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Getting someone to decide

While Kathy’s away having way too much fun in one of the lands down-under, I thought I’d drop in and tell a quick story about a bit of research that should make a difference to you…

Decades ago people used to do deep and interesting social psych research.  They’d set up strange and complex situations, then watch how people reacted.  Some of these were scary-scary, but some were actually insightful in the day-to-day world as well. 

What does this have to do with Creating Passionate Users?  Let me tell you…

In 1965, back when the Beatles were singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a few social psych folks did a compelling study about what makes people decide to do something. 

First they showed a bunch of college students a film about the horrors of tetanus (Lockjaw! Seizures!  Death!)  that ended with the strong recommendation that everyone get a booster shot.  They even told them where the student health center was.  Careful testing showed that the students actually learned something AND that their long term attitudes about tetanus and the need to get a booster shot had really changed.  This was great!   

Then they watched to see how many went to the college health service to get the booster. 

It was a total flop.  Less than 3% actually went for the booster. 

Then they gave exactly the same information in written form.  Again, a graphic portrayal of what would happen to you if you didn’t get a booster shot.

And again, it was a flop.  This time 3% showed up for the shot. 

Sound familiar?  That 3% number is roughly how many people RTFM for your great software and will actually use it to full capability.

But then they had a stroke of genius:  What if they showed the movie AND gave the students a piece of paper with a map to the student health center with times you could show up for the booster.  They also asked the students to DECIDE when to actually make it to the clinic.   

Voila!  Suddenly, the number of students that showed up for the booster jumped to 28% of those in the audience.  And interestingly enough, it didn’t matter if the students saw the movie or read the paper version of the tetanus scare story. 

What made the difference? 

Two things seem to make the change… 

First, they gave the students something to take-away from the meeting—a piece of paper with all the information they needed to act.  The health center was clearly marked on the map with a big circle.  Times for open appointments were on the page as well. 

Second (and just as important), the students were asked to make a decision about when they would go to the clinic.  They actually had to make a choice about when they’d show up for their booster shot.

So, what does this have to do with Creating Passionate Users? 

You already know users need really clear direction.  It also really, really helps if they have something to guide them in the completion of the task.  A cheat sheet is great, especially if it’s in the language of the user and helps them satisfy a need they acknowledge.  Keep them short and task-specific. 

It also helps if your user has to make some kind of commitment.  We’re not talking about a lifetime of togetherness, just something simple like working through a short but compelling tutorial that shows off exactly how great your system really is.  You need some kind of engagement with the user to make the connection between the download and what your stuff can really do. 

Here’s the bottom line:  Be specific in your help and support.  Be very clear.  And get your users to decide to do something with your product.  Don’t let it just lie there and go out of their attention—get your users engaged! 

If you want to read more, you can try to find the original article in your university library.  There’s no way this is going to be in your local public library. (And if it is, let me know.  I want to move to your town, that’s a great library you’ve got there.) 

     Leventhal, H.R., Singer, P., and Jones, S. (1965)

     Effects of fear and specificity of recommendation upon
     attitudes and behaviour

     Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, pp 20-29.

Posted by Dan Russell on May 29, 2006 | Permalink


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It kinda strikes me that the same principles apply to teaching or presentations. Give them a useful takeaway, and maybe suggest a decision other than just whether or not to apply what they learned. Assume that they will, and suggest a choice that presupposes they're going to start applying what you've been teaching.

Posted by: Kyle | May 29, 2006 8:22:42 AM

In the version i heard of that story, i THINK it was in permission marketing by seth godin, but i really can't remember now. Anyway, apparently what made the biggest percentage difference was the addition of a map to the leaflet.

Posted by: Matthew Turner | May 29, 2006 9:14:52 AM

I have some experience in corporate software training, and I've always found that handing out a "tip sheet" is worthwhile. The training is always easy and well received but people like to walk away with something in hand, something to bolster their confidence when they finally log in and tackle the software.

Posted by: Ben | May 29, 2006 9:25:32 AM


Ultimately, this is mostly about COMMITTMENT AND CONSISTENCY rather than the piece of paper. Once someone has psychologically committed to a course of action, they are more likely to see it through even if the conditions change just prior to doing it.

Robert Cialdini described this and five similar persuasion factors in his brilliant book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion". Take a look at the Wikipedia entry on Robert Cialdini for a quick summary. His book should be required reading for anyone not living in a cave in the Pyrenees!

Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler have taken this work much further in their recent studies in Behavioural Economics. Kahneman won the Swedish Central Bank Prize for Economics (Nobel Prize for Economics) for his contribution.

Posted by: Graham Hill | May 29, 2006 9:27:53 AM

Reminds me of hard-sell techniques, where you get the potential customer to commit to a decision based upon the presumption that they're going to buy - e.g. "Would you like us to come & fit your windows on Monday, or would Tuesday be better for you?"

Posted by: Matt Moran | May 29, 2006 10:32:56 AM

Graham beat me to the punch regarding Cialdini's Commitment and Consistency. The book contains unbelievable stories of what you can get someone to do once you get them to commit to one little decision to start. Even a cave hermit would enjoy them!

Posted by: Mike | May 29, 2006 12:06:31 PM

This Harvard Magazine article about behavioral economics has a similar example using 401k plans.

Posted by: Noah Brier | May 29, 2006 2:43:41 PM

This example was also cited in The Tipping Point (ISBN: 0316346624 - Malcolm Gladwell), which was an excellent read.

Posted by: Daniel Wintschel | May 29, 2006 4:24:19 PM

Kathy and Bert's recommended reading: Bain's "What the best college teachers do"

Its second chapter talks about a similar situation (a psychological experiment run by Edward L. Deci) where two groups of students were brought into a room and asked to play with a block-construction puzzle, and were checked in upon every 8 minutes, asking if they had solved it and if they were still interested in the puzzle.

Upon solving it, one group wasn't rewarded, and yet that group never lost interest.

The other group was rewarded with money part of the time, and lost interest as soon as the money stopped.

Deci and his colleagues concluded that people lose most of their motivation to do something as soon as they think they're being manipulated through an external reward.

(This experiment has been subsequently repeated and finagled-with ad nauseum with similar conclusions, so there's probably some sense to it.)

Applying this idea to the article's health clinic situation, you could say that it might not have been the forcing the students to make a decision on the spot (in fact, according to the above theory, it was detrimental to the success rate), but the offering of a variety of ways to get the shot and to learn about it that made it feel less like the students "had to do it".

Of course, the same information provided redundantly through different avenues of communication helps too, but I think the impression of having a choice to go about doing something "your way" goes a long way.

For the interested: see also
Edward L. Deci, "Effects of Externally Mediated Reqards on Intrinsic Motication", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 18 (1970): 105–115

Posted by: Edward Ocampo-Gooding | May 29, 2006 7:59:32 PM

"Decades ago people used to do deep and interesting social psych research. They’d set up strange and complex situations, then watch how people reacted."

And today they call it Reality TV. ;)

I must admit, any guilty pleasure I get from watching a show like Survivor is not from the crazy stunts, or the nicely tanned guys on the beach, but the social psychology of seeing how a group of people react to their new situation and environment.

I think there is an important aspect that is being overlooked, in explaining the study presented in the post. It is not simply a case of getting someone to make a decision. More importantly, it is making the user think about "I", instead of "you".

When a potential user thinks about an action or product in terms of the nebulous "you", as in what other people do, it is outside of themselves and easy to forget. They do not take it personally. But, if they think about the same action or product in terms of "I", they become more engaged and think more deeply about it. Sometimes, a user can make this shift in focus from "you to I" on their own. More often, tricks need to be implemented to facilitate this process, and getting people to commit to a decision is just one way of making this happen.

Now, back to the example I initially mentioned. An additional element that keeps me engaged to keep watching Survivor, is thinking, 'what would I do'. ;)

Posted by: Mary-Anne | May 30, 2006 3:37:14 AM

A note about finding the original article: Dan is correct that there are very few public libraries that have this journal available. However, there is no need to trek to the University library. Most public libraries (large or small) are able to get you copies of articles (as well as books and other media) upon request through "inter-library loan". Libraries all across the country share their resources this way. It's t one of libraries' best kept secrets!

Posted by: Peter Bromberg | May 30, 2006 8:51:27 AM

what's a library?

Posted by: sean michael murphy | May 30, 2006 9:21:37 AM

To expand on what Edward has said above, I remember this story that my brother learned from a teacher. It goes something like this:

A wise man would, every afternoon, sit at his porch, deeply contemplating life to the sounds of the birds and rustling leaves outside. However, he would be interrupted every day by kids who would, using sticks found off the ground, bang on the metal trash cans that were placed near the curb, breaking his train of thought. This went on for over a year. He tried asking them to stop, but they wouldn't listen, and would only leave if he got up and threateningly started approaching them. That wasn't something he liked doing, so he got another idea.

One day, as he approached them, and as they started to run away, he said "no, don't leave. I want to tell you, I've had a change of heart. I've grown to like your drumming." The children were of course skeptical, so he added "I am honest. In fact, to show that I mean it, I'm willing to pay you. If you do as you do, playing drums in front of my house for a few minutes every day, you will get 1$ per day each."

They were very excited by this news. So, every day, very punctually, and with much enthusiasm, they would drum on the trash cans. After a few days though, the novelty of getting 1$ every day was wearing off. After two weeks, their enthusiasm was not as evident. When the wise man saw this, he approached them and said "sorry children, but from now on, I can only afford to give you 50 cents each day." The children, who had not long ago done this for free, were now feeling like they were being ripped off for the effort they put into their daily drumming sessions. But they begrudgingly returned every day to play on their drums. As the man on the porch noticed that the children were gradually and visibly starting to see this as a chore, he approached them, saying "sorry children, but from now on I can only afford to pay you 25 cents every day." The children looked at him as if to say "are you serious?", took the money, walked away.

The next day, the children walked by the wise man's place. However, they did not stop. The man asked "children, aren't you going to play today?" One of the children turned around and said "if you think we'll drum for a measly 25 cents every day, you've got another thing coming."

And the man's afternoons were peaceful again.

Posted by: Michel Parisien | May 30, 2006 12:00:08 PM

This study was also cited in "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. Another great book to read when you are trying to create passionate users.

Posted by: Kami Huyse | May 30, 2006 8:00:40 PM

But we already read this! Where was it...Tipping Point?

Posted by: John Ho | Jun 1, 2006 8:55:17 PM

I just want to put in my two cents as a passionate user of some products, and a grudging user of others.

Asking or forcing me to make a commitment is not the way to make me become passionate about your prodcut - unless your product is something that I feel I have to use in order to protect myself from a terrible desisese.

When I come to something asking my to make a commitment I close the browser. I am the client. When I decide I want to use the product I will. I wont be railroaded into it.

Posted by: KGDog | Jun 2, 2006 8:24:35 AM

KGDog makes a good point, and it's one I make to my clients (I'm a marketer): you've got to get the product right. It's one of the classic "P"s of marketing, and no amount of psychology will substitute for it. In fact, if you con someone into something, they won't just dislike it – they'll actively hate you. "Marketing" is not something you can stick onto a product later - it has to be built in.

However, assuming the product IS right, you should make every effort to make the buyers' decision easy.

Posted by: David Glover | Jun 5, 2006 1:42:53 AM

This is very interesting stuff. I'm involved in managing some IT security websites in the UK and we're constantly amazed at how complacent people are about their own security. It sometimes seems that they simply don't care. Perhaps they are the 3%. You've given me some ideas about what we need to do to get them to take action: perhaps something that will bug them or remind them in some way or some online course that will take them through step by step, holding their hand. Need to think some more about it but this is useful. Thanks. Matthew Stibbe, www.badlanguage.net.

Posted by: Matthew Stibbe | Jun 6, 2006 10:13:05 AM

I think the key factor was making the subjects active instead of passive by requiring them to make a decision.

Posted by: Russell Wilson | Jun 9, 2006 12:32:07 PM

So what is the factor for someone like KGDog to make a commitment about a product that you're passionate about?

Posted by: Booch | Jun 11, 2006 7:05:47 AM

I, too, don't like being 'railroaded' into making a decision. I like to feel always that I am free to make my choice or leave. I am a 'passionate user' where I feel my input is valued, not just in words but in changes that I can visibly see as a result of my involvement. Anything that makes me feel I'm being manipulated into acting on someone else's schedule is an instant turn-off.

Posted by: Tasha | Jun 26, 2006 5:57:51 PM

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