Walk this way: How design subconsciously influences people's behaviour

We’d all like to believe our choices are our own; that we’re not simply sheeple, bleating through a world run by evil corporations and governments. But delve into the world of decision making and behavioural economics and you’ll find so much of what we interact with on a day-to-day basis is nudging us in a certain direction. Jessy Edwards takes a look at the way designers from a range of different fields are attempting to influence our behaviour. 

In a recent piece of research for DB Breweries, Auckland insight agency TRA set out to prove just how little we know about why we make certain choices.

It wanted to show DB that asking people how they bought liquor was, quite frankly, “a waste of time”. To demonstrate, they set up GoPro cameras in a liquor store to observe people making their purchases. They also stopped the shoppers to ask them why they chose what they chose.

“You could then watch that explanation on a split screen and see the reason they gave bore no resemblance to what they did in the store,” TRA’s head of strategy Colleen Ryan says.

Instead, things like the designed environment and layout of the shop were shown to be pushing people to their selections more than any reason they consciously knew of.

“Based on that we were able to advise on how store layout would influence behaviour ... things like determining that if you’ve got green everywhere in the carpark people are likely to pick up green,” Ryan says.

This is the magic of designing behaviour, using insights into psychology and how the brain works to ‘nudge’ people towards one decision or another, without them even realising it.

Whether eating out, finding our way at a train station or simply paying a bill, you can bet our actions are being influenced – or, more cynically, manipulated – in some way.

It might be pushing us to make a decision that stretches our resources, or it might be influencing us to help ourselves improve, but every design around is nudging us to behave in a certain way, and you may as well know about it, Ryan says.

“You are going to prime people, there’s no way you’re not. So you may as well be in control rather than just let priming happen randomly.” 


Kiwibank has been using behavioural research to design products that encourage their customers to make decisions that might actually make them better off, even if appears to be at a detriment to the bank.

One of its recent successes has been the Future You campaign, designed to make Kiwis think more about the amounts they were putting to their Kiwisaver and what that would look like in reality on retirement.

The government has already rather forcefully nudged us into a very smart decision by making enrolment into Kiwisaver the default, but the benefits could be better for New Zealanders, Kiwibank head of propositions, experience and design Anand Ranchord says.

“So you get a kickstart and good reason to get into the market, but it’s a really passive engagement, maybe your employer signed you up and you have no reason to opt out.”

“What we were discovering was there was this real perception of ‘the fact that I have Kiwisaver meant that was all done’, without the realisation that’s just a start and there is a massive gap in anyone's retirement if they're only doing the minimum contributions.”

With the Future You campaign, Kiwibank customers were given the online tools and calculators to give a real visualisation of what retired life would look like if you kept repayments and fund selections as the default: i.e. most would be living off the smell of an oily rag.

When people see that they won’t be living their best life on that sort of ‘future income’ they might start to put more away, Ranchord says.

“It’s an indirect way of influencing that behaviour.”

What the bank has seen is those who have used Future You and then increased their contributions increase them by - on average - a whopping $180 per week. This indicates that those who can afford to put away more, do, after interacting with this showing-not-telling method.

The bank has also seen a correlation between customer’s emotional response to their finance and their ability to get on top of debt. This has led to a whole new approach to the way Kiwibank designs its products.

“When we talk to customers that have a home loan they often talk about how it feels like they’re never making progress. To them it’s a huge number, an overwhelming debt that has a big bearing on how they think about their finances, and this feeling of having debt is such a powerful construct that when people are feeling they are burdened by this debt there's a dampening in their spirit,” Ranchord says.

Kiwibank decided to make the very simple change of flipping the framing of the home loan in its communications to reflect not the debt, but the equity in the house.

The bank will tell the customer how much they own of the house, including any appreciation, so customers can psychologically feel like they're getting ahead.

While this may seem like a form of trickery, Ranchord says it actually influences how people choose to spend their money.

“Being able to start to reframe how they feel
is key, because what we see when people feel like they're being overly burdened is behaviour of ‘head in the sand, it's all too hard’.” 


The concept of hope is a powerful one in behavioural economics.

Auckland agency FCB’s ‘The Journal’ used research into the brain to create a website where people suffering in the throngs of depression could start to help themselves; a website that would engage someone long enough to start on the road to recovery.

People would need a healthy dose of motivation for their journey to recovery.

“But as a mood disorder, depression often strips people of positive emotions for us to engage,” FCB director of interaction Simon Sievert and chief strategist David Thomason say. So the campaign focused on that touchstone emotion: hope.

Plus, with the insight that giving people suffering a complex, chronic illness information in one go would not be effective, ‘The Journal’ purposefully slows people down through the theme of ‘the journey’.

An insight from the medical community that people were more likely to comply with instructions if they knew the person following
up with them helped the agency select the central figure, past All Black and coach John Kirwan.

And functionally, it only asked people to make very small changes, a concept known as ‘chunking’. For example, “cook two healthy meals this week and see how you feel afterwards”.

“By combining small steps with the act of reflecting on the effect they made, people would convince themselves to adopt the changes on a more permanent basis,” they say.

Harnessing this growing area of behavioural economics puts immense power into the hands of brands and even governments.

But Sievert and Thomason argue it’s not as easy to manipulate people as it sounds.

“Design has always had the ability to impact people’s behaviour. Manipulated is a strong word – but they can be guided in the right direction. However, that can really only happen when design is applied across their entire journey. Any inconsistencies in their experience will break the ‘spell’. Not many organisations can apply design- led thinking across the spectrum of their activities comprehensively enough to truly manipulate consumers. Let’s hope that level of effort protects us all from exploitation.”

If someone doesn’t like bananas, it’s unlikely anyone or anything will be able to convince them to eat a banana. But as Sommer Kapitan, lecturer (assistant professor) in marketing at AUT says, you can try to push people who may be inclined to eat a banana in a certain direction by understanding how information is processed by the brain. And, if the smell of baking bread wafting out of the Subway store gets one in ten passersby to go inside, then the importance of the subconscious – or as she calls it, sensory marketing – becomes an enticing commercial prospect. 


Our behaviour online is also being swayed. And while we might think we’re pretty savvy with our ad-blockers, some companies are using subtle techniques to keep us online for longer – and playing the long game when it comes to getting us to make a purchase.

One company doing great work for the New Zealand tourism industry is Digital Arts Network, or DAN, through its work with Tourism New Zealand.

It is responsible for the design of www., a platform intended to not only guide people on a journey of dreaming of Aotearoa, but also to close the deal when it comes to booking.

“The job of the site is to provide information knowing people might come back 30 times before they book,” DAN managing director Steph Creasy says.

One of the most important things is the hook, getting people’s attention in a loud online marketplace and then keeping them interested in New Zealand through fantastic design. So what’s effective?

“Good old fashioned beautiful images, you can’t beat them,” Creasy says. “Replacing basic navigation with larger images that are much more evocative will drive more conversion, as well as video in this day and age.”

Tourism New Zealand also recently partnered with Nikon to produce immersive 360 degree interactive video explorations of New Zealand.

Part of this project came from the insight that, while people might be drawn to a beautiful image of New Zealand, there was a suspicion that a photo so picturesque might have been artfully edited to crop out crowds and unsightly aspects.

“The Nikon 360 makes a big difference on the dreaming side of things. At the beginning, when you’re thinking about the holiday, the digital design is ready to ignite that interest and bring that experience to life.”

And then of course there are the many ways our behaviour online is being influenced for the worse.

From something as simple as a list of most-read stories, to the more cunning but often duplicitous clickbait headlines that have us spiralling into rabbit holes of true crime, reality stars and strange new diets until we wake from slumber, asking ourselves how we got onto an article about an obese woman who found a Nokia phone in her fat rolls five years after losing it.

Click bait: the psychological manipulation is all in the name. The news agency posts an article that they want you to click on. But it only gives you a taster and, goddammit, they’ve left you wanting more. Consider yourself a victim of the ‘curiosity gap’.

And more recently there’s been the phenomenon of fake news. Helped along by Facebook’s algorithm, which uses thousands of variables to exclusively show you updates you’re more likely to enjoy based on the things you’ve shown interest in previously.

The algorithms have meant that, increasingly, we only see what we want to see, even if it’s not true. And even more worryingly, some argue, is the fact we don’t see what we don’t ‘like’, which can be educational, challenging or simply giving us a new viewpoint on a world event.

As these algorithms are accused of manipulating people’s world views – and, recently, manipulating elections – Facebook is being called on to be more responsible in how it curates content for its easily manipulated users. 


Kiwis are being bombarded with multiple manipulation techniques at almost every moment, AUT's Kapitan says.

Talking through her day, she points to an online pop-up while shopping for a friend’s birthday.

“It says ‘Don’t read the next line’ – and then you have to. And then it says ‘Oh you little rebel, we like you, click here to get five percent off.’”

The simple trick coaxed her brain into reading the next line and forced her to pay attention, she says. While browsing The New York Times website she was told she’d read five of her ten free articles for the month, and was invited to subscribe with the line “come think with us”.

This is an example of an advertisement nudging someone through appealing to identity, she says.

“That was by design that it seems particularly relevant and deeply tied to my identity, so I’m a lot more interested.”

Then there’s design that plays with the psychology of communal norms.

Kapitan points to the growing trend of ‘free restaurants’ or ‘pay what you can afford’ restaurants, some of which state how much the amount you donate means for them.

“It plays into the desire to be a good person. If I only thought of myself it would be free, but I’m thinking about my community. I don’t want to be a person that only pays $5.”

Designing to appeal to your identity and to your best self is just one way brands and government agencies are attempting to influence our behaviour.

One of the biggest trends in recent years has been the growth of self-tracking devices, also playing into the human desire for self- improvement, Kapitan says.

Devices like Fitbits, sleep trackers and free apps that allow you to track your water intake might not seem like obvious money-makers for advertisers, but the push to make people more conscious about their decisions can also overflow into purchases.

“The idea behind behavioural economics is there are these cues that nudge us forward, and this device helps us measure and therefore it nudges,” Kapitan says.

For example, if you’re on a Fitbit and it measures how far you walk, it will nudge you into walking more, and then that might naturally nudge you into buying better walking shoes.

But some research shows the psychology behind habit trackers and calorie counters can actually be counterproductive to the goal.

According to Stanford University psychologist and researcher B.J. Fogg, doing something you don’t enjoy and failing at it is more detrimental to your goal than doing nothing at all.

Through more than 20 years of behavioural research, Fogg deduced his own method for making habits that would actually stick, based on making tiny adjustments that would see a person rewriting their identity as someone who succeeds.

Conversely, if a goal in a habit tracker is repeatedly broken, a person will break down their perception of themselves as someone who reaches their goals.

For example, doing one push-up every time you go to the bathroom will in the long term form better habits than someone who aims to do 20 pushups per day and some days doesn’t manage to do it.

Another person’s goal might just be to floss one tooth every time they brush their teeth, or to put your running shoes on when you get home from work. Fogg argues that slowly, naturally, that person will start flossing more teeth or exercising and eventually add more ambitious goals to their routine.

Another way to trick the brain into forming a habit is by pairing something you don’t want to do with something you like to do, Fogg
and Katherine Milkman, associate professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, agree.

Milkman’s research found that willpower was very weak, but she argued it could be strengthened by pairing together an activity that you should do but you didn’t enjoy with an activity you love but isn’t productive, something known as ‘temptation bundling’.

“So what if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work? Or what if you only let yourself listen to your favorite CDs while catching up on household chores?”

These little trade-offs can help people trick themselves into forming those beneficial behaviours that elude us when motivation wanes. 


Even sitting down for a meal at a restaurant is full of ‘nudges’ meticulously designed to influence you to consume more.

Why are we handed the drinks list before the menu? To give you the chance to think about having a drink, where margins are higher. What does a restaurant do when it has too much of a certain stock? It introduces a pricier option of a similar item to make that one look more appealing.

There is an exact science to designing a menu to make people spend more and it plays with the psychology of comparison.

For example, there will often be an extremely expensive item on the menu that will be placed near the price for an item that is high-profit- margin, but comparably cheaper.

“By putting high-profit items next to the extremely expensive anchor, they seem cheap by comparison,” The Guardian’s William Poundstone writes.

Restaurants are also encouraged not to list prices one above each other. This gives the establishment a better chance that the customer will first choose what they want, and then look at the price. Low-profit items are banished to ‘menu Siberia’ where people are less likely to see them.

Even the taste of the food is an experience that can be manipulated by design.

Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University held a TED talk on the science of how food can be made to taste better simply by making changes to a diner’s environment.

One example was a seafood dish at chef and food scientist Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck. The dish is served alongside a conch shell with headphones coming out of it, and the waiter suggests the diner eats with the headphones on, listening to the sound of the sea.

“We’ve done the research at Harvard to discover that seafood really does taste better with the sound of the sea, so knowing about the illusions and what drives our real perception of flavour helps us create more memorable and enjoyable experiences,” Spence says.

Other examples include a Michelin starred restaurant in Switzerland that only delivers the first course after diners have started laughing (in one case, this was achieved with a plastic elephant that was placed on the table). The better the mood, the better the food. Another study found that if people ate strawberry ice cream off a white plate, instead of a black plate, it would taste up to 10 percent sweeter.

Meanwhile, a restaurant in London offers a number to dial if the food is tasting too sweet or too sour. The tone that plays back to them then affects the taste of the dish, scientists have proven.

“The taste changes, becoming five to 10 percent sweeter listening to the higher than lower sound,” Spence says, once again showing that taste doesn’t just happen in the mouth, it also happens in the mind.

Some chefs who believe the secret to good tasting food is years of classical training and that special ingredient they add at the last minute often find this confronting. But think about your favourite meal. The reason it was so enjoyable was probably as much to do with the environment or the context (celebrating something with your loved ones, at a beachside/lakeside/pondside destination restaurant, or somewhere overseas), as it was about the food.

The science has applications not just to high-end restaurants, but also for public health – applications include allowing hospitals and homes to put less sugar in foods if they simply change the environment a patient is dining in.

And the list goes on. Everywhere we look, every time we go online, even the architecture around us is influencing our decisions. 


London agency Maynard is focused on design that quite literally nudges us in the right direction. It works on some of London’s largest transit networks, most recently on a new line that goes from east to west across the metropolis, to help make wayfinding effortless.

But how does it know exactly where to put a sign, what to put on said sign, and how to design a station so that thousands of people can move seamlessly from one place to another each day?

“Wayfinding isn’t just about signs, it’s really understanding different user types and the information they require along their end-to-end journey,” director Julian Maynard says.

He breaks the design process into stages: the information a person gets before arriving at the station via apps, maps or fliers, how people arrive at the station and what information is on those vessels, and then finding one’s way through the station.

This is where the fascinating psychology of slow spaces and fast spaces comes in.

“A slow space is where people have to make a decision, they’re looking for signage so you really want to pare back the advertising, in a slow space you want people to feel at ease,” Maynard says.

“When they’ve made their decision and they know where they’re going, potentially they go into a fast space, in that space we encourage stimulating them with commercials and advertising.”

Sensory factors help, too. Maynard emphasises fast and slow spaces by having indirect wall lighting in the slow spaces that provides a more calming environment, making it easier to look at information.

In fast spaces it might use overhead direct cool light. “It’s about speed, getting people moving,” Maynard says.

“There are also announcements that can tell you where you’re going, signs, environmental clues, all of which enhances this experience.”

In New Zealand, ad agency Clemenger BBDO has worked with the New Zealand Transport Agency for years to try and influence our behaviour on the roads. And, if you look at the way social norms have changed around things like seatbelt use, drink driving and speeding, it’s worked.

“Advertising is a cog in a big machine,” NZTA’s Rachel Prince told StopPress, with better roads, better vehicle technology and better enforcement also playing major roles. But Philip Andrew, who was previously executive creative director at Clemenger BBDO, believes the social pressure that advertising created played a major role.

“It’s undeniable ... When we started working on NZTA, or LTSA as it was known then, the average mean speed if you were categorised as a speeder was 120kmh. Now it’s under the tolerance, around 107-109kmh. That progress hasn’t been made because of engineering or car safety technology. That’s happening because of lobbying and the work we’ve done to get people to accept that there are other people on the road.”

A more tangible recent example is the Conscious Crossing, a partnership between NZTA and Kiwirail that sees moveable barriers placed before rail crossings that anyone can shift around to create different routes.

Kiwirail’s John Skilton said the idea was to engage the brain every time someone is crossing.

“It does that by constantly changing the environment, and the changing environment makes you think about what you’re doing at the right time.”

This is because brain research shows the more familiar we are with an environment, the less attention we give it, according to Clemenger BBDO (this is one theory as to why time seems to speed by when we’re going about our daily routines, but seems to slow down when there is new stimulus – like a different country – for the brain to process).

“Which is incredibly dangerous at railway level crossings where expensive warning signals can’t always be installed,” Skilton says. 


Behavioural economics is shedding more and more light on why people do what they do, and illuminating how simple we really are. One of the biggest successes has been in the area of defaults.

In Germany, about 12 percent of people consent to being organ donors, while in Austria it's 99.9 percent.

This huge gap is not the product of "different cultures, different norms, or extraordinarily effective educational campaigns in Austria," legal scholar and behavioural economics guru Cass Sunstein wrote in a recent paper, but more of simple laziness.

"In Austria, consent is presumed, subject to opt out. In Germany, consent is not presumed, and people have to opt in."

In New Zealand, you have to choose ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to being an organ donor on your driver’s licence, so in that case being an organ donor is not the default.

According to latest information from Organ Donation New Zealand, only 54 percent of licence holders have chosen to be donors with the highest percentage being drivers in the 16-19 year old age group.

But defaults can also cause frustration and anger. Airlines, typically of the lower-cost variety, are renowned for using this technique, with opt- out rather than opt-in selections often leading to extra fees for all but the savviest of purchasers, although moves are afoot from consumer interest groups to stamp it out.

Air New Zealand got rid of an opt-out clause for travel insurance during the online booking process in 2015 after it had been given a formal warning by the Commerce Commission, which also convinced House of Travel, Dash Tickets, Ticket Direct and Naked Bus to follow suit. Jetstar relented in March last year, and the Commerce Commission has sent AirAsia a warning about misleading prices through arbitrary fees. 


The more you look at it, behavioural economics seems to play to our most base tendencies as humans: laziness, shame, impulsivity and competitiveness.

In social psychology, reciprocity is the idea that people should repay, in kind, what another person has provided for them, and it helps to explain the creation of social norms, says TRA’s Ryan.

We see the idea in practice in New Zealand with smart energy meters and the ability to compare the energy output in your own home to those of your neighbours and those in similar housing situations to you.

“One of the powerful ways of changing behaviour in that space is that people want to compare well with others and do their bit,” Ryan explains.

Neighbourly, a New Zealand social media network set up for specific neighbourhoods, does the same thing, tapping into the importance of social endorsement and reciprocity, she says.

“Neighbourly is speaking to that social endorsement and norming, that feeling of ‘what’s everyone else doing?’”

Ryan says one of the most important insights into human behaviour was realising how many decisions were considered and analytical, and how many were in fact basic, instantaneous and often unconscious.

Daniel Kahnemann, a man regarded as the father of behavioural economics, summarised this idea of two cognitive systems in his book Thinking, fast and slow, which showed that we use shortcuts and heuristics so that we can continue to function in a world of almost endless choices. Kahnemann and his academic partner Amos Taverksy, who are the subjects of a new book by Michael Lewis called The Undoing Project, showed that 'homo economicus', the always rational human who ‘maximised utility’, was largely a myth. We were, to quote the title of another seminal book in this field, predictably irrational.

So the sooner we realise we have barely a clue as to why we make the decisions we do, the more alert we can be to the influences around us – and the more those who understand how we make decisions can use that knowledge to try and influence us.

And at the very least, maybe the next time you pick up a six-pack of Heineken at the local bottle store you’ll ask yourself this: did I choose it because I love a good Dutch brew, or simply because the booze store’s car park is painted green? 

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