Over the past week or two I’ve come across a couple of everyday systems and signals that don’t work, and I’ve been wondering why. I’ve got a couple of thoughts, but if you, dear reader, have a few thoughts of your own, please add them in the comment section below. I think they would contribute to the conversation of why our work sometimes doesn’t work.

We’re in the business of getting people to do things. Influencing behaviour. Changing minds. The output of our work is to make people think and do differently than they do today. It’s pretty cool. But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes people don’t do what we want them to.

Behavioural economics was supposed to be a magic bullet. By applying choice architecture we could get people to behave the way we, the designers, wanted them to.

We love it in adland because if this kind of thinking is applicable in big decisions like retirement savings, imagine how we could apply it to make people buy a Kit Kat. These tricks, aptly named Nudges, promised to open a whole new world to us.

It’s fascinating. There are lots of great principles we can use to make choices easier and better for consumers. Michelle Lee pulled some really nice resources together on this site that I urge you to check out and read.

What I’ve noticed lately, and want your help understanding, is nudges gone wrong.

If you live in the fine city of Toronto and walk, bike, or drive to work you inevitably complain about traffic. About how inefficient the city seems to be to get around. One example of a nudge gone wrong is evident every day in our commutes.

What does this sign mean to you?

You may think it means you have five seconds to run across the street. A perfectly reasonable amount of time to cross 24-odd feet. The reality is it means: Don’t Walk. Don’t enter the intersection. In fact, probably shouldn’t have entered the intersection for the last 10 seconds.

This was designed to show people how long they had to clear the intersection. A safety measure so people were encouraged, nudged, to quickly clear the intersection when the countdown starts. Instead, it’s just convinced them they have time to dash across the intersection, one with cars inevitably turning. Instead, the numbers below have rendered the hand above meaningless.

Additionally, studies have shown it makes cars accelerate towards the intersection in hopes of beating the light, something that didn’t happen without them, and is obviously tremendously dangerous behaviour.

Be careful out there.

There’s another subtle nudge that our simple human mind misinterprets everyday; the bathroom door push pad.

It’s intent is simple. Protect the part of the door that provides the most leverage, and therefore is the part of the door it will be easiest to push. Push the push pad. Take a look at this:

Heavy duty industrial paint worn down by hands and elbows pushing the door exactly not where we’re supposed to. We won’t push the push pad. Why not?

What’s the story? These are just a couple of simple everyday systems that are either interpreted incorrectly, or they’re ignored altogether. Yet they seem perfectly simple and reasonable at face value.

My thought is they simply go against our own self interest.  We’d rather not wait 30 seconds to cross the street. We’d rather not push the thing that a thousand strangers push, a metallic petri dish of human germs. So when we make stuff, we need to get deep into the human mind. Think about someone’s motivation in the dead of winter, trying not to freeze on the street, or avoiding a cold in the office at any cost, even when we’re thinking about seemingly basic stuff.

Maybe this is true for encouraging user behaviour, and also true for advertising. That for it to really work, we need to understand people’s most fundamental, basic needs.

Planners, what’s your take? If you have any thoughts about why these simple systems don’t work, I’d love to hear it below. If you have examples of other systems that don’t seem to work, please let us know. Or if you’ve recently seen an ingenious nudge, we’d love to hear that too.



About Andrew Carty

Andrew Carty has written 12 post in this blog.

Cofounder and Partner, Strategy @ send+receive