Easier not better

“If you want people to do something, make it easy”

– Richard Thaler


Taking the easy option

I remortgaged recently. We are planning an extension and needed to borrow an additional amount to help pay for it. We also needed to extend the term to keep things affordable. Mortgages are no fun at the best of times, but when you’re adding these extra variables into the usual mix of rates, fees, brands, service levels and so on, it becomes a bit of a minefield. A minefield I was not all that keen to navigate myself.

So, I used Habito, an online mortgage advisory service.

As result of their much-talked about (on advertising Twitter where I spend a lot of time, at least) ads, they were pretty much the only brand I thought of when I wanted to simplify the mortgage process. I also used them last time I renewed my mortgage two years ago and had a few niggles but was broadly happy (they were slicker this time around).

The entire process is online, so I didn’t have to speak to anyone once (I much prefer it this way.) I just had to fill in a few forms, have a couple of online chats, then they go away do a bit of research, make a recommendation then sort out the application for you.

Within a few weeks we had our mortgage in place. Easy to think of, easy to use.

But did I get the best mortgage I could have found? I have no idea.

Of course, I did a bit of due diligence – scanned through the research tables they’d sent over, did a cursory check of the rates and fees on offer on the comparison sites and so on. But, I actually don’t know if the mortgage I bought is the best.

I know it’s good enough, but I prioritised the ease of the process over an exhaustive search for the very best. Even when in this case a relatively small improvement in terms might save me hundreds or even thousands of pounds in the long-run.

My intent is not to provide an extended testimonial for Habito (although I would recommend them if you’re after a mortgage and also hello Habito people if you’re reading, we’d love to work with you), rather to point to the first of Flume’s four core principles:

Easier, not better

If I ask you to describe the best burger you can think of, it’s probably not a Big Mac. The best car that comes to mind, even with some affordability criteria factored in, is probably not a Ford. But McDonald’s and Ford almost certainly sell more burgers and cars than the alternatives you might have thought of or described.

We tend not to choose what is best, we choose what is easiest.


The evidence for easier

In How Emotions are Made Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett describes how much human behaviour is driven by the management of our “body budget” – the overall reserve of energy we have at our disposal. The brain identifies our needs in a situation and adapts our feelings and behaviours to satisfy them as efficiently as possible.

Generally speaking, we are geared up to minimise both mental and physical effort to preserve our reserves for the future. Anger and aggression will tax our body budget heavily, they’re a good investment if you are fighting off life-threatening danger, but otherwise are best avoided.

There might be juicier, riper and more nutritious berries deeper into the forest than the ones you can find at its nearest edge. But there might not. Even if there are, is it worth the effort of going deeper into the forest? The physical strain of walking, the mental effort of searching and remaining alert to danger, the risk that the better berries might be gone when you get there. A very poor use of your body budget. Much better to just take what you can now. They’re ok. There’s a clear evolutionary reason why we might favour easier over better in our decision making.

Another thing about things that are easy is that they are enjoyable. Thinking about stuff more than you think you should have to is miserable, so is searching for something that shouldn’t be hard to find. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes multiple experiments that show “cognitive ease” (that is System 1 smoothly dispatching an issue without recourse to more involved, considered and analytical System 2) is pleasurable in and of itself. We like things to be easy. We enjoy it. Making things mildly pleasurable seems like something brands should be interested in.

In Thinking Fast and Slow there is a lot of discussion of automatic System 1 thinking leading to poor, inferior or irrational decisions. But in Fast and Frugal Heuristics: Theory, Tests, and Applications, Gerd Gigerenzer and his colleagues argue that, whilst this may be true in decisions where certainties exist and all relevant information is known, real life decisions don’t work like this. Real-world decisions are plagued by uncertainties and surprises. Decisions can be so uncertain and so complex that rigorous analysis can lead to worse outcomes than a quick shortcut. In these circumstances, the simpler choice is actually often the right one and saves effort that is better used elsewhere. Easy decisions are better decisions.

Finally, and most importantly from our perspective, there is evidence that making your brand easier to buy helps it grow. In How Brands Grow, empirical evidence from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute shows that brand growth comes from building mental and physical availability. Mental availability is being easier to think of than others in the most important purchase/consumption moments for your brand. Physical availability is being easier to buy in those situations Brands that are easier to think of, buy and use sell more.

The evidence – evolutionary, psychological and in-market – is clear. Marketers should be focusing their attention on being easier to think of, buy and use first and foremost. That’s the job.

So quality doesn’t matter?

Quality does matter.

As a minimum, whatever you’re selling needs to be good enough to deliver against whatever goal people are buying it to satisfy, and that can sometimes be a high bar. Sometimes, but not always.

What good enough means will vary by context and by people’s goal within that context. In some circumstances, you may need to have (or at least be perceived to have) the best quality solution in order to be easy to think of. If you were thinking of a hotel for your wedding day the Premier Inn, Travelodge or Holiday Inn probably wouldn’t come to mind in the way they would for most other short stays.

But this leads us onto our second principle, that changes in context change everything. We’ll save more on that for our next post.