Take a Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes: The BETA Project

Aug 5, 2013 in Blog

At what point can we say that we understand another person’s behavior? “Before you abuse, criticize and accuse,” singer Joe South told us, “Walk a mile in my shoes.” If we walked a mile in the shoes of every client that our three BETA test sites serve, we would need to cover approximately 3,797 miles.

Luckily, in order to diagnose a behavioral problem, we don’t need to exhaustively understand the mindset and behavior of every single client at our partner sites. Human behavior is shaped by a complex blend of contextual features and internal neuro-cognitive processes into which we have limited access, and different people demonstrate different behaviors. We simply aim to better understand the contextual features that become “behavioral bottlenecks” preventing many clients from reaching their goals.

In previous blog posts, we shared behavioral diagnosis tactics that include proving ourselves wrong and looking for unexpected details. Another useful technique that may unearth important contextual details is taking the perspective of the end-user, to the extent possible. We may not be able to walk a full mile in each client’s shoes—but we should at least take a quick stroll.

Diagnosis Tactic #3: We experience the end-user’s perspective.

State the problem. At Accion Texas, we set out to solve the following problem:

Borrowers have difficulties making consistent, on-time repayments using the Automatic Clearing House (ACH) electronic withdrawal system.

Generate ideas. Our first step in tackling this problem was to map out the loan application, disbursement and repayment process at Accion Texas. Discussions with staff members enabled us to render a detailed process map of the entire process from start to finish. Based on this representation of the borrowing process, the behavioral bottleneck appeared to be at the actual moment of repayment, when many borrowers seemingly intended to pay, but mysteriously failed to follow through at the last minute.

Look for clues. As we conducted site visit interviews with additional employees, a fuller picture came into focus. Numerous staff members at Accion, including the Collections and Accounting teams, reported that changing the payment date was one of the most common loan adjustments that borrowers perform. We also heard from the Collections team that many of these borrowers do not make the change until they have encountered an issue with payment, even if they already know that the previous payment date doesn’t work for them. For instance, the payment may be scheduled soon after their rent is due and money is tight. Finally, we found that the timing of the monthly statements sent to borrowers can be inconsistent, meaning that these statements may not be serving as effective reminders to make a payment.

Change your perspective. Piecing together each of these perspectives allows us to better understand the process, but we also need to make sure we are viewing them through the right lens. We ultimately did a full remapping of the user experience (from the end-user’s perspective rather than the organization’s perspective), conducted client interviews to fully understand process details and viewed actual materials (like the monthly statement) in precisely the form that clients would see them. Through this process, we saw, through a borrower’s eyes, how small details in the application process (such as assigning an arbitrary repayment date to borrowers) and repayment process (such as sending out statements with inconsistent timing) can contribute to late repayment.

Next BETA Project Post: Design

At our partner sites, we used multiple tactics to gain insight into what contextual features of each program might be contributing to these behavioral problems. Although diagnosis is an important phase of our methodology, we must remember that the entire sequence is iterative and continuously changing as our understanding grows. We will revisit all of our assumptions in later stages, and we need to continue to ask whether we are asking the right questions.

This post and other helpful insights from the BETA Project are available on the Behavioral Economics blog and the BETA Project website. Our next post will look at how behavioral diagnosis sets the stage for our next phase: design. We will discuss how we use our behavioral diagnosis to design innovative solutions for our partner sites.