Nudging smokers through technology


In 2012 I moved to Australia to take up a role as strategy director at the media agency (UM) for the Australian Federal Government

In 2012, smoking was the single biggest preventable cause of death in Australia. And smokers continued to smoke despite being aware of the risks, and a long heritage of effective behavior change campaigns had given Australia one of the lowest smoking rates in the developed world. It was clear, as in the UK, that focusing on our desired behavioral outcome (getting people to quit and stay quit) would be more effective at reducing smoking rates than simply giving rational reasons to give up – giving them the ‘how’, rather than telling them ‘why’. It would also be considerably more efficient (i.e. cheaper) than an expensive advertising campaign – an example of what Thaler calls ‘making it easy’, his three-word summary of Nudge.

When I joined, my new colleagues at UM had talked to our government clients about using then new mobile app technology to help people quit. Bringing insights on effective ways of nudging behavior – such as the importance of social proof (i.e. seeing that others had successfully quit using the app) and saliency (i.e. providing bespoke information to each user) – we built an app with development partners The Project Factory called My QuitBuddy, using a number of these and other techniques based on behavioral science.

The first version of the app was built in a mere eight weeks and was very much based on an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) approach[1], with fairly limited functionality. It included motivational messages of support, a game that smokers could use to distract themselves when experiencing cravings, the ability to record motivational messages from loved ones, and provided up-to-date data each time a smoker opened the app on how much money they had saved, toxic tar they had avoided etc.

After launch My Quitbuddy quickly achieved the number one ranking in the Health and Fitness category on the iOS app store, with over 100,000 downloads in the first year. Seven years on, it is still going strong. It has been downloaded over half a million times, and the quitting success rate of users is eight times higher than smokers without support. The app has been white-labelled for use by a number of other governments, and is still a key part of Australian government stop smoking campaigns. It is probably the most effective stop smoking intervention employed to date by the Federal Government.

Why has it proven so successful? The initial insight behind developing an app was that most quit attempts fail because cravings can hit at any time, so support needs to be within arm’s reach at any moment. And for most of us the only thing within arm’s reach 24 hours a day is our mobile phone. The technological solution was therefore built around an insight into the desired behavior – and not created for its own sake.

[1] This was mainly because the Minister for Health wanted a major announcement she could make on World No Tobacco Day on 31st May, 2012 – which was eight weeks away. Whilst it was a stretch to make this target, it was the right thing to do in hindsight. The Minister got an eight-minute slot on primetime TV programme ‘The Project’ (effectively the Australian version of ‘The One Show’) where she talked about the app for most of the running time. This PR was hugely effective at driving downloads, which snowballed from there.

But, more importantly, we were able to create a more effective, addictive and usable app because we had data on what parts of the app people were using. It has been continually updated over the last seven years based on data on actual behavior.

For example, we found app users were screen-grabbing the homepage (which showed how much they had saved, how long they had been smoke free etc.) and posting it to their social media accounts. In the spirit of ‘making it easy’ we updated the app to allow users to directly link it to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, so that with one tap they could post an update. This leveraged two behavioral biases: commitment bias (making a public commitment makes us more likely to stick to a behavior, in this case telling all your friends you have quit); and social proof (showing how popular the app was would encourage others to download and use it).

The app was therefore continually optimized based on actual user data and behavioral science best practice, a distinct advantage over a traditional, one-hit advertising campaign.

I think this example of how behavioral science has been used to address an important problem in society can tell us much about how to solve business problems as well as save lives, and has been hugely informative in my own work. It tells us about the importance of focusing on (behavioral) outcomes, by helping people quit rather than simply telling them why they should; how behavioral science can lead to both a better evidence base and enable more creative solutions (such as the fatty cigarette campaign); and how technological solutions work best when based on a behavioral insight, rather than a desire for novelty or innovation.

This is an excerpt from the book, The Behaviour Business by Richard Chataway.

To hear more about how behavioral science can help your business succeed, let us know.