A Guide to Learning Nudges

Keeping these five principles in mind will help your nudges be well received, but most importantly, help people do what they need to on time.

Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us need a nudge now and again. We can be annoyed by nudges, or we can feel grateful for them—or perhaps, we can feel both annoyed and grateful at the same time!

When it comes to workplace learning, nudging can play a vital role. Mandatory compliance training historically faces the stigma of being uninteresting and unimportant. HR teams employ all sorts of carrot-and-stick combinations to get people to complete them. Even when individuals choose training topics that are interesting to them, this training often is not part of their core responsibilities, so assignments and learning activities can be put on the back burner.

In all cases, a well-timed, well-worded, and well-delivered nudge can prompt people to take an action they otherwise wouldn’t have taken.

5 Design Tips

Here are five things to think about when designing your learning nudges:

1. Content. Words matter…or do they? When you set an alarm for yourself, it’s common not to need to label what the alarm is for. You just want a precisely timed interruption to remind you to take action. Well, words may not be important when you are nudging yourself, but when you are trying to nudge another person, words will matter a lot. Do you sound pushy or insensitive? Are you missing any context? Or is your message on point and delivering both a reminder and needed information to the recipient?

Be careful not to be too verbose. You want nudges to be easily read and processed, not long missives that give the recipient a reason to put off reading them.

2. Frequency. How often should you nudge a learner? The answer depends a lot on the context. Is there a hard deadline or not? How critical is the action needed? The nice thing about nudges is that you can easily experiment and do some A/B testing to learn what works best for you and your learner audience. Split up a group that needs nudging into two groups. Choose a frequency of nudges that you think is a bit aggressive but possibly more effective. Choose another frequency that is less frequent, so much so that you worry whether it’ll work. Try out these frequencies between the two groups and see what works better.

The more frequent nudges may provoke more complaints, but if the nudges work, you know you’re onto something.

3. Modality. You can deliver nudges by e-mail, in person, through personal instant messaging, or by my favorite—a chatbot. Chatbots can engage with users wherever they are already messaging people, such as on Microsoft Teams, Slack, SMS, WhatsApp, Telegram, etc.

You can program a chatbot to deliver nudges when you want, and where they will reliably get to the intended learner. You also can scale your nudges to tens of thousands of learners at once in any language.

4. Tone. Adding humor and personality can be effective techniques to lighten the mood, even if serious deadlines are in the balance. In Robert Cialdini’s book, “Influence,” he outlines six principles of influencing others. One of these principles is “liking” or endearing people to you so they will listen and take you more seriously. Liking goes both ways—the recipient should feel you like them; then they will like you back. This is akin to reciprocity, another one of Cialdini’s principles. Another one—personality—can drive rapport, which will increase affinity to messages that come from you. But don’t overdo it as that could be a turn-off.

5. Personalization. “Hi, there. I’d like to send you a reminder. When would be a good time to do that? In one week, two weeks, something else?”

As exemplified above, another plus to using a chatbot is that you can program it to ask learners for their preferred timing for a nudge. That means they are less apt to resent the reminder when it comes because they’re the ones who asked for it!

You also can program your nudges to include highly personalized messaging, which will increase the context for the recipient. For example:

“Hi, Vince, you finished 50 percent of the required security compliance course last Tuesday. Just a friendly reminder that course completion is due by this Friday.”

The more personalized a message, the more effective it will be.

Vince Han is the founder and CEO of Mobile Coach and is an industry thought leader for learning technology with an emphasis on artificial intelligence and chatbot technology. The founder of several successful technology companies, Han has an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.