Nudge yourself online

With the Nudge Unit hitting the headlines I thought I'd share some brilliant stuff that they shared with me. I visited them last year clutching some rent arrears letters I'd redrafted using some of their recommendations. Not only did they take a look and make more suggestions, they then pointed me in the direction of some of the leading lights in behavioural economics.

That led me to read books and papers by Dan Ariely and Richard Thaler and sign up to some blogs. It didn't stop there though. By following Dan Ariely on Twitter I found out about his MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) and a whole raft of free courses.

The courses are great but it's the academic reading you have to do for them that I’m finding invaluable – just being pointed in the right direction and being given free access to academic journals in the fields of consumer behaviour and behavioural economics has told me a lot about how we behave around money, how different payment methods make us buy different things and how money actually demotivates us. It’s all gold dust when it comes to welfare reform and channel shift.

For instance when one of our tenants starts to fall behind with their rent we send a letter detailing all the ways they can pay. My gut feeling was to give them just one option, and not the option that suits us best but the one that suits the customer best. These papers back up my hunch with scientific experiments and research. As a council we would prefer it if people paid by direct debit but that means having a bank account and a debit card. Even that one step away from using cash changes the way we think about money and what we buy. The pain of paying is reduced if cash doesn’t change hands making it easier to buy the things we shouldn’t, even if it means we don’t have enough to pay the necessary bills. Already vulnerable people become more vulnerable when they’re hit with bank charges to pay for overdrafts. Not only that, once you have a bank account you’re open to the ‘suggestion’ of a credit card. Research shows that the pain of paying is even less with a credit card and when it comes to food we’re far more likely to fill our trolleys with unhealthy food if we’re paying by credit card so those financially vulnerable people’s health also becomes an issue.

So if we’re really serious about helping the most vulnerable of our customers we should concentrate on face-to-face contact using cash or at the very least a payment card they can pay their bills with at a PayPoint. We shouldn’t be forcing them online with a debit card because we’re only creating more problems further down the line with rent arrears and all the problems ill health brings. Ideally it’s the people on the cusp of moving from phone to online and the cusp of moving from face-to-face to phone we should be targeting so that there is more face-to-face time available for the most vulnerable in society. Not only that our face-to-face customer services officers are trained to look for the signs of domestic abuse and the risk of someone becoming homeless – that’s not something that can easily be picked up the phone, never mind online.

When I start a blog I rarely know where they'll end up and what twists and turns they'll take along the way. If you fancy a doing one of these free online courses there’s a database of 338 (and counting) courses, provided by 62 universities and you’ll be joining an international campus of nearly 3.5m students – see you at the bar in the Union ;-)

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