat down with 10 HR executives from various industries and exchanged insights. We discussed what was going on in their world and how behavioral science can help the HR community.
We noticed three overarching themes:
Organizations are finding cultural change hard
Organizations have not had significant success at engaging their employees
Organizations don’t have the bandwidth to prioritize employee communications—although they know doing so is important
The Beast Awakens We can think about change as a little monster in our head who overpowers our desires to stay with the status quo. Most of the time, our change monster is asleep. It is in hibernation when it isn’t needed but wakes up when we start to realize that we need some change.
The Beast Awakens
Monsters are scary so we try to keep our change monster at bay most of the time, not wanting to wake it up. Or often if it starts to stir we stop what we are doing so that it quiets itself and goes back to sleep. When our change beasts do wake up, we often try to build walls around them to try to keep the monster contained.
The Beast Fights Back But the monster doesn’t like being contained and will always try to break those walls down or go around them or even dig underneath them. If none of that works, the monster can hurl things over the wall trying to disrupt our lives.
We Lock up the Beast
When our change monsters do this, we often try to build bigger walls or add new walls outside the old walls. Containment is the key. Sometimes, we can keep the monster contained for a very long time without ever achieving any of our change.
The Beast Escapes
But the monster feeds on our need to change and grows bigger the greater that need gets. If the monster gets big enough, it breaks through our walls and drives us to change. We know that when the monster shows up when we need to do something.
The Beast Attacks
Our beast stands over us with a mean face and makes sure that are focusing on our change process. It romps up and down, banging its feet against our brain. It growls and roars when we turn away from our task. All of this is so that we focus on our change task.
We Befriend the Beast
And, after a while, we have made progress on our change, and the monster calms down a bit. We realize that the monster isn’t so scary anymore – we’ve grown accustomed to it. That big ugly face is now kind of sweet. The actions that the beast had to scare us to do before have become habit or routine, and we do them willingly.
The Beast Rests
The monster doesn’t need to show up to scare us as much anymore – and starts to shrink back down to being small. Finally, when our change has become the status quo, the monster goes back to sleep, and we go on peacefully with our lives trying not to wake up the sleeping beast.
Now that we have shown you how graphics can be used to increase engagement, reinforce ideas and improve understanding, lets dive deeper into the subject using a simple graphic concept we use in everyday life – the emoji. With this concept we will show you how graphics can be used to clarify tone & interpretation, as well as reduce cognitive load.
So far in our design series of blogs, we have touched upon the concept of applying behavioral science to graphic design, and how reducing cognitive load can increase understanding, reduce myopic focus and drive home the key points you want your audience to grasp.
Today we are going to dive deeper into the visual element and explore “why graphics matter.” We utilize the concepts we will lay out in our employee communications, but the value does not stop there. Whether you are in communications, marketing, advertising, or trying to engage employees through internal Communications, this will apply to you. So, sit back, relax, and absorb.
Graphics are fun, graphics are pretty (well some are, beauty is in the eye of the beholder), graphics make information less boring – but there is far more to graphics than one might expect. When properly used graphics:
By pure definition graphic design and behavioral science may seem like two very different areas of study with very little connection to each other.
Graphic design is defined as: The art and profession of visual communication that combines images, words, and ideas to convey information to an audience to produce a specific effect.
Behavioral science is defined as: The branches of science (such as psychology, sociology, economics or anthropology) that deals primarily with human action and often seeks to generalize human behavior in society.
However, by utilizing behavioral science principles when practicing graphic design, the result is a more cohesive, higher quality design.
Your design not only looks good, but can increase the impact of the message you are presenting and drive the behaviors of the audience. In fact, many marketing firms and advertising agencies are already utilizing these concepts in their designs to increase the effectiveness of everything from how you shop to what you buy, how you perceive a product or idea and much more. These trailblazing concepts are shaping the world around you and by utilizing them in your own designs you can drive the level of impact you are having when you communicate to the next level.
Here are two ways YOU can start using behavioral science RIGHT NOW to optimize the impact of your designs and join the growing list of professionals who are moving toward the new standard in design.
Reduce Cognitive Load
Let’s talk about cognitive load, the power of simplicity and how it can increase understanding.
Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory. Rationally, we would think that the more information that a person is given, the better informed they would be; therefore they would make more sound decisions. However, this is not typically the case.
People can become overloaded with information and it doesn’t always provide optimal outcomes.
For instance, if we are trying to present the high-level concept of the 4-Drive Model of Employee Motivation, let’s take a look at these two images:
How long did it take you to understand the concept being presented in the first image? How about the second?
The simplicity of the second allows the brain to focus immediately on what’s important.
The first image is hectic, unorganized and does not allow you to focus in on the key concepts being presented. It is important to design so that you present the most important concepts and key takeaways in an easy to understand manner that does not get lost in the ‘fluff’.
In many cases, less really is more when it comes to making sure your audience interprets the message you are trying to convey.
Think of a billboard – you are cruising by at 65 mph (well probably 80 but I’m not supposed to be promoting speeding over here, let’s focus on design and the human brain)… you are cruising by at 65 mph, you glance up to see something that catches your eye but you have very little time to interpret the message.
With this in mind, the designer needs to ensure that the most important and key message jumps out and stays with you. Ask yourself when creating your design, what do I want my audience to understand IMMEDIATELY? Design around that intent and allow the rest of the design to compliment it without taking away from the main point.
So how can you reduce cognitive load in your designs and maximize the impact of the content and messaging? Remember:
Simplify and reduce. Do you absolutely need to convey that information at this time?
White space is good Fill the page with too much information and the brain can become overloaded.
Visually represent your ideas. Visually representing information in an info-graphic or diagram can significantly reduce cognitive load.
Build Consistency and a Strong Identity with The Power of Branding
Creating a consistent brand, look & feel and color pallet within your design helps the audience link to understanding. If your design is part of a larger project, communication or campaign, utilizing a brand throughout the individual pieces creates a mental stamp for the audience to connect the pieces within that campaign.
At the Lantern Group, we have done a significant amount of work in the area of incentive compensation communications. With every client and project that we work on we start with one thing: establishing a brand and a look and feel for the campaign that we will utilize throughout every part of the project.
What we are achieving by doing this is establishing the expectation with our audience that when they see that brand their brain automatically connects it to the content and concept.
Additionally, this can drive increased understanding – seeing that brand can help the user (often subconsciously) trigger what they have already learned in previous communications. These cues and reminders help provide a more immediate understanding of what the content will be and can lay out much of the legwork to capture the audience for you.
Let’s go back to the highway – you are cruising along at 65 mph (I’m willing to bet you think this is a wisecrack about speeding before you even read it, why? Because it feels the same as the previous comment)…
Anyways, you see a large yellow “M” – the golden arches. There is a good chance you already know what the golden arches represent without even needing to see the name of the establishment. The brand is so ingrained in your mind that the link to what you are seeing and what it represents become automatic (a strong established brand).
This same concept can be applied to communications and graphic design!
Now let’s go even further, there is also a good chance that you can remember what that restaurant will look like, what is on the menu, how the ordering process works, etc. The cue has been planted with the yellow “M” and your brain connects the pieces.
Now incentive communications may not be as exciting as a Big Mac, a milkshake, and some fries BUT we can create that same visual cue through a strong brand and increase the power of the information we are presenting. We are allowing our incentive brand to initiate the understanding amongst our audience every time we send out a communication.
You too can have that same impact on your audience when communicating the information you need to get across, the advertisement you are creating, or the logo you are designing by establishing a strong brand.
We hope this has helped you begin to understand the benefits of applying behavioral science to your designs. Next time you begin a design start by establishing a strong brand and evaluating exactly what NEEDS to be portrayed to reduce cognitive load so you can redefine yourself as a behavioral graphic designer.
Behavioral graphic design is defined as: The profession of visual communication that applies scientific principles dealing primarily with human behavior to the art of combining images, words, and ideas to convey information to an audience and drive human behavior.
Sometimes, it is the unexpected things that can inspire us.
I remember ripping this ad out of a magazine. I pulled it out and taped it on the wall next to my computer. It was the right time, the right moment in my life for this particular message. I had decided to quit my job and start a company.
Those first few months of going off on my own were scary. No steady paycheck. No insurance. Having just enough money in the bank to survive for three months. This message was one that helped inspire me to keep going.
To not let my fears stand in the way of my hopes.
To try something I never tried before.
To risk it.
To just do it.
Sometimes we need that inspiration. Words can create emotional appeals that grab us and don’t let go. Words can tug at the heart. They can move us to think in new ways. To explore new options.
Over the past few years, we have seen a shift in how organizations value their internal communications. In the past, employee focused communications were often an afterthought. Companies would spend significant time, effort and money on developing out their incentive plans, making sure they were designed to drive the right behaviors and performance, only to communicate it to the field in an e-mail with a 30-page, single-spaced legal contract attached.
In 1925, four climbers, led by Phil Smith, ventured north from Colorado to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to attempt to climb “The Grand Teton” mountain in the Teton Range.* The Grand had been summited before, but these four climbers were coming at it from a different route, one that had not yet been explored. From the valley floor of Jackson Hole it looked like they would have a relatively straight ascent to the peak.
The four climbers set out with high expectations of being the first to chart this new route. As they progressed up the mountain, it looked like they were getting closer and closer to the summit. One can imagine their feeling that this goal was within easy reach. That is until they came up to the top of what they thought was a ridge. To their dismay, instead of it being another ridge, it was the peak of an entirely different mountain. The Grand was almost a mile away with a sheer 450-foot drop to the saddle between the peaks. The four, not wanting to give up, attempted to rappel down the face of the cliff. They realized that it was too hard and too dangerous, so they gave up and headed back to Jackson Hole.
Before they left, they named this new summit point, Disappointment Peak.
It is not only climbers who run into disappointment peaks. We often fall victim to this same dismay when we realize that the goal that we had set out to achieve is harder, will take longer, requires more resources or effort than we first envisioned.
Often, we too give up.
The four mountaineers had fallen victim to an optical illusion of the Grand. When standing in the Jackson Hole valley if you look directly at the mountain, it seems as if Disappointment Peak is just part of the Grand. The two peaks appear to be one and the same (see image).
One of the elements of successful change is being able to anticipate how you are going to achieve that change. We like to plot out the steps that we need to make in order to reach our goal.
The problem comes in when we encounter our own mental illusions – when we think that the goal is much closer or easier than it really is.
One thing that both psychology and behavioral economics have shown us is that as humans, we are really good at self-deception. We have a number of innate biases that affect our belief formation and influence our thinking – from confirmation biases, base rate fallacies, availability heuristics, gambler’s fallacies, control illusion, and my favorite, the Dunning-Kruger effect (The tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability).
Generally, we are overconfident in our abilities and underappreciate the difficulty that is required to achieve change.
These mental illusions set us up.
When our expectations of what this goal is going to cost us in terms of time, effort, energy, and resources does not match with reality and when we realize the summit is much further away than we thought – we become disappointed as well.
We are doing great on our diet and losing weight weekly until we hit that plateau and can’t seem to lose those last 15 pounds.
The first three chapters of the book flowed smoothly, but we now are encountering writers block and can’t even complete the first paragraph of the fourth chapter.
We stopped smoking for five weeks until that project at work stressed us out and we needed something to calm our nerves.
We had achieved our goal of making ten cold calls a day for the two weeks but felt dejected that we had not had one sale from those encounters.
Moreover, just like Phil Smith and his companions, we can see the peak in the distance, but can’t seem to rappel down that cliff that is between us and the summit.
Three things to do when you reach your disappointment peak
We cannot always find a way to keep trekking on and reach our goals, but here are a few things to try:
Step back and look for new routes.
Over the years we have conducted a team building event called the electronic maze (see 5 lessons from the maze). Envision a giant chess board comprised of 54 squares, where some squares beep and others do not, and teams are trying to get from one side to the other stepping only on non-beeping squares.
At one point in their journey through the maze, people tend to get stuck and keep running into beeping squares as they move forward to the other side. The path goes backward here – but EVERY TEAM we have ever worked with has repeatedly stepped on one or more of the “beeping” squares that are in front of them. Even after repeated failed attempts stepping on the same beeping squares over and over, they cannot fathom that if they just take a step backward, they will ultimately move forward.
Sometimes we just need to look around and see if there is a different path to our goal.
Find new tools/knowledge.
Do you have the right equipment to overcome your obstacles? Phil and his team attempted to rappel down the cliff and felt it too dangerous. Today, many climbers specifically go to climb and rappel down that very cliff. The equipment and knowledge that people have today are much better than what they had 90 years ago. Are there new or different tools that you could use to overcome your road block? Would additional knowledge help you in continuing your journey?
Push on through.
Sometimes we just have to grit our teeth and power on through. As Dory says, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” There are many times when we reach a point of dismay and our mental energy and enthusiasm collapse because it is going to be longer or harder than we thought.
If the goal is important, then sometimes the best solution is to continue to trudge on. We can think of this as applying Newton’s first law of motion, “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” (NASA.com) Our movement towards the goal has stopped, so we need to apply an unbalanced force upon it to get it moving again.
Plan ahead for obstacles.
Just because our mental illusions often trick us, does not mean that we will always be fooled by them. Before beginning our journey, we can carefully map out the process and try to visualize what potential roadblocks we could encounter. That process helps prepare us for when we do run into an issue. In other words, we have primed ourselves and our expectations so that dismay will not fully knock us off our course. Specifically, we should be asking ourselves:
What might happen that could derail the journey
What are external forces that could impact this process
What are internal forces that could affect this process
If we run into one of these obstacles, how will we approach it (“If ________ happens, then we will do __________.”)
We should also tap into our social networks and see if other people we know gone through this process or attempted this change. These people can be our mentors and help work through with us some of the unforeseen obstacles that we had not thought about. Their experience and knowledge can not only help identify potential barriers and how to overcome them but also might point us on a route that avoids those obstacles altogether.
Reexamine your goal.
Lastly, reexamine your goal. Is it worth the effort, time and trouble that it will now take you to achieve? If it is, keep going for it. But don’t just blindly go on just because you started. Climbers too often focus on reaching the summit at peril to their own lives. Ed Viesturs, renowned mountaineer and bestselling author who’s summited Everest seven times says, “I’ve always had this motto that climbing has to be a round trip. I’ve always understood that getting off the mountain was more important than getting to the top…It’s OK. It’s not a failure…If you’re rushing, if you’re thinking it has to happen today, then you’re going to make bad decisions.” (Time.com) Sometimes it is ok to stop and say, not today. I’ll try this some other time when conditions are better, or I’m in a better spot.
*A common mistake is for people to call the Teton Range “The Grand Tetons.” The Grand Teton is a single mountain while the mountain range’s proper name is “the Tetons” or “the Teton range.”
**Thanks to Michael Anschel for introducing me to the story of Disappointment Peak.
As part of our exhibit booth at the World at Work 2016 Total Rewards Conference, we designed a method for giving away our promotional t-shirts that simultaneously acted as an experiment to help us understand what motivates people.
What we found out was intriguing and reinforces some key behavioral insights about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, recognizing accomplishments and having specific goals.
Our process involved a stationary bike that was hooked up to a bank of LED lights1 – the faster and longer you peddled, the more lights lit up, sounds basic enough right?
The six LED light panels set up on a vertical pole that lit up from the bottom to the top – once all six lights were lit up, all the lights flashed and the process was over.
We set our process up a little differently
To earn a very cool“Behavior Matters” t-shirt, all people needed to do was get on the bike and light up one of the lights.
We did not require that people light all six lights, and we did not assign a time length for peddling to earn a t-shirt. All they had to do was light up one light – a relatively easy process.
Additionally, people could get their name written on our leader board if they were one of the five fastest people to light up all the lights. This white board with hand written names on it was updated whenever someone earned one of the top five spots.
Our original concept was to have people read one of two sets of written rules – one positive and encouraging; the other bland and discouraging. The intent was to see if the different messages impacted how people performed or felt about the activity. We quickly realized that our original plans were not working – too many people wanted to ride the bike and the process ended up being us telling participants the rules instead of them reading them thus invalidating the initial study.
Luckily for us, this is where things got interesting!
While the original communication experiment didn’t pan out, we were still able to gather very interesting findings. Specifically we were intrigued by some of the insights we gained into extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, the power of leader boards, and the impact that specific goals have on performance. First, let’s look at the overall results:
A total of 103 people rode the bike over the two days the exhibit hall was open (some participants rode multiple times). Their performance is shown in table below.
Highest number of lights lit up
# of people achieving level
% of people achieving level
Average time to reach level
The average ride time was 31.7 seconds – with the fastest time being 4.8 seconds and the longest time being 80 seconds. There is some obvious differences based on physical fitness here as shown by the inverse time required to reach the different levels of lights (i.e., more time on average to reach 3 lights than 4 lights, etc.) which played out in how well people did.
Do you just want a shirt or are you looking for something more?
We needed to have an incentive to get most people on the bike. True, there were some who just wanted to get on the bike and see how many lights they could get, but the vast majority of the people got on the bike to earn the t-shirt. In other words, they needed an extrinsic reward to participate.
But that’s not the interesting part…
The interesting part was that only one person stopped at the first light (1 out of 103, that’s less than 1%)! Once they were on, the majority of participants moved past the threshold for earning a t-shirt and continued peddling to see what they could do. This was not easy – we had the settings on the bike be rather hard. This meant that peddling for more than 15 seconds was difficult for most non-athletes.
We believe once they started the activity, they intrinsic motivation of the bike kicked in. The lights tracked their progress immediately and they could directly see how they were doing against the goal. They wanted to see what they could accomplish. They no longer worried about the t-shirt – but instead, focused on the event.
In other words, they challenged themselves to see how many lights could they light up?
They had already committed to participate in order to acquire a t-shirt (the reward) – now they were pushing beyond what was required for the shirt because of the challenge that they were presented with. If we think about the 4-Drive Model of Employee Motivation (for more info see here, here, here) we see that the Acquire component was instrumental in the motivation to initiate the event, but the ongoing motivation was propelled by the intrinsic drive to Challenge oneself and see how they could do.
The idea of using an extrinsic motivator to entice people to participate in programs or activities that they are not excited about and then allowing their natural Challenge drive take-over should not be undervalued. Additionally, the more that a program uses a measure of goal progression, highlighting an individual’s progress, the more a participants Challenge drive is activated. In other words, the design of your extrinsic incentive program can impact the intrinsic motivation that is activated. Finding cohesion between these extrinsic and intrinsic motivators can certainly help drive the right behaviors.
What’s up with the leader board?
We had a leader board where riders got their name featured if they were one of the five fastest people to light up all six lights. They did not earn any additional extrinsic reward for being on the leader board – no fancy give-away, no grand prize, not even an extra t-shirt.
The Lantern Group is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.