It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it

Applying behavioural science to the ‘How to deal with debt’ guide

Jordan Buck is a Consultant at Ogilvy Consulting’s Behavioural Science Practice. Jordan and his team are dedicated to researching and applying the latest thinking in cognitive psychology, decision sciences and behavioural economics to create impactful behaviour change in the real world.

The Money Advice Trust has been producing the ‘How to deal with debt’ self-help guide for nearly three decades, designed to give those with financial issues all the necessary information they need in order to deal with their debts. Last year alone, over 100,000 people used the guide via National Debtline and other advice agencies.

Here at Ogilvy Consulting’s Behavioural Science Practice, we were asked by the Money Advice Trust and the Money and Pensions Service to help embed learnings from Behavioural Science into the new edition of the guide, re-designing and re-structuring it to make it more behaviourally motivating and to empower users to successfully deal with their debts.

From the offset, we saw enormous potential for Behavioural Science to be used to create a debt guide which is as useful, engaging and effective as possible. By working with people’s underlying psychology, and by understanding how people actually work through the guide, we could encourage users to take the correct action every step of the way.

Our approach

Working alongside the Money Advice Trust and the Money and Pensions Service, we reviewed the existing guide, interviewed users who are or who have been debt, and conducted an analysis of similar self-help guides. We identified each of the individual steps we need users to take in order to successfully deal with their debts, then used the COM-B Model of Behaviour to diagnose the specific challenges users may be facing – beyond a simple lack of information or knowledge – at each stage. Building on these insights, we collectively ideated hundreds of intervention ideas and concepts, concerning both the overall look, feel and structure of the resource, as well as the specific wording and content. Comprehensive user testing was then carried out to further hone and refine the top ideas to go into the final guide.

Throughout the new guide, we embedded and implemented a great number of evidence-based Behavioural Science techniques, designed to encourage a sustained and successful use of the materials. It’s so exciting to see these subtle nudges on almost every page of the newly-designed guide. Although there are far too many to list here, our top 4 (in a nutshell) are:

  1. Increase cognitive ease
    Put simply, humans have a preference for things that they understand, and an aversion to tasks that seem difficult or complex. By making the guide as clear, simple and painless as possible to progress through, we were able to dramatically increase its ease of use. For example, we completely re-structured the guide so that it more closely reflects the journey that people actually take, and the order of steps that makes most sense for the reader. Any jargon which may be difficult for the reader to understand was removed, while ‘chunking’ was employed to break down large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones to make them seem less daunting. A simpler design was also employed throughout with fewer colours, less text and more icons, making the guide easier to navigate visually.
  2. Acknowledge emotions
    As with many challenges like this, we find that simply giving people all the necessary information is not enough in itself to enable and encourage a lasting and concerted behavioural change. Lack of knowledge was just one of a myriad of factors which were preventing users from successfully using the guide – not least the fear and embarrassment which often accompanies this topic, as well as low levels of financial literacy. By acknowledging users’ feelings and the psychological barriers at play throughout the guide, we made users feel at ease with using the resource and with tackling their debt problems head on; reducing the ‘ostrich effect’ whereby users buried their heads in the proverbial sand.
  3. Emphasise social norms
    People never like feeling isolated or ostracised in something they’re doing, and the debt advice sector is no different. The more we could get readers to understand that they’re not alone in this situation and in seeking help, the greater the chance of them continuing to deal with their debts. The new guide therefore employs a range of techniques including testimonials, quotes, case studies and statistics, demonstrating to readers that others are also in this situation and that others have successfully been through this process and dealt with their debts.
  4. Prime positivity
    We know that the way in which information is presented to us, and the specific language which is used, can have an enormous impact both on our perception and on our subsequent behaviour. It was therefore crucial that we frame information in the right way throughout the guide. From the very front cover, the resource is filled with an array of positive ‘nudges’ designed to prime a positive outlook in readers and encourage them to continue. For example, including a ‘Three things to do first’ section at the beginning – those actions which are easy or rewarding for anyone using the resource to do first – helps to encourage an immediate sense of achievement. In addition, the design elements used help to make the guide feel much more interactive and ‘ownable’ as a resource, maintaining high levels of engagement throughout.

This integration of Behavioural Science to create a debt guide which is as useful, engaging and effective as possible is an innovative approach, and one which we are confident will lead to improved outcomes for people struggling with problem debt.
The new ‘How to deal with debt’ guide is now available across England and Wales, both in print and online, and can be downloaded here.

Contact Jordan.

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