Have you ever meant to do something so important or so forgettable that you created a reminder for yourself, only to find that you still failed to follow through? Maybe you wrote a note reminding yourself to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home from work, but you completely forgot after a busy day. Or maybe you wrote a phone number on your hand last night, but unfortunately (or fortunately) didn’t write down the name or the reason to call.

Reminders are helpful for overcoming prospective memory failures—failures that occur when people forget to do planned actions. But why do some reminders work, and some fail? We have found that when reminders fail, it is often for one of the following three reasons: (1) the wrong action was prompted, (2) the reminder was not specific or (3) the reminder came at the wrong time.

In diagnosing the behavioral bottlenecks for Accion Texas, the BETA Project team looked at Accion’s loan repayment process through the clients’ eyes. Taking this perspective allowed us to see that reminders may be helpful to encourage on-time payments as borrowers seemingly intended to pay, but failed to follow through. When designing reminders for Accion Texas, we made sure the reminders were actionable, specific and timely.

Prompting the Right Action

Accion Texas’ existing monthly statement emphasizes the importance of making a payment by the payment due date. However, most borrowers are enrolled in automatic payment withdrawals, and actually need to make sure that they make a deposit to have sufficient funds. Since it can take a couple of days to process payment deposit, they also need to make sure that any necessary funds are deposited well before the due date.

We were concerned that borrowers may not consciously realize how their Accion Texas loan payment process differs from many other monthly payments. As such, we designed our reminders to emphasize the action of making a deposit rather than making a payment.

Being Specific

To refocus borrowers on the action of making a deposit, we redesigned the monthly statement to include a Post-it note to help borrowers (1) create a detailed plan about when they will make the deposit before the withdrawal, and (2) commit to the plan. We also provided an emphatic “suggested deposit date” on the statement to help borrowers plan out when and how to make a deposit.

The email and text messages reinforced the statement and the Post-it note by explicitly directing borrowers to make sure they have enough funds in their account for the payment.

In each component of the design, our reminders didn’t simply tell the borrowers to “pay on time,” but were intended to elicit very specific behaviors.

Optimal Timing

When reminders are received is just as important as what the reminders say. Accion Texas borrowers need to ensure there are sufficient funds in their accounts before their due date when the withdrawal occurs. But because only the due date is made salient in the loan contract and monthly statements, a borrower may be wrongly anchored to the due date, when it is too late to take action.

Our email and text reminders were deliberately timed to be far enough before the due date to provide sufficient time to act, and sufficiently close to maintain the salience and urgency to make a deposit. The emails were sent ten days prior to a given borrower’s due date each month. The text reminders were sent three days prior to the due date. Both messages were sent in the morning so that borrowers could make a deposit during daytime business hours.

Without appropriate timing, even the best-worded reminder can fail.

Now that you’ve learned about the art of reminders, try making one to remind yourself to come back and check our next blog post!

Next BETA Project Post: Designing for Difficulty

All of us get fed up with the hassles in our lives. But sometimes, hassles can actually make our lives better. Our next post on the BETA Project will discuss the intentional design of hassles. This post and other helpful insights from the BETA Project are available on CFED’s Behavioral Economics blog and the BETA Project website.