Behaviour, across disciplines

Interesting EPSRC event last Thursday at Friends House in Euston, on cross-disciplinary research. I’ll briefly summarize the talks of three professors that I found the most relevant personally (there was much more that I won’t mention here!).

The first set of talks was on the UBhave project: behaviour change meets computing. Lucy Yardley from Southampton talked about her work on a “person-based approach” to developing behaviour change interventions, and had many good nuggets of wisdom on mobile apps. First, that they tend to be “disposable”; there is some enthusiasm for them initially, but then minimum commitment in the longer-term. Second, that tracking your behaviour is popular, but people aren’t really tolerant of the effort required (I can personally attest to this one!). And third, that people are rather skeptical of “sensing” apps (too creepy?). She also used the phrase “apps are no longer the future”, which I liked.

Cecilia Mascolo from Cambridge talked more about the computing side of things on the project, especially about their work on tracking emotions and how to analyse and use the data collected. Very early stages for these kinds of applications, but also potential for interesting research. And lots of this research has also resulted in shareware code, which I’ll need to look into a bit more (start here and here).

Jon Whittle from Lancaster presented some highlights from the Catalyst Project which brought together academics and community groups to work on various smaller projects. What stayed in my mind was his noting that to get any buy-in, social change projects like these must come from a co-design approach (or something similar – “Speedplay” is what they call their methodology). Just giving someone a whizzy webtool isn’t really going to solve many issues.

Learning by standing on a street corner

I’ve been volunteering for Amnesty International for ten years now. There have been many public actions in those years, and memorable moments from dressing up in a policeman’s helmet and pink feather boa to holding up a cardboard car on Brick Lane (hint: think Saudi Arabia and women drivers for the last one). It has also taught me a lot. I’ll share some of those learnings here, and I hope it’s easy to see their relevance to business and tech as well.

Starting from the basics: where to set up your stall? Obviously you want to be where people are. But you also need to have enough space for those people to stop at your stall. And ideally, to see you from a few steps away, so that you don’t take them completely by surprise. Their first reaction will most likely to be to walk briskly away if you do.

And you will need to have a great, quick sales pitch. On the street, you only get about three seconds to grab somebody’s attention before they’ve walked past you. So you’d better be prepared with something that will make them interested enough to stop and hear more. It also makes sense to try out a few things and see what works. Same thing with props and other gimmicks: some times and places waving handcuffs will work, and sometimes it won’t.

You will also need to know your stuff. Almost certainly you will come across someone who is either an expert in what you’re talking about, or someone who will, often very aggressively, try to argue that you are totally wrong, as well as an idiot or worse. So be prepared: read through your materials and petitions. And be honest and say so if you don’t know something.

Teamwork. Make sure you are all consistent, because life is confusing enough without you adding to it by giving away mixed messages. And agree your roles. There’s no point in all of you directing people to your stall if there’s nobody there to talk to them and get their signatures/money/whatever you’re asking for. And make it as quick and easy as possible to complete the transaction. It’s only polite not to make people hang around waiting while you try to find the right petition to sign.

So, how much of this is easily translated to thinking about UX, A/B testing, customer journeys, and all that jazz? Different frameworks and different vocabulary perhaps, but the issues are exactly the same. And most of this is common sense really: how do you make it easy for people to do what you’d quite like them to do, with the minimum fuss for all involved?