Fitting The Behavioral Science Piece In The Organizational Puzzle

I often joke that if a contest for the most mysterious job title in my company existed, I would be the clear frontrunner. It seems as if every time I’m introduced to someone, I’m asked the same question: “So, exactly what do you do?”

This week marked my two year anniversary of working as a behavioral scientist in a product-driven tech company, and I still don’t have an exact answer to that question. But, having worked my way through the company, I’m now in a comfortable position to think about the question more clearly at least. 

My biggest realization about this role is a double-edged sword: Behavioral science actually overlaps with many roles in product-led tech companies. That’s good because that means behavioral science is becoming increasingly relevant to everyone, irrespective of what role one is in. That’s also bad because the onus of proving the importance of a stand-alone behavioral science role is entirely on us.

Based on my experience, I’ve put together some thoughts on where product organization and behavioral science overlap, and what differentiation a behavioral scientist can bring to an organization as a whole. 

Is behavioral science the same as user research?

In a generic sense, yes. User research is, rather obviously, about understanding users. Behavioral scientists do the same; yet, the nuance is in the process.

User research teams conduct qualitative research through in-depth interviews, discussions, and usability tests. They also conduct quantitative research through surveys. This research is then condensed into a form that product and design teams can consume and use for the product development.

Behavioral science research is more focused on uncovering the reasons behind why people do what they do. While interviews and surveys are useful techniques, it is more important for behavioral scientists to understand the context under which decisions are being made. Doing so helps them use that context to map and diagnose the behavior of the user. In other words, putting into words what the user cannot say. This comes not just from interviews, but from experiments and observations and conducting literature reviews of existing theories.

Can user research benefit from behavioral science?

Absolutely. If you are a user researcher and you have a behavioral scientist in your organization, integrate them into your research to help you uncover biases and blindspots that are not necessarily visible in plain sight.

Is behavioral science the same as design?

As someone who loves all things design, I wish that this answer is a yes. A designer in a product organization focuses on putting the product into a visual form, taking into account the users’ and the business’ needs. This is a highly technical process that involves immense stakeholder management and a deep understanding of how various systems interact in the backend, with the goal of producing a front-end that is simple enough for the user.

Behavioral design is a subset of design that is concerned with using design elements to affect behavior change.1 Borrowing heavily from behavioral science, this stream helps designers design for the real user — the one who is busy, inattentive, biased and not perfect, as opposed to the perfect user (who may or may not exist). 

Can design benefit from behavioral science? 

Absolutely. Behavioral science helps designers understand the actual user, rather than the theoretical user. If you’re a designer and you want to involve a behavioral scientist, reach out to them in the initial phases of design. They can help you understand the ‘why’ behind what people really do. It is immensely beneficial to get a behavioral scientist to audit your design from a behavioral perspective so you can uncover fail points early on in the process.

Is behavioral science the same as data science?

No. Data science is a field that analyses structured and unstructured data using machine learning and algorithms to extract useful insights, as well as predictive models.2 Data Scientists typically use mathematics, statistics, analysis, and machine learning to investigate existing patterns in data. The models that they create feed directly into products, making them smarter. For instance, if you have used Spotify and love the recommendations the app gives you, that’s the output of a data science model at work, which takes into account your music preferences and a bunch of other variables to predict what songs you might like.

Behavioral science, on the other hand, puts the predictions of data science models into the real world and helps drive the ‘last-mile’ behavioral change.3

Can data science benefit from behavioral science? 

If examples are anything to go by, then yes. The 2012 Obama presidential campaign was a groundbreaking experiment that employed data scientists to predict voter behavior, which was then used to optimize marketing resources.3 The distinctive part about the campaign was the complementary use of behavioral nudges along with data science models. The data science models could accurately predict which way a voter was likely to vote. But the campaign’s main objective was to sway voters to vote for Obama, and that’s where behavioral science comes in. The campaign team was able to get more votes in their favour by using nudges in communications towards those who were undecided, or not likely to vote for Obama. In other words, behavioral science provided the “last mile” connect that the data science models needed to reach the voter.

If you are a data scientist and you want to see your models being used to drive real behavioral change, reach out to a behavioral scientist — they might just know exactly what to do.

Is behavioral science the same as product marketing?

Not quite. Product marketing is the connection between business and product, and is a critical part of the product life cycle. Before a product is launched, product marketers create the positioning and the go-to-market strategy based on user research. During the launch, they help business teams understand the product and drive its adoption through campaigns.4

Behavioral science plays a critical role in parts of this process, such as providing a deeper understanding of the consumers’ behavior, conducting a diagnosis of the users’ current behavior to identify biases, and identifying interventions in communications that can nudge the adoption of a product.

Can product marketing benefit from behavioral science? 

I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern now, but the answer is yes.  Product marketing relies heavily on understanding users and creating positioning based on that. However, marketing thrives on insights, and behavioral science can help unravel insights that allow a product to be positioned better.

A simple example of this is the difference between explicit and implicit goals.5 If you are marketing a food delivery app, the explicit goal is to make it easier to order food. This is what you would learn from talking to consumers. But, if you were to dig deeper to understand the implicit goal, you might uncover the goal of “excitement” — that is, when customers order food because they want every meal to be a surprise and different from what they’ve had previously. The product positioning then changes from convenience to a more nuanced “variety with convenience”. So, if you are a product marketing manager, talk to a behavioral scientist to uncover insights that might help position the product better.

Be all, end all?

My advice seems to be that everyone in the organization should talk to behavioral scientists. But, my intent is the opposite of that. I want behavioral scientists to proactively reach out to others in their organizations to offer insights. The simple truth that runs the world is “ask, and you shall get”. A stand-alone behavioral science role comes with the responsibility of proving its value, and this will happen only and only through collaboration. So, if you are a behavioral scientist in a product organization waiting for someone to give you a project, don’t waste your time. Instead, reach out and tell others how you can add value.

Watch Out For These Cognitive Biases When Working From Home

As the third month of lockdown approaches, the novelty of working from home has undoubtedly worn off as we’ve adjusted to this new way of working. Whether it is really the “new normal” or not, the reality is that many individuals have transitioned to remote work. Working from home comes with its own set of distractions, but it can also impact our decision making. Two biases in particular — the spotlight effect and distance bias — are prominent in remote work.

The spotlight effect: Why we feel more noticed more than we actually are

The spotlight effect describes our tendency to overestimate the extent to which people notice us.1,2

We have flawed predictions about how others view us, especially those who we see regularly. Research demonstrates that individuals perceive changes in their appearance — a good hair day versus a bad hair day, for example — to be more prominent than they necessarily are. In reality, these changes tend to go relatively unnoticed.1 Even glaringly obvious changes aren’t as apparent to others as we may think. The spotlight effect can help explain why we may feel continually noticed despite this.

Given the changes in business communication over the past few months, it is no surprise that the spotlight effect is relevant to workers today. With the switch to video communication, we are more aware of our appearance, and increasingly feel watched.

Video conferencing in particular may worsen the spotlight effect. Approximately half of all adults are more self-conscious on camera than in real life, with some research suggesting that participants spend over half of a video meeting looking in the camera at their appearance.3 The spotlight effect contributes to what’s known as “zoom fatigue” — the feeling of exhaustion that video conferencing gives us.

To further complicate things, some essential attributes of visual communication are missing in video-conferencing. The removal of instant non-verbal cues, such as body language, causes taxing mental exhaustion.5,6Aspects like intense-staring, silence, or delays in response can lead to negative perceptions of others.7,8As much as we try to use video conferencing to simulate in-person communication, we can’t quite duplicate the aspects that matter the most. Video calls may actually do more harm than good compared to phone conversations. The spotlight effect can be a significant cause of stress and anxiety for individuals and worsens task performance and goal pursuits.4 Overcoming it is no easy task, as even those who are aware of it still don’t correctly gauge how others perceive themselves.1

So, given the spotlight effect’s impact, how can we prevent this bias from hindering our work?

1. Bask in the glory that is our insignificance. Remember, the spotlight effect is an individual’s overestimation of others’ perceptions. That is to say, no one really cares. What individuals find to be more unpleasant when chatting over video are behaviors like sitting too close to the camera, chewing gum, and eating food, as opposed to, say, one’s physical appearance.3 In the aftermath of moments that you feel are exceptionally embarrassing, reflect on the moment as if you were a bystander. Doing so helps you recognize the non-importance of moments you may find stressful or embarrassing. 

2. Think carefully if video calling is required for a situation. Given the reasons suggested, making a case for video conferencing is difficult unless it is absolutely necessary. In most regular scenarios, video isn’t very helpful. Video conferencing can be overly invasive, intimate, and not entirely useful.6 In fact, most benefits of video conferencing come from remote engagement and have little to do with the visual benefits.9,10 So, in future situations, question the need for cameras. In some cases, video conferencing can help build trust and intimacy — but the costs of zoom fatigue may outweigh the benefits.

3. Keep things visual — but not on people. Thanks to screen sharing and other capabilities, leaders can continue to use technology to create visually engaging meetings that don’t rely on staring at the faces of others. 

Distance bias: how “out of sight, out of mind” thwarts our decision making

Distance bias is the tendency to favour what is closest to us.11 The bias occurs not just with physical space, but also with time, as we tend to see approaching deadlines as more important than further ones. This bias mostly impacts our ability to prioritize tasks and assess value in resources or employees. For example, in a study of Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) funds, researchers discovered that fund managers unconsciously preferred local firms for their portfolios as opposed to firms in other cities.12 So, proximity is clearly important in decision making across several subjects, but isn’t necessarily an optimal decision criterion.

Indeed, this bias has significant implications for how we work from home. The effect is impactful in two ways: how we perceive others and how we perceive our own work.

Distance bias and employee evaluations

First, managers should be aware of how this bias impacts employee evaluations. Naturally, individuals trust and give attention to people, projects, or items that are more visibly prevalent. But, distance bias can lead managers to rely on employees that are simply more visible even if these employees aren’t necessarily the best choice for a given situation.13 Productive employees who are “out of sight out, of mind” may get fewer opportunities because they tend to keep to themselves.

Distance bias and work prioritization

Distance bias also plays out in how we perceive our work. As most of us shift to working far from our offices, we might feel differently about the work we have to complete. Tasks can get placed on the back burner, as we may feel less motivated to work on specific projects — or work at all.14

It’s hard to not let distance bias impact our work and lives in a world where we need to distance ourselves from others physically; however, these tips can help lessen the effect:

1. Use long term data to make evaluations. We tend to better remember information that happened recently, which may cause flawed decisions about employee evaluations. Information about an employee’s performance from the previous month does not necessarily provide an accurate picture of that employee’s productivity over the long term. So, begin recording or journalling information over a longer period and use this long-term data to make more concrete decisions.11 

2. Ensure all employees get a seat at the table. One benefit of being remote is that we have some control over who we run into at work. Without being physically present in the office, we aren’t influenced by those who work near us, or who we happen to see in the breakroom often. On the flip side, employees should recognize that distance bias may get in the way of promotions. They may have to counter this by taking a more active approach to remain on the minds of their managers. 

3. Work with your team to properly prioritize work tasks. Be wary of relying on time or physical distance as a measure. Keep in mind that far-away deadlines may require a considerable amount of planning and reap a greater reward than closer deadlines. Collaborating with your team often and continually checking in on all projects will ensure you aren’t prioritizing anything incorrectly.

So, as working from home becomes a reality, it’s essential to recognize that cognitive biases may be holding us back from doing better work.

First, the spotlight effect reminds us that we likely overestimate how people perceive us — whether video chatting or in-person. Although challenging, becoming aware of this effect can help reduce anxiety and help us make better contributions to our teams. Second, distance bias may alter our ability to prioritize value in our projects and coworkers. With the shift to working from home, we gain a new sense of control over what we keep distant, allowing us to evaluate and prioritize what we consider important.

As we make daily adjustments to this evolving working life, we can strategically combat cognitive biases to strengthen our team and ourselves.