Posted by Kim Louw on Friday February 26th, 2016

What’s text got to do with it?

“But don’t you just send text messages?”

If you work in the behavioural insights field, you get used to this question. While the answer is of course, “no”, it is not an unfounded question as we do use text messages quite often. What can a lowly 160 characters do to change long ingrained behaviours? It turns out, quite a lot. In his recent book, “The 160-character solution: How text messages and other behavioural strategies can improve education”, University of Virginia Assistant Professor Ben Castleman shows that the humble text message can improve the educational outcomes for economically disadvantaged students.

Indeed our own work has shown that text message reminders to attend a hospital appointment increases attendance. This increased attendance led to a saving of approximately $70,000 per year for the hospital by using the most effective message. The savings could be even higher if they segment the population and use multiple targeted messages.

Although text messages have proven to be an important tool to nudge behaviour, it is not necessarily the best tool for every situation. So when should you text?


Text messaging: Why and when to use text messages to change behaviour

When considering an intervention, the mode of delivery can be as important as the message. Face-to-face meetings, phone calls, written letters, text messages, emails, and app-based notifications are examples of different delivery options to be considered when designing an intervention. Each of these modes has pros and cons so the mode should be tailored to the behavioural change the intervention is targeting.

Using the EAST framework designed by the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK, we map some of the pros of using text messages. 

  Table 1 East


When to use text messages?

Text messages have been shown to affect people’s behaviour in a variety of different domains, including payment of debt, smoking cessation, diabetes self-management, medical check-ups, and parental engagement with children’s education. These examples demonstrate where text messages effectively changed behaviours. But there are a number of contextual, situational and environmental factors that determine whether texts are the most appropriate mode of delivery for an intervention. A number of factors that make text messages a good option or poor option are summarised below.

Plus and minus table 2

So when you see the next text pop up on your phone, remember that some serious thought may have gone into it!


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