Hacking Behavior
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Hacking Behavior

The simple question that can change product design.

The conventional path to business growth for product managers, designers, and marketers is to build rich features that exceed normal standards and then aggressively communicate the benefits of these features.

In this model, the key question a company must answer is, “How can we make users more aware of our product features and market differentiation?” This line of questioning has been the foundation of marketing textbooks and Silicon Valley handbooks for the last twenty years.

Is this typical growth playbook correct?

To get to the bottom of this mystery, researchers Fox, Hadar and Sood decided to study the difference between objective knowledge and subjective knowledge. Objective knowledge is knowing how to do a thing. Subjective knowledge is feeling like you know how to do a thing.

Objective vs. Subjective Knowledge Example
Someone who has high
objective knowledge about cooking (turn oven to 350, check on food every 15 minutes until golden brown) could at the same time have low subjective knowledge, where they feel uncomfortable in the kitchen. Try giving a person low in subjective cooking knowledge a complex recipe. While the recipe will increase their objective knowledge (they now know how to cook a casserole), it may also decrease their subjective knowledge of cooking by drawing attention to how much they don’t know!

Which force is more powerful?

The researchers ran a few clever experiments to figure out which force is more powerful in helping people take action? Objective vs subjective knowledge?

For the first one, they provided participants the same basic facts about their retirement plan. Then, to manipulate subjective knowledge, the participants were asked either an easy question or a difficult one before enrollment. In theory, asking an easy or hard question shouldn’t have affected someone’s behavior. The retirement plan ROI did not change — it was the same plan regardless of the question. However, those who were asked the easy question were more willing to enroll in the plan than those asked the more difficult question. Why? The easy question increased their subjective knowledge, or “metacognitive feeling of knowing.”

In another clever study, the researchers manipulated the descriptions of mutual funds. Two groups of people received information about a mutual fund, but one group’s information included very technical words or phrases like “standard deviation” and “beta.”

All participants had completed multiple courses in economics and finance and were familiar with these terms. However, despite their expertise, the group exposed to the technical terms experienced a decrease in subjective knowledge — they felt less knowledgeable when reading the more technical description. This feeling translated into a decreased likelihood of choosing that fund.

Ultimately, the researchers found that investment decisions are influenced by subjective knowledge, independent of objective knowledge.

They said, “providing consumers with relevant but complex product information can sometimes enhance their objective level of knowledge while paradoxically diminishing their subjective level of knowledge.”

This means we may be more likely to make a decision when we feel confident about a decision versus simply informed. Likewise, if you want to get me (or your loved ones) to make a complex recipe vs. order take out, it’s not enough to give us the recipe and say GO! In fact, that approach would likely backfire. Instead, you may want to make me feel good about my current cooking knowledge. Compliments welcome. :)

More importantly, this conclusion calls into question the modern growth and marketing playbook for financial providers. Yes, people *should* know all the features of a retirement plan or financial product to get the optimal return, but knowing this may not actually influence their decision to invest. In fact, it may make us less likely to invest if it decreases our subjective knowledge!

What are the implications?

We live in a world that makes supplying objective knowledge a priority. Google, Yelp, Quora, and similar sites provide us with a stream of endless facts. These information hoses communicate the information we need to make decisions, but do they make us feel more confident in our decision-making? Likely not. In fact, they may make us feel less confident by increasing complexity and uncertainty.

While this realization about human behavior doesn’t suggest that companies should avoid providing facts — companies should, of course, prioritize transparency — it does suggest that facts alone may be insufficient to change behavior.

Product managers, designers, and marketers can use this insight on subjective versus objective knowledge to add one more question to the research toolkit:

The new question:

How confident do users feel about their own understanding of the product and its benefits?

If a product designer’s aim is to change behavior, it may be worthwhile to focus on increasing people’s confidence in their current level of competence rather than simply educating them in order to increase their competence.

Are you a product manager, designer or marketer? Learn how to apply behavioral insights to build products that customers love. We have Bootcamps coming up. Become a behavioral product manager.

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Kristen Berman

Kristen Berman

Thinking about Irrationality. Behavioral Scientist. Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab.