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The importance of paper and print to nudging

When behavioural science pundits speak of successful interventions, many undercook the critical role played by the paper-based nature of the nudges used. By Philani Shandu, Behavioural Economist and Associate at Genesis Analytics.
Philani Shandu, Behavioural Economist and Associate at Genesis Analytics
From one study to another we often hear, for example, more about how the default effect was cleverly used to nudge organ donation participation and savings rates, and less about the behavioural value added by the printed items (application forms, glossy brochureware, direct mail pieces, etc.) used to 'deliver' effects of this kind.

Our experience from having built and tested paper-based nudges of all sorts have made it apparent to us that the unsung heroes of behavioural science are the messengers of messages: physical documents. 

What do I mean by physical documents? Physical documents speak to an age before we were habitually glued to our smartphones. They are hard copies, typically printed on paper, that can take the form of brochures, application forms, request for quotations, questionnaires and contracts.

The fact that many of the cornerstone studies defining behavioural economics were conducted using physical hard copies is more than circumstantial or convenient, in our view.  

We know from Benartzi (2015), Thaler's partner in developing Save More Tomorrow, that physical documents are superior to their digital near-equivalents in many ways - including engagement. In another example, Martin (2015) has shown that if a person writes something down on paper (the details of a doctor's appointment, for instance) they are much more likely to remember the information than if they simply repeat it in their heads. We also know, from neuromarketing firm TrueImpact (2015) that print media requires 21% less mental effort to process than digital media.

Simply put, paper-based content is both easier to understand and more memorable than its digital equivalent.

In arguing for the importance of print items, I am not suggesting that digital is inferior in everyway - rather I want to advance the view that in a world-order all too consumed by digital design, there should still be a place for old-world tech; like print and paper.

For many this may seem self-evident. The fundamental shift lies perhaps in the process of how one develops persuasive content and designs architectural choice options that can be replicated in both physical and digital contexts. This requires an elegant simplicity that benefits both environments.

Mindful of the enormous amount of naively designed paperwork that continues to clutter banks, insurers, healthcare and government - notwithstanding the investments in digital - we're reminded of the tremendous amount of work still to be done. 


Blue Apple and Genesis Analytics have been working together for many years and this article has been reproduced with their permission.

About the author

Philani Shandu is Behavioural Economist and Associate at Genesis Analytics.

Blue Apple's press office

Blue Apple
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