What are you reading?

What are you reading? Serene Koh

Issue: XXX.4 July - August 2023
Page: 14
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Serene Koh

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The core of what I do is to understand human behavior and to help design policies, programs, and products that take into account how people naturally behave (rather than how we expect them to behave). What I read professionally helps give me insights into the two parts of this endeavor: 1) what motivates people's behavior and 2) how we infuse that into the design of solutions and interventions.

Often, when I tell people I am in the business of motivating behavior, they will say, "Just pay them." And to some degree, these people are not wrong; financial incentives have been successful in encouraging people to do a whole myriad of things—getting into the habit of going to the gym, persisting in their job search, getting vaccinated (to a degree). However, there is much more to incentives than just paying people. In his latest book, Mixed Signals: How Incentives Really Work (2023), economist Uri Gneezy writes masterfully about how to design incentives—often nonfinancial ones—to accomplish the goals you intend to serve. In an early chapter, for instance, he talks about the Toyota Prius and how it came to dominate the hybrid-car market ahead of competitors like Honda, even though both companies introduced their hybrid cars into the U.S. market within months of each other. There did not seem to be anything attractive about buying a hybrid car at that point, and definitely no financial incentive to do so—hybrid cars were more expensive and offered less speed, acceleration, and comfort than similarly priced non-hybrid cars on the market. So why would people want to buy a "bad" car?


Turns out, consumers who chose to buy hybrids then were about making it clear that they were environmentally conscious and were willing to pay more for less to help the environment. After the first generation of the Prius, Toyota knew this; and to help consumers signal this virtue even more intently—and to incentivize like-minded potential consumers—Toyota chose to redesign the Prius to have the distinct look that we are familiar with today. This distinctiveness was extremely important for the people who buy the car to signal how much they care about the environment. If the social signal is the incentive, then the design needs to make that signal salient.

Unfortunately, design is sometimes less amenable to change than just reframing incentives. What if, inherent in design, are inaccurate assumptions about the users that have persisted for years, decades, sometimes even centuries? In her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (2019), Caroline Criado Perez cites the different ways in which the absence of data on women—in how and where mobile phones are carried, handspan, susceptibility to motion sickness—affects the design of products from iPhones to pianos to VR headsets.


As designers—whether of product or policies—understanding your end user and the conditions under which they make decisions is imperative. Criado Perez's book will compel you to confront the biases in the design of common, apparently gender-neutral products used in everyday life. Like mobile phones. The average smartphone is now 6.5 inches; the average female handspan is between 7.5 to 8 inches, barely larger than the phone itself. Criado Perez has spoken to tech journalists to understand the fixation with large screens at the expense of 50 percent of their consumers. The standard response is the accepted assumption that women, too, opt for larger phones, "because handbags." One does not have to dig too deep to realize that the reason women carry their phones in their handbags is because the pockets on our clothes are woefully inadequate. And yet, mobile phone and app designers continue to design passive-tracking apps that assume your phone will be either in your hands or in your pockets at all times, rather than sitting in your handbag on your office desk.

Criado Perez's book will compel you to confront the biases in the design of common, apparently gender-neutral products used in everyday life.

Criado Perez's book is a vivid reminder that you cannot begin to design a good solution for a problem if you refuse to see how different people might be experiencing your problem differently under sometimes dramatically different conditions.

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Serene Koh is director of the Behavioural Insights Team in Singapore. Through empirical research, her work applies principles of behavioral science to understand and encourage policy and program adoption for social good. She holds a master's in research methodology and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Michigan. [email protected]

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