Part of diagnosing a behavioral problem is realizing that you don’t always know where to look for the “symptoms.” In medical diagnosis, symptoms are at least limited to the physical human body. Human behavior, on the other hand, is shaped by a complex blend of contextual details and internal neuro-cognitive processes into which we have limited access.

Nevertheless, there are a few tactics we can use to pinpoint the “behavioral bottlenecks” that may be preventing someone from reaching their desired outcome. One method we use in the BETA Project is to generate hypotheses and try to find evidence to prove ourselves wrong. Below, we share another tactic to diagnose the underlying behaviors and psychologies at play for a given problem.

Diagnosis Tactic #2: We look for overlooked details.

State the problem. At partner site Neighborhood Trust, we set out to tackle the following issue:

Low-income individuals sign up for accounts with affiliated credit unions during Neighborhood Trust’s financial education course, but do not fully utilize them.

Generate ideas. During our preliminary diagnosis process, we wondered how frequently Neighborhood Trust clients used their accounts after they were first opened. Perhaps, we thought, clients didn’t use their accounts often and long enough for it to become a habit before they graduated from the financial education course.

Look for clues. In fact, client interviews conducted during our site visit suggested that some clients may never visit the credit union or use their account, even once, after account opening. One client reported that she intended to enroll in direct deposit with her employer, but never quite got around to it before she lost that job. She continues to use money orders to pay her bills rather than her account, which remained dormant.

Look beneath the surface. In our initial hypothesis, we thought that some clients may not have used their accounts enough. During site visits, we found that some clients may not have used their accountsat all. This finding prompted us to dig a bit deeper into the earlier stages of the account opening process and course content, with an eye out for counterintuitive, unexpected details.

Through observation, interviews and analysis, we discovered that Neighborhood Trust is incredibly successful at making it easy for clients to open credit union accounts. Account applications are included in the course curriculum, there are recurring and predictable opportunities for clients to gather documents and open an account, and course instructors can provide direct assistance.

Account usage, on the other hand, remained largely outside the purview of the course. Actions related to account usage like finding the nearest ATM or credit union branch, learning how to use online banking and activating a debit card for the first time were riddled with small inconveniences.

This led us to believe that the course was very effective at helping clients take action to open an account. However, the course was lacking in the later stages of guiding clients from account opening to active account usage. Even though these steps appear to be simple, small barriers can have a surprisingly large effect. These “hassle factors” could prompt a client to procrastinate and put off a task that seems difficult in favor of more familiar options, like money orders.

Only by diving in to examine the gritty details of the client experience were we able to detect this “behavioral bottleneck.”

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

As mentioned in “Don’t Suppose, Diagnose” we use a range of tactics to elicit insights during the behavioral diagnosis process. Our next post on the BETA Project will discuss another strategy we use in the field: looking from the perspective of the end-user. This post and other helpful insights from the BETA Project are available on CFED’s Behavioral Economics blog and BETA Project website.