Book review: The Last Mile by Dilip Soman

Ever had two behavioural science books on the go at the same time? I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s like listening to two CDs simultaneously. Guaranteed to twist your melon.

I first picked up The Last Mile to prepare for a workshop. I wanted practical advice on behavioural intervention designs to look clever in front of my peers. I managed the first third before the event. The book bridges a gap between the academic and the applied worlds. The author is a Professor at the University of Toronto’s Management School, and the content feels like a polished version of his lecture notes. You know what? It’s pretty dry in parts, and on occasion repetitive.

But when I found out I was speaking at an event with the author of The Choice Factory, I read the book as a priority. It is fantastic: Shotton has done the hard thinking, and makes the implications of behavioural science crystal clear for practitioners.

Side by side, the two books feel very different. To give you a crap analogy, Shotton’s book is like Nirvana’s Nevermind: catchy tunes, beautifully produced and full of cross-over hits. Anyone can get into it. Soman’s is more like Nirvana’s Incesticide: pure, rewarding after repeat exposure but one for committed fans only.

What is the last mile?

Soman defines the last mile as the point consumers make a choice. It is a book about tactics, not strategy:

“Most organizations spend much of their effort on the start of the value creation process: namely, creating a strategy, developing new products or services, and analysing the market. They pay a lot less attention to the end: the crucial “last mile” where consumers come to their website, store, or sales representatives and make a choice”

He is concerned with the messy part of enacting strategy, checking it works, making remedies when theory doesn’t translate to practice:

“Everything matters at the last mile. When people make a choice, they are influenced not only by in the information you provide, the merits of your product, the demerits of your competitors product, but also by the context and their emotional state at the time… how your products are displayed, the manner in which information is presented… a multiplicity of things”

Designing & evaluating behavioural interventions 

His typology for experimental design (p131) is worth the cover price alone. He describes a trade-off between the amount of control you have in an experiment and its realism. Thinking about where your previous projects fit on the scale is a useful exercise.

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He also offers us a great framework for designing and analysing nudge interventions using mindful vs. mindless and boosting self-control vs. activating a desired behaviour as the axes. A ‘taxonomy of nudges’ – lovely stuff:

IMG_7252.JPGThis academic perspective is useful. He contrasts the pure sciences (‘deterministic’, able to make predictions with certainty) with the behavioural sciences (‘stochastic’ – probabilistic, able to make general predictions about what a large group of people will do over time).

“Even the hard sciences such as physics have failed to articulate a theory of everything… Given the inherent stochasticity of human behaviour, a comprehensive theory of decision making seems… impossible… When you’re in a store, absolutely everything around you could influence what you buy: the display, the price presentation… the presence of crowds… What’s more, these factors could interact with each other… Theory can show us the way but without testing… we risk failure because of something in the background context that trips up the effectiveness of our intervention.”  

He concludes by proposing a new mindset for companies, that of an “experimental organisation.” Their goal should be to undertake controlled trials to develop and optimise behavioural interventions. Or “a culture of empiricism” if you prefer his wording.

What else? Concepts like consumption vocabularies, transaction decoupling and distributed decisions are all invaluable. His material on the unintended consequences of disclosures deserves a post of its own.

But that’s for later. I’m off to dig out my old Nirvana albums.

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About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Behavioural Economics, Books, Market Research, Marketing Research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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