Language selection


Sign in

Sign in

Behavioural Insights: Taking Service Design to the Next Level


Whether it’s choosing a menu item or purchasing a new pair of shoes, we make choices every day. It’s no surprise that our choices are often influenced by external forces of which we may or may not be aware. Let’s unpack some of the forces at play and explore how a better understanding of them can lead to more effective policy-making and service design. To do this, we’ll be applying the behavioural insights (BI) approach.

Before we dive into the deep end, let’s get some basics out of the way.

What is the behavioural insights approach?

The behavioural insights (BI) approach integrates principles taken from psychology, cognitive science and social science into the policy-making process. It leverages evidence-based knowledge of human behaviour and the drivers that inform decision-making. Knowing why people do the things they do makes it easier to design new services and policies or to adjust existing ones. Ideally, this results in interventions that encourage positive behavioural change among members of the public.

All that being said, understanding the reasons behind our decisions is not always a straightforward task. As humans, we operate within limited cognitive resources. This means we often rely on biases and mental shortcuts when making decisions. These biases, supported by research in behavioural science, can influence our choices and prevent us from making the most rational or objective decisions. Some of these biases include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Information overload: We get overwhelmed by too much information when trying to make a decision
  • Present bias: We opt for the smaller immediate reward instead of the larger future reward
  • Loss aversion: We prefer to avoid losses over achieving equivalent gains.  
  • Framing effect: Our perceptions and choices are affected by the substance and delivery of a message. We are easily swayed by how information is presented to us, even if the underlying facts are the same.

Let’s look at one of these biases in action. In 2019, the Government of Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS) collaborated with the provincial Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) to help increase the use of MyBenefits, a provincial online social service tool. Exploratory research indicated that information overload was among the factors preventing users from signing up for the service.

Cognitive biases such as information overload can make service design tricky. Policy-makers and service designers can’t assume that people will interact with a service in the way the designer intended. They need to consider factors that could influence individuals such as biases and then design and test accordingly.

This is where behavioural insights can make a difference.

Policy and behavioural insights

A hand places the last cube in a wooden puzzle to complete the image of a magnifying glass  focusing on a person's brain.

Behaviourally informed policies are driven by experimentation and an understanding of the forces that guide human behaviour. This approach can include testing initiatives on a smaller scale to gauge the result before wider implementation.

In the previous example, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS) and the Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) adjusted their outreach strategy and tested new emails and text messages to a sample of 4,000 clients. These revised communications made it easier for users to sign up for MyBenefits by including direct registration links, emphasizing the benefits of the service, and providing timely reminders. All of the revised communications received positive results. The MCCSS even reported that one version of the new emails resulted in a greater than fourfold increase in registration for the MyBenefits online service.

As you can imagine, there are many ways to leverage behavioural insights. Interventions can be as minor as updating messaging or, when appropriate, as big as launching a new program. The latter was the case when, in 2011, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills launched the Midata program in collaboration with the United Kingdom Behavioural Insights Team (UK BIT). This initiative gave consumers access to their own consumption data relating to their energy, cell phone use, and credit cards. By simplifying the process of accessing data, consumers were able to compare deals more easily and choose the deals that best suited their needs.

Applying behavioural insights

Now that we have a basic understanding of what BI means, let’s discuss how it can be applied. There are a number of tools that can be used to either leverage existing biases or minimize their negative impact. Such tools include:

  • Simplification: Making things easier to understand and do
  • Social norms: A shared understanding of what constitutes appropriate behaviour in a society
  • Framing: How a choice is presented to the decision-maker
  • Reminders: Explicitly reminding the individual of the required action

In the case of the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS), simplification was used to address information overload and make the content easier to digest and the call to action clearer.

EAST framework breakdown
EAST framework
East framework

Make it easy

Making it easy for people to follow along effortlessly by eliminating or minimizing the need for effort, steps and choices, thus simplifying actions.

  • Make communication simpler and guide people towards taking specific actions.
  • Minimize inconvenience; too much effort exertion discourages participation
  • Deconstruct complex goals into simpler, smaller tasks

  • Make it attractive

    Presenting benefits in a way that makes them seem more valuable. This involves making your offer stand out and seem more important.

    • Customize
    • Grab interest
    • Appeal to emotions
    • Optimize incentives
    • Scarcity and optimism

    • Make it social

      Using the power of social influence and support from others in a group to encourage desired behaviours and promote a sense of commitment among everyone involved.

      • Confirmation bias
      • Herding and conformity
      • Commitment bias
      • Select the right messenger
      • Use existing social networks

      • Make it timely

        Choosing the moments when people are most receptive and presenting the benefits in a way that makes them more immediate and appealing.

        • Present bias
        • Key decision moments
        • Assist people in planning
        • Provide feedback

The behavioural insights approach is being used more every day and numerous frameworks have been developed to help governments and organizations leverage this methodology. One example is the EAST framework developed by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a unit of the UK government that has since become a global social-purpose company. It focuses on encouraging certain behaviour by making it easy, attractive, social and timely to adopt.

Before you implement this framework, you should define the desired outcome and understand the context of the situation you are preparing to address. This will help you ensure that whatever you design is relevant and appropriate. The final steps in this process would be for you to implement the intervention, evaluate its effectiveness, and adapt it as necessary.

Things to keep in mind

Behavioural insights can be effective, but you must use them ethically. Bear in mind the following  two key concerns related to the use of BI:

  • Manipulation: This is when people’s behaviours are being influenced without their knowledge or consent.
  • Paternalism: This is when decisions are being made for people without considering their wishes or opinions, based on the belief that it's for their own good.

While the goal of improving policies is a sound one, we must carefully examine the methods used to achieve that goal. Policy bodies need to be mindful of respecting individual autonomy, privacy and consent throughout the process. By doing so, we can strike a balance between leveraging behavioural insights and ensuring the ethical treatment of the individuals involved in the interventions. Below are a few tips to help you develop and implement ethical behavioural interventions:

  • Be mindful of identifying potential ethical concerns from the outset
  • Engage experts within your department or the federal government
  • Ensure that behavioural interventions can be defended publicly
  • Collect data ethically by obtaining informed consent, being transparent about the purpose of the data collected, using the collected data for legitimate and lawful purposes and respecting privacy
  • Obtain consent where required
  • Take steps to ensure transparency

Next steps

Behavioural insights can be a powerful tool for user-centric public services and effective communications. Used responsibly, the BI approach can help bridge gaps between the needs of the public and the services provided by governments.

Interested in exploring BI? Start a conversation on BI with your team by asking the following questions:

  • What assumptions are we making about the public’s expected response to a policy, project or initiative?
  • What evidence are these assumptions based on?
  • How can we assess the likelihood of our assumptions and adjust as necessary?


Asma Hassan

Asma Hassan

Recommended for you

Topic: Discover Series

Learning Path: Discover Cyber Security

Employ cyber security best practices to protect Government of Canada (GC) data, information, systems, and reputations.

2 years ago6 min read

Topic: Discover Series

Learning Path: Discover Cloud

Get familiar with the opportunities, applications and limitations of cloud computing.

3 years ago5 min read

Topic: Discover Series

Learning Path: Discover Human-Centred Design

Get familiar with human-centered design principles and as a result, speak confidently to your colleagues about it and become curious to learn more.

3 years ago6 min read