Learning Behavioral Design, Part 1: What Happens When Nobody’s Watching?

Jul 20, 2016 | By Vivien Caetano, Katy Davis and Erin Sherman in Blog

In the Learning Behavioral Design series, we share lessons from ideas42 projects that aim to teach practitioners how to apply our behavioral design methodology to their day-to-day work.

At the launch of ideas42 and JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s new immersive consumer finance initiative, guest speaker Tom Tosuksri wanted to answer one big question that was undoubtedly on the minds of all of our new partners in the room: “Will working with ideas42 make a lasting impact on my organization?”

Members from 11 leaders in the financial health field will get a behind-the-scenes introduction to applying our behavioral design methodology during our 18-month initiative The Behavioral Design Project for Promoting Financial Health. As Assistant Director of Research and Evaluation at Cleveland Housing Network (CHN) and a previous partner of ours, Tom was uniquely positioned to answer that question at the two-day kickoff event in New York City, which included intensive behavioral design training and talks from leading academics and practitioners in the field.

In a presentation entitled “A Case Study on Behavioral Science in Practice: What happens when nobody’s watching?” Tom told the story of partnering with ideas42 in 2013 as CHN’s representative for the BETA Project, a collaboration with the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) which sought to increase asset-building organizations’ scale and impact by connecting high-capacity programs to innovative researchers and experts.

After the project ended, Tom used what he learned about behavioral design to diagnose the cause of low participation and high attrition rates in CHN’s Family Success Initiative, a five-year financial counseling program that helps families purchase homes.

Confident in the program’s potential and armed with his experience from the BETA Project, Tom and his colleagues examined the behavior of Cleveland residents who expressed interest in the program, but didn’t end up participating. They spoke with counselors, observed sessions between counselors and residents, and met with residents outside of their sessions.

“People told us they didn’t come to their session because they couldn’t get their documents organized,” Tom explained at the event. “And when people did come in, they brought documents in Ziplocs or pulled documents out of their purses.” In other words, residents struggled to stay organized because they lacked a system for storing and keeping track of documents—a small hassle with a big impact.

So Tom and his colleagues decided to distribute portfolios as a one-stop shop for important documents. Having successfully used portfolios to help residents in their home-buying classes, CHN hopes the portfolios will strengthen relationships between residents and counselors. With clear directions for where to put documents, milestone-tracking, and gamification elements that frame administrative tasks as pieces of a larger puzzle, Tom and his colleagues aim to empower residents throughout the five-year home-buying process and motivate them to keep coming back.

Critically, CHN is teaming up with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to run a rigorous study on the impact of these portfolios, helping them understand whether the portfolios help residents and, if so, why. To do so, they’ll distribute multiple versions of the portfolio and measure whether the versions differentially affect client engagement, participation and financial health.

Hearing about Tom’s experience using behavioral design (long after his work with ideas42 had concluded) helped our 11 new partners visualize their own potential impact. Tom’s story was especially helpful because he’s “in the trenches,” according to one partner. As our partners learn to integrate knowledge of their communities with tactics from behavioral economics and psychology, they will become powerful behavioral design practitioners in their own right.

The 11 organizations taking part in the Behavioral Design Project are pioneers in a growing community of innovative thinkers in financial health. This will help us cultivate a broad coalition of superb practitioners skilled in behavioral design. We hope that they, like Tom, will apply these tactics again and again to improve their clients’ lives.

Stay tuned for further updates on this initiative and our participants’ work. Click here for full details of the launch.