Nudge Theory: A Tool to Drive Learning Engagement and Change Behavior
Nudge Theory: A Tool to Drive Learning Engagement and Change Behavior

Nudge Theory: A Tool to Drive Learning Engagement and Change Behavior

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You might use a physical nudge when you want to get your partner’s attention.

You might use a digital nudge when you’ve sent an email and haven’t gotten a response after a few days.

You might use a verbal nudge when the line at the restaurant has moved forward, but the person in front of you is glued to their phone.

We use nudges all the time in our personal lives to produce changes in behavior; likewise, a series of thoughtful, well-placed nudges can help drive engagement in your learning and development efforts and actually change behavior for the better in your workplace.

Nudge theory in workplace learning

Used all over the globe in business, politics, and education, Nudge theory was first heavily promoted in 2008 by University of Chicago authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

The theory promotes using indirect suggestions and positive reinforcement to change behavior. It doesn’t forbid any activity or restrict choice; it simply helps users make desired decisions by capitalizing on automaticity, or one’s ability to do something or take an action without conscious thought.

Here are some examples of what nudges are and are not:

Nudge: putting washed and sliced vegetables with a container of dip within easy reach in the refrigerator.

Not a nudge: restricting sugary snacks.

Nudge: your phone vibrating after you’ve opened a social app more often than your self-imposed social media allotment.

Not a nudge: your phone blocking the app after you’ve opened it more than your self-imposed social media allotment.

Why nudge theory drives learning engagement

When you tap an individual on the shoulder and motion ahead of you to the line that has moved on, the person will likely walk forward. It’s an automatic response.

A good learning and development nudge should work similarly.

A small, positive, often unnoticeable disruption to someone’s day like an email reminder, a scheduled Slack conversation, or even a bulletin board about a new learning opportunity placed near the break room can trigger someone to engage in learning. When the nudge is designed with the learner experience in mind—for example, make it super simple to follow through by including a direct link to today’s learning module—it helps the decision become so easy to make, it’s almost involuntary. And ease of use is a vital component to engagement with learning initiatives.

The Groundwork for Nudge Design

Since a nudge is designed to change behavior, whether that’s a cultural shift related to diversity and inclusion initiatives, or an educational shift centered on defined core competencies, there are some steps you need to take before deciding how best to nudge your learners toward desired behavior.

1. Determine your team’s motivations.

From a behavioral perspective, what moves your learners? What are their attitudes and beliefs? What do they hold dear culturally and socially? Consult with your marketing department to develop strategies for reaching the emotional heartbeat of your team members; they’re using these strategies all the time to reach new customers.

2. Determine where your people hang out.

If your LMS is collecting dust, it’s not an ideal location to place a nudge. Take advantage of the communications channels and digital locations your people use on a regular basis. Digital hotspots such as these are great because you can regularly push fresh nudges to subtly keep learning top-of-mind.

Many of our clients reserve a top-of-the-fold spot on their intranet, ERG pages, etc., or utilize their IM app such as Slack or Skype to display Blue Ocean Brain micro-lessons. The colorful imagery and relevant topics are refreshed daily and catch their learners’ eyes in a way that static learning modules in the LMS cannot.

A First Down for Leadership Blue Ocean Brain lesson_SlackBlue Ocean Brain's daily microlearning lesson blended Super Bowl excitement with leadership skills on the Friday before the big game. Videos, articles and knowledge checks tapped into the uber-popular topic to grab learners' attention.

3. Use the EAST framework.

To change behavior, any nudge you design must be:

Easy: If there are four clicks a user needs to access your learning  module, are they really going to click through? If the instructions are difficult, will they spend their time reading them? Keep things as simple as possible.

Attractive: We’re attracted to things that are designed in a pleasing, organized way. Make it impossible for the user not to engage because it looks too good to pass up. Professional development learning content in 2020 must be modern, eye-catching, relevant and discussion-worthy, and the behavior nudges that successfully drive employees to that content must be the same.

Social: Will they have the opportunity to chat about their learning afterward in a dedicated Slack channel or during a meeting? Are they able to make a public pledge to complete a module? Just the thought that they’ll be talking about it afterward or will have their success displayed prominently will boost the likelihood of your team’s participation.

Timely: Not only should learning nudges be delivered at the right time, they should be delivered with just enough time. Humans often have trouble getting excited about results that aren’t immediately apparent, so nudging your team about something too far out can be counter-productive.

4. Test your nudges.

Not every nudge you try will work but real change happens when you’re willing to do some beta testing and adapt when you don’t get the results you want the first time. What works for some learners will not work for others, so try to develop and test as many as you can using those hotspots we talked about earlier.

Nudge Theory Take Away

If your organization is struggling with upskilling, resisting culture shifts, or simply not engaging with your learning initiatives, give them several positive, non-obtrusive nudges in the right direction. Then monitor whether your approaches work and be willing to shift and change gears to make sure that your educational content is delivered and retained.

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