Nudge Theory

You may have heard about ‘nudge theory’. It’s a behavioural science concept which argues that a range of small-step positive reinforcements or other incentives can help to influence the decisions we make. It’s applied to change our habits and behaviours, ideally toward better choices that we otherwise might avoid or just never manage to get around to.

The concept gained popularity following the book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (awarded Best Book of the Year by The Economist and The Financial Times back in 2009). The British Government took it on board by creating the ‘Nudge Unit’ within the Cabinet Office to investigate and implement the possibilities. Their work explored a range of ways to unlock the specific barriers to things such as getting loft insulation installed, agreeing to become an organ donor, or making donations to charities. So, what does this have to do with design? Well, behavioural change in this way was something that the team at Love to Ride were well aware of, but it was our job to unpack the concepts and make them come alive — all in the pursuit of getting more people cycling.

Nudge theory makes a lot of sense. If you believe that a communications campaign just saying ‘please ride your bike to work, it’s better for you and the environment’ will have people signing-up in droves, you are showing a severe lack of understanding about how people tick.

But sadly, most of us have seen posters or adverts along these lines, and they tend to come from well-intentioned teams in the public sector or the charitable sector who are trying to get us to do something that is either sensible or worthwhile. The trouble is, we don’t not do things because we lack the awareness of sensible and worthwhile options. We don’t do things because much of our behaviour is based on ingrained habits, the pull of temptations, lack of time to weigh-up the whole situation and in-built battles with acting in line with long-term wishes. In short, we falter, which can be referred to as the intention-action gap.

The key to delivering an effective campaign is to identify the people involved and as quickly as possible focus in on their particular context.

For cycling, this translates into a range of fragmented barriers that hinder the commitment process. This might be not having a bike, or perhaps having a bike but it needs the puncture fixing. For others, it might be a lack of confidence in riding in traffic, or not having good shower facilities at work. The other aspect is understanding that there are a range of benefits or motivations for different people. Some may be interested in cycling to save money, some might like the idea of getting fit, and some may be delighted with the carbon reduction. A one-size-fits-all information campaign approach does not work — regardless of how sensible and logical you may believe it is, and regardless of however good the copywriting or the branding might be.



The key to delivering an effective campaign is to identify the people involved and as quickly as possible focus in on their particular context — personalising campaigns in this way creates greater engagement. For Love to Ride, it starts with a super quick sign-up process and a well-designed survey that gets straight to the pertinent profiling information. This is followed by receiving tailored online information via an app (such as a clear and concise film about how to fix a puncture) and a motivational programme of goals and pledges (such as recording the miles travelled), followed by some reinforcing congratulatory feedback, reward points or a little friendly encouragement along the way. Put these things together with bright, witty and engaging copy; a strong set of graphic icons and illustrations; and a visual identity that works across online and offline, and a campaign really comes together. Love to Ride has attracted over 160,000 participants with 30% of those being non-cyclists before they started, and the team are now delivering their campaign tools and approaches to nearly 9,000 companies across nine countries.

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