Mind Your Business

Designing for the way people behave instinctively

Marketing campaigns historically have used basic human instincts to nudge or manipulate human behavior. Now companies are tapping into human instincts not only to influence consumers, but also to increase productivity and improve morale among employees.

“If we can successfully appeal to the human instincts of the target audience and achieve the desired outcomes, then why should it be limited to marketing? Why not adopt it across all parts of the organization?” asks Krannert professor Karthik Kannan, whose research focus is design for instincts.

Design for instincts can be defined simply as designing systems in a manner that is instinctually appealing and allows people to respond in a manner that is intuitive. “We’re thinking about a more structured way of doing these things. If you design products, processes or policies appealing to human instincts, you will be successful,” Kannan says.

One way to shape consumer behavior is with manipulation of the supply chain. Companies can restrict the number of products that are available at a store, which creates scarcity, and makes people instinctually want to buy the product before it runs out. “Running out of stock, typically to be avoided in a supply-chain context, becomes a key attribute. It helps sell the product,” Kannan says.

Another way to design for instincts is using gamification, which taps in to people’s desire to play games. It has been used quite successfully in marketing. One example is McDonald’s Monopoly promotion, where customers obtain Monopoly game pieces when purchasing food products. Customers purchase food, play the game and have a chance to win prizes.

Taking the next step, companies are now using design for instincts as a way to motivate employees to perform better at work. Microsoft is one company that has used the concept with great results. “Microsoft was trying to figure out translation errors in Microsoft Office products, when translating from one language to another. It is a monotonous, mind-numbingly boring task, and yet it has to be done,” Kannan says.

“So, Microsoft came up with a language quality game. You are allowed to form your own teams internally and compete among other teams figuring out bugs in your language. By transforming what was going to be a boring and mind-numbing task into a game, they were very successful in terms of overcoming the problem.”

New products and services are being launched all the time that appeal to people’s instincts to share resources and make society a better place. “When you think about it, lots of behaviors can be changed using information technology,” Kannan says. “There is a wide variety of instinctual behavior that we’ve observed, and there are some designs built around those instincts that have been very well done.”