Making Behaviour Stick: User-Centred Design vs. Punitive Measures

Behavioural change through punitive measures is nothing new – we uncover how user centred design can offer an alternative, especially during this pandemic.

by: John Chan

Behavioural change through punitive measures is nothing new in Singapore – we uncover how user-centred design can offer an alternative, especially during this pandemic.

Across Chemistry’s 20 years of practice, we have had the opportunity to work on a good number of large, complex projects across healthcare, tourism, finance, and public service. Each of them has its unique challenges to crack, an ecosystem of stakeholders to manage and a diverse set of customers to address. At the crux of these projects lies a common theme – creating behavioural change.

Punishment as a Behaviour-Changer

Almost always in the course of these projects, a cluster of solutions that are punitive in nature will emerge. Subconsciously, for some tacit reason, these ideas always make me uncomfortable.

From a 2018 study we did on errant parking behaviour in Singapore, monetary penalties did not work well across a significant segment of motorists. Instead of deterring illegal parking behaviour, motorists found workarounds such as banding together with food stall vendors to keep a watch out for traffic officers and warn each other. The behavioural forces of social pressure and herd mentality, ‘if everyone else is doing it, it must be ok’, simply trumps that of punitive measures.

Set amidst the global onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, with governments implementing various approaches towards flattening the curve, now may be a good time to reexamine this ‘discomfort’ and bring this to light.

A few weeks ago, I stepped forward to order takeaway at a neighbouring hawker stall. The lady stall keeper took one look at me, frowned and uttered, ‘You are not wearing a mask, they will fine you, take one…’ as she brought out a disposable face mask and gestured it at me.

No Mask? That’s Fine.

Since 14 Apr 2020 , barely a week into Singapore’s Circuit Breaker, it has been mandatory for all in Singapore to don face masks when out. Those who leave home without half their faces covered will be fined $300 for the first offence, $1,000 for the second, and subsequent offences leading to prosecution in court.

Since then, apart from styling their hair, wearing make-up and taking keys, Singaporeans have added a new step into their routine – putting on facial protective gear before heading out. By and large.

The Singapore government’s communication of the penalties for not adhering to Circuit Breaker measures.
The Singapore government’s communication of the penalties for not adhering to Circuit Breaker measures.
Image credits:

As of the 21st of April, more than 2,100 people have been caught breaching safe distancing rules. In addition, 500 individuals have been fined for not wearing a mask outside of their homes. Clearly, Singapore’s approach to behavioural change through penalties and enforcement works to a certain extent. But what goes through the minds of those who flout these measures?

Beyond Punishment.

As a practitioner of User Centred Design, I can’t help but believe that attempting to see things from the users’ perspective can make the right behaviour stick beyond punitive measures. After all, at the pinnacle of said methodology is the creation of behavioural change.

First Things First, Generate Empathy.

Developing empathy towards users is the first and most critical step. Understanding the motivations and challenges across diverse user groups is pertinent in developing the right strategies and relevant approaches.

We conducted light touch qualitative research, speaking with a handful of young professionals, parents, and seniors. Our research uncovered 4 user types or persona profiles, each with their unique set of motivations and challenges (Note that these findings are the result of a week’s worth of research work for illustrative purposes only).

Synthesis and clustering research using online collaborative tools.
Synthesis and clustering research using online collaborative tools.
Image credits: Chemistry.

The important thing with qualitative research is to uncover the underlying root cause or empirical motivations. This goes beyond capturing the behavioural symptoms or mere preferences. These learnings set us up with a good understanding and empathy for our users, ready to explore the possible solutions driven by real insights.

What Makes Behaviour Stick

In rapidly evolving times of intense change, challenges are increasingly complex with diverse and often contradictory stakeholder and end user needs. Having a universal solution meant for all users across every life-stage and demographic is risky. Many attempts to create behavioural change fail as they are not targeted enough and fail to recognise that different users need different approaches/solutions.

To effectively nudge behaviour in the desired direction and make them stick, 4 key aspects need to be considered and addressed. Here we dissect each of these with an illustrative example of an idea driven by specific user insights.

1. The Benefit or ‘What’s-in-it-for-me?’

Doing the groundwork to uncover user insights provides us with the ammunition needed to address each persona profile with specific, targeted solutions. This means avoiding the utilisation of a business or technological lens, as well as our individual preferences. Instead we should only focus on the end user’s perspective throughout the entire process. This ensures that your ideas align to their goals and answers the all-important question, ‘what’s in it for me?’.

User Profile 1:The Community Player
Motivation: Community and social interaction.

“You can’t see my smile, you can’t see what I believe about me (and what)  makes me approachable. I need to find other ways to convey I am still approachable.”Mr Chow, Retiree, early 60s

Customisable graphics that can be applied onto the masks to communicate key messages to the people around you. Visual applications can range from warning messages to inform people that one is unwell and hence stay away, to personal and approachable messages to keep community spirits up. To facilitate easy switching of messages, these could be inserts or velcro patches.

 Iron on Emoji Face Mask.

2. Effort

How can we make it as frictionless and easy as possible so that users can follow through with the least effort? This can be seen as reducing cognitive load, where we require the least conscious intellectual activity (thinking, reasoning or remembering) possible.

To a particular user, A, making a phone call to the hotline of a service provider to troubleshoot an issue is perceived to be a lot less effort compared to using an online alternative such as email. Whereas another user, B, (typically a profile who is more comfortable dealing with technology) in a similar situation may find looking through an FAQ online to resolve an issue much easier.

Effort also takes into account physical accessibility, where we consider the physical effort needed to complete the task. This can vary greatly from user to user and is therefore important to understand the nuances in research.

User Profile 2: The Comfort Seeker
Challenge: Wearing a mask is uncomfortable and makes it difficult to breathe.

I needed to breathe and felt I would have fainted otherwise. Singapore’s hot weather makes it very difficult to wear a mask for long,” – Clara Chan, Housewife, 57 (Straits Times)

Develop a breathable, comfort-oriented mask suitable for Singapore’s hot and humid climate. This could include adjustable features for different face shapes and address the issue of vapour fogging up glasses.

 Independent sellers on Etsy selling ‘mask-hacks’ to improve comfort and relieve ear pain.
Independent sellers on Etsy selling ‘mask-hacks’ to improve comfort and relieve ear pain.
Image credits: Etsy, WoollyMothBoutique.

3. Resources

This considers if the user has and/or can afford the resources needed to perform the desired behaviour. This often requires some degree of systems thinking to bring new stakeholders into the ecosystem, and reconfigure business models and strategic partnerships in order to resolve the problem at hand. This ensures that the solution is feasible for our users with keen consideration of the time and finances they possess.

User Profile 3: The Survival Focused
Motivation: Fear of contracting the virus, financial survival.

“Times are bad, I lost my job. Now I have no income to support my family and can’t afford to get sick.” Mr. Seet, Unemployed, early 40s

The government’s distribution of reusable masks to all households in Singapore. This directly addresses the lack of resources or access to masks as the primary inhibitor to wearing one. The factor of time is addressed by allowing citizens to collect the masks conveniently at the closest Community Centre.

A mask from the first batch of reusable masks distributed by the Singapore government.
A mask from the first batch of reusable masks distributed by the Singapore government.
Image credits: CLEO

4. Proficiency

An important aspect to consider when bringing about behavioural adoption is the capability and skill level of end users. Fundamentally, the solution simply needs to be within the performable limits of the end user. Good user insights in this regard also allows us to leverage the user’s current and existing habits, as well as elements familiar to them, to develop new behavioural offshoots.

Chatbots like Bus Uncle, for instance, utilise Facebook’s Messenger to deliver a service. This provides users with an environment that they are already familiar with, thus removing the need to download and onboard themselves with a new App.

This awareness of end users’ capabilities also allows us to provide the necessary information, tools, and mechanisms in order to overcome the gaps in user competency.

User Profile 4: The Self Expressionist
Motivation: To be able to express individuality while wearing masks.

“Just like eyeglasses, I wear these masks every day and I want to be able to express my personality and style with their safety.” – Fashion Design student, 21

A crowdsourcing platform to gather ‘mask-hacks’ to customise the look, and improve the comfort of reusable masks using accessible materials at home. These hacks are simple fixes that range from using bespoke fabrics to inserting wire ties to better mold over nose bridges and avoid foggy glasses.

The Herbivore Clothing Company used the fabric from unsellable t-shirts to create masks for fundraising.
The Herbivore Clothing Company used the fabric from unsellable t-shirts to create masks for fundraising.
Image credits:

Prototype, Test, Reiterate, Test

Having done the research does not mean that the ideas developed will succeed and bring about the right behavioural change. It is imperative that such ideas are validated through prototyping and testing with end users to ensure that the ideas resonate with them and deliver the desired outcomes. This mitigates the risk of failure, and provides the opportunity for iterative improvements.

In time-scarce situations such as COVID-19, it may not be feasible to formally sandbox and test solutions in a safe environment prior to roll out. It becomes crucial in such projects to adopt an agile approach and mindset. This means treating the pilot as a beta prototype, where frameworks are in-place to capture and analyse user feedback, enable rapid adaptation, and implement iterations as soon as they are available.  

Stick Vs Carrot.

The 4 ideas are just examples to illustrate how we can directly address the needs of specific users, devoid of any punitive means. Like the government-issued masks, there is no one-size-fits-all solution in User Centred Design. Perhaps not explicitly documented, but User Centred Design is about nudging behaviour in the right direction through positive interventions. It involves presenting solutions that motivate users through benefits and relevant experiences, whilst achieving the business or organisational objectives. Certainly not all of Singapore’s solutions to COVID-19 are punitive. In reality, it is about achieving a balance of both approaches. Ultimately, both have the potential to create behavioural change.

Without getting overly philosophical, it simply becomes a question of how one chooses to go about solving the problem. I prefer to build positive connections with my customers, not by seeing them as the ‘enemy’ and beating them into submission.

As for me, I had simply forgotten to wear my mask and left it in the car while doing my takeaway run. Getting hit by a $300 penalty under these circumstances would have left a bitter taste in the mouth. One that may serve as a good nudge towards the right behaviour, but would certainly not buy the authorities any good will from me.

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