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The science of behaviour change: how can digital play its part?

Here at Damibu, we like to look at the big picture. Human centred design is a big part of what we do, and for good reason. Many of our projects centre around behaviour change. It’s a topic that’s become louder in recent years, though perhaps it’s just becoming better understood.

Behaviour change is a really complex process. There are a multitude of psychological, social and economic factors that can interact to influence how we behave. However, how we behave can at times be predictable, and there are plenty of psychological theories that go some way towards explaining how we work.

One of those theories that has the potential to work digitally is self-determination theory, or SDT for short. According to SDT, every human is driven towards personal growth. In order to achieve it, we need to satisfy three basic needs; relatedness, competence and autonomy. If we foster them, then we are more likely to change our behaviour for the better and we can maintain it in the long term as it becomes a part of who we are. So how do we meet these needs?

According to SDT, every human is driven towards personal growth. In order to achieve it, we need to satisfy three basic needs; relatedness, competence and autonomy.

There’s no doubt that technology can bring us together – we have never been more connected! 95% of the UK population now owns a mobile phone and 93% have access to an internet connection. Most adults you speak to use some sort of social media, and phones are jam packed with apps of all kinds and purposes. Although this increase in connectedness is sometimes scrutinised, there’s no doubt that it has helped to bring us closer. But how can this affect behaviour change? Fostering connections through social media, bringing likeminded people together face-to-face through advertising of community groups, and seeing positive examples of people’s actions online can all help us to feel a connection. And this connection fuels our need for relatedness.

Of course, when we talk about relatedness the impact of COVID-19 should not be forgotten. Our collective experience of lockdown was in itself a uniting factor. At a time where many of us were unable to see our loved ones for a long time, we saw surges in the use of videoconferencing software as people strove to retain that relatedness. We logged into Zoom to chat to family and friends, to learn at school, and even to take part in online exercise and creative classes. Technology helped many of us to maintain some of our healthy behaviours in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago, and it did this through maintaining our social connection.

Competence, our second need, is all about fostering learning, and increasing someone’s ability to carry out a behaviour. We can foster competence within others or ourselves through helping people to learn new skills, giving them the right information or even building the confidence for a person to believe they are able to carry out a healthy behaviour. Competence could also involve giving people the means to change their behaviour, such as making public transport cheaper or subsidising food costs.

Though the internet has given great opportunity for the spread of misinformation, it equally gives us the means to ensure that information shared is of the right kind.

A great example of digital’s ability to increase competence is through the provision of information. Though the internet has given great opportunity for the spread of misinformation, it equally gives us the means to ensure that information shared is of the right kind. Most of us know to check the NHS website first when we are feeling under the weather, or to trust articles written by government bodies, well-known charities and organisations. Digital can help by bringing all of this together to improve our knowledge, and thus competence, when considering taking action.

Autonomy is perhaps the most important need of all. Giving someone autonomy is allowing them to take control of their own choices. The beauty of technology is that it connects us to so many opportunities. If we take something as simple as choosing a new GP, the internet allows us to search for a surgery in our area and make an informed decision based on its facilities, distance, opening hours and even reviews from existing patients. Likewise, Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign used the internet to inform girls and women of the scale of exercise and sports that are available across the country. Giving people the autonomy to take an action that they enjoy or that resonates within themselves means that they can become self-motivated and will be more likely to maintain a new behaviour in the long term.

As digital creators, if we keep in mind the three basic needs throughout our design process, we can ensure that our solution remains evidence-based and is more likely to be successful in enabling positive behaviour change.

If we take our own technology, CATCH, into account, you can see how the basic needs can interact in the same project. CATCH increases relatedness through informing users of local Children’s Centres and baby groups to meet likeminded parents. It satisfies competence through the provision of accessible information relevant to their own child. And it fosters autonomy by a) giving the user the choice to access the information whenever they need, and b) showing them a wide range of local services that they can choose to engage with.

SDT is only one of many theories, but it’s a great place to start. As digital creators, if we keep in mind the three basic needs throughout our design process, we can ensure that our solution remains evidence-based and is more likely to be successful in enabling positive behaviour change. What’s most important, though, is keeping the human being central to everything. By understanding their experiences, barriers and wants, we can decipher how we can foster their needs and increase their motivation to change for the better.

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CATCH annual report

 

As one of our most established projects, CATCH (Common Approach to Children’s Health) has been around since March 2016 and has over 11,000 users from seven CCG areas. Damibu produce an annual report each year, detailing general progression, feedback from users and professionals and potential impact areas.

In the year 2019/20, CATCH grew to over 1,040 articles from 28 different sources. Our new national content providers include RoSPA, Hungry Little Minds and PACEY.

This year, we found that 9 out of 10 users felt more confident to care for their children after using CATCH and would recommend it to friends and family.

“As a first time parent, every little thing makes you worry and question if something is wrong but this has helped calm me and realise what is normal (google is not your friend!)”

CATCH User

Though CATCH was originally created to address unnecessary A&E and GP attendances, a larger number of impact areas have been identified, including vaccination uptake, breastfeeding, school readiness, perinatal mental health, smoking in pregnancy and childhood obesity, which have been supported by professionals. This year, we asked users in which ways CATCH had helped them. Most popular areas were vaccinations, breastfeeding, healthy eating and exercise and play.

The identification and initial support of these potential impact areas show just how much the power of having clinical validated, locally relevant and age appropriate information to hand can have. Damibu continue to work with stakeholders to understand how we can support these areas moving forward.

This years report can be accessed below: