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Cold Start

One of the problems with any new system is the tendency for people to not know what they’re supposed to do and therefore freeze.  Here’s how you can understand, respond to, and overcome the cold start problem.

Freeze Frame

It’s not just children who will freeze rather than telling you they don’t understand.  It’s a natural human reaction.  We’ve learned that the greater we’re able to clarify our desires and the methods to accomplish them, the more results we’ll get.  You can show college students a horror film about the hazards of tetanus, and that won’t get them to get a vaccination.  Conversely, if you provide them a map to student health center where they can get the vaccine for free, they’re likely to go.

Because they don’t know how to start to solve the problem, they freeze – no matter how motivated they may be to protect their health.  A map is a fine way to make things clearer when it’s a vaccine you want them to take, but it gets harder when you want them to take some initiative and use some judgement.


The biggest challenge with any new behaviors you want is helping people understand exactly what you’re looking for.  What may seem obvious to the designers isn’t obvious to everyone.  Consider the problem that had when it launched reviews.  No one was doing them.  No one knew what to do or what to expect.  As a result, Amazon paid (rewarded) people for reviewing products to get the process started.  With the processes primed, they could gently nudge reviews in the direction they wanted while continuing to support new reviews.

Amazon knew that people needed social proof – to know that others have used and like the products – to make them more willing to buy items, and that required reviews.  They knew what they needed, but they didn’t know how to help everyone understand what they wanted.  That was taken care of in part based on what they wanted because it created visibility.


Everett Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations explains that one of the five factors that drive adoption is visibility.  That is, others need to be able to see the behavior and the positive results.  In the case of Amazon’s reviews, the individuals themselves got the reward from the reviews.  They got greater confidence that the product they wanted was one they’d like.  In many cases, there isn’t a built-in mechanism to create visibility.  That’s why we need to highlight success stories with the new behavior both to demonstrate what we want and to create visibility for others’ successes.

Jump Start

If you’re looking to change behavior, seed the behavior with visible results.  If you notice a street musician getting started, you may see that they put in a few dollars into their own change cup.  They do that, because it helps you understand what they want you to do.  It seems more normal and right.  For your change, create sample records, demonstration posters, and whatever else you need to demonstrate the behavior you want to see – so you can get it.

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