You know nudge, but what about sludge?

We all know about Nudge Theory – the strand of behavioural science made popular by Professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their bestselling book “Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness”. Themed around libertarian paternalism (more on that in a future blog post!), this book outlines the creation of “nudges”, making small changes to the choice architecture – your audiences’ decision-making environment – that alters people’s behaviours in predictable ways, so they make better choices.

Nudges should always be implemented without forbidding options or mandating. It relies on the key principle that no one is ever forced to do anything. As Richard Thaler famously said, “always nudge for good.”

So what then, is a sludge?

Cass Sunstein initially identified “sludge” as “excessive or unjustified frictions, such as paperwork burdens, that cost time or money; that may make life difficult to navigate; that may be frustrating, stigmatizing, or humiliating; and that might end up depriving people of access to important goods, opportunities, and services.” (Sludge Audits, 2019)

Nowadays, sludge is used to describe experiences where users face high levels of friction (or hassle) which obstruct their efforts to achieve something that is good for them.

In some cases, users may also be misled or encouraged to act in a way that is not in their best interest (The term “dark patterns” – where user interfaces are designed to boost bad choices, such as buying inflated insurance with purchases – originated from a Spotify researcher).

Think about the last time you fell into a subscription trap. When did you last sign up for a free trial, entering your card details without thinking twice, only to realise a few months later that you’ve been paying a subscription fee for a service you didn’t use? Even worse, did you find that you can’t easily cancel this subscription? You’ve looked on their website, tried to email their customer service but all in vain! You’re then forced to spend a considerable amount of time trying to navigate their cumbersome processes so you can remove yourself from this service. [There are some real horror stories online, where people have to submit a notarised letter via post to cancel their gym membership!]

You’ve just been a victim of sludge – a laborious, time-consuming process, that uses heavy friction to stop us from reaching an end goal that’s good for us.

Sludge can be intentional or unintentional. Indeed, rushed decisions, non-user-friendly journeys, and policies implemented without considering audience behaviours and reactions can all lead to a sludgy experience. On the other hand, sludge can also be weaponised to benefit businesses – creating friction barriers to keeps users within a certain status quo that benefits the organisation (think about membership schemes that are costly and difficult to cancel).

Have you been a victim of sludge? Or have you, unintentionally, been a sludge architect?

This article was written by Shayoni Lynn, Director at Lynn PR.