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Increasing Uptake

How we can incentivise users to engage with a digital service.

Published by Vincent Pickering

I find physical exercise a good way to work through my thoughts. While ripping out weeds from my garden, my mind drifted back to my last contract working for the DWP.

I had worked on a service that was focused on mobile users. During the Alpha stage we had been privileged enough (thanks to great leadership and foresight) to demo a basic prototype with real users and enlist feedback. We went through several rounds of iteration. It helped quickly identify problems we hadn’t considered and address them. This phase was a success. People were enthusiastic about the service and the prototype seemed to be satisfying the basic user need.

After receiving GDS approval we progressed to private beta and built the software for real. This time we tested again with real people, but met with low levels of take-up. Some of this was down to technical issues that were identified and fixed but the Beta take-up was still low.

During the Alpha phase we had offered people the use of our own iPhone on a secure network so we could regulate the access. Once we moved to Beta with the real system we requested that people use their own smart phone. There was a working idea (at least when I departed) that asking people on benefits if they had a smart phone was perceived as if the Government was trying to catch people out. The theory was that if you were claiming benefits and had a smart phone you must be on the fiddle and would get investigated. Regardless of the fact that this was not true at all and that most people even on low incomes own or have access to a smart phone from another family member. People would act disinterested in the service or pretend they didn’t own a smart phone at all.

While I think this idea has merit. There is something else that I think got missed.

In the initial Alpha phase people would be offered the use of the service when they visited the job centre, they could skip the queue and have their claim addressed within 48 hours instead of (up to) 4 weeks. We were giving people all positives and no negatives. Once we switched to asking people to use their own smartphone we were removing the incentives for them to try the service and replacing them with a large negative (in their mind), that the Government might take their benefit away.

GDS emphasise user need in all their work. Rules which the other Government agencies try to adhere to. It is no doubt yielding world class services that work and matter. But the nagging at the back of my mind, the thing that I think is getting missed in the all encompassing quest to ask:

“What is the user need?”


“What would make the user want to engage in the service?”

Because something is better for you does not imply you will do it. So because your service is more convenient doesn’t mean people will engage. This isn’t new knowledge, some people always seem to want to go to the job centre, rather than fill in a form online. But what could make them change their behaviour, what could really incentivise them to really engage?

That’s what I’ve been mulling over.

Being an amateur cybernetician. The flow of information is something I take a particular interest in. So a book I love is Contagious by Jonah Berger. In the book, Jonah explains how information is actually shared between people using the scientific method. There is an absolute ton of information in this book, and many myths are also dispelled. I would recommend it as mandatory reading for User Researchers and Product Owners.

In the book Jonah discusses the notion of social currency, people trade in social currency. We share things to make ourselves look better than our peers, we want to be the person “in the know” who knows things others don’t.

Why you ask?

So we can be the one to share it. We get the kudos, the recognition and increase in social standing. Good information is worth sharing. Especially if it gives you an advantage you think others don’t have.

A digital service on its own, regardless of its convenience is not enough of an incentive to overcome formed habits or social pressures. When a service is created and its time for people to engage, consider if there is something you can tell people, something that might pique their interest and incentivise them to do the thing even more. This isn’t a bribe. It doesn’t have to be monetary savings in any way, it could be something as simple as a way to make a persons life easier. Think Direct Debit “once and done” you don’t need to remember to do it.

Despite the great effort made on the Register to Vote site (seriously, its really quick and painless) people still don’t register to vote. But did you know that registering to vote can actually increase your credit rating?

Given this thought process, how would I pitch a potential user of the service I mentioned at the start of this post?

How could I try an incentivise them to use the service on their own mobile phone?

Something else we can use explored in Jonah’s book are mental triggers. Mental triggers function at a situational point and make whatever you want to share “top of mind”. So if you don’t want to forget your bag before you leave, the best place to put it is next to the door. At the point you leave and ask yourself

“Do I have everything?”

The bag is right there and you don’t forget it.

Instead of a User Researcher asking people when they enter a job centre or leave a doctors surgery if they want to use the service. A better option might be for the doctor (or receptionist!) to say to the person when receiving their doctors note “If you do it online, you will get text messages telling you when you have your money. And you save yourself a stamp”.

There is a cost involved but stickers are also a quick way to get across a message such as this and they can be attached to any note regardless of the vendor. Or perhaps the doctors surgery could send anyone receiving a doctors note an automated text message prompting them to do it online.

The key here I think for Government services is to be “Top of Mind” at the point when a person is most ready to engage, and then to provide them with reasons to engage.


“What’s the user need?”

Then think

“What would make the user want to engage in the service?”

Then do it.