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Tech firms work hard to understand user behaviour – so do we

Published: 13 October 2022
Last updated: 16 March 2023

Find out why Ofcom is using cutting-edge behavioural insights research to strengthen our decision-making.

Online platforms are constantly innovating to capture and maintain our attention. Think about the ’infinite scroll’ which removes breaks in browsing; recommender systems that curate content for individual users based on banks of personal data; algorithms that encourage us to quickly and easily add friends to our networks.

Evidence is also mounting that our decisions are highly influenced by the design of the online environment in which we make them – known as the ‘online choice architecture’. For example, we’re disproportionately influenced by the first results presented to us when we search online – we choose one of the top three options 70% of the time. And quick, cheap, online testing allows firms to rapidly learn how customers are behaving so they can adapt their service to shape our decisions.

These design features are intended to build engagement by helping users to build their networks and access content they enjoy. However, Ofcom research (PDF, 748.2 KB) suggests these design features can also lead to harm online, for example by encouraging or enabling children to build large networks of people – some of whom they often don’t know; or by exposing them to content or connections they hadn’t proactively sought out. And the way search results are presented influences whether users pay attention to content warnings or notice links to support services.

What this means for Ofcom

For Ofcom to fulfil its coming role in improving online safety, we need an understanding of how people make decisions online and the factors that can shape behaviour – in both positive and negative ways. That’s why we’re developing our behavioural insight capability to complement our strengths in research and analysis and our growing expertise in data and tech.

We’re using cutting-edge techniques like online randomised controlled trials to build evidence on questions such as how ‘nudges’ can increase reporting of potentially harmful online content, and whether alert warnings on video clips help or hinder users in deciding whether to watch.

But the Behavioural Insights toolkit isn’t restricted to nudges. Combining a behavioural lens with research can uncover the drivers and blockers to behaviour. Sophisticated parental controls are widely available, for example, yet only three in 10 parents (PDF, 6.0 MB) report using the parental control tools built into apps on device software (such as Windows and PlayStation). Tech developments will play a major role in the future of online safety, but tech adoption is itself a behaviour and one that can be difficult to shift without a deeper understanding of the causes of that behaviour and the mechanisms to change it.

And many of the challenges Ofcom faces in sectors it already regulates are behavioural. With the cost of living soaring for example, the take-up of ‘social tariffs’ – low-cost broadband deals for low-income consumers – has languished (PDF, 1.2 MB). In September 2022, only 3.2% of those eligible had signed up, even though they could save an average of £144/year.

Turning research into policy

To help bring about change, our Behavioural Insights specialists are working with our social researchers. As well as looking at familiar barriers to take-up, like awareness, we’re exploring hidden influences such as the stigma of requesting a tariff targeted at benefit claimants or concerns about the hassle of proving eligibility. Combining insights like these with models and frameworks, which bring together the best evidence on how to make change happen, can help us translate our insights into effective policy. For example, we are using the COM-B model to identify and classify potential barriers and drivers to a behaviour, and the EAST framework to help design effective, evidence-based interventions.

We know that this approach can work. Our recently introduced requirement for providers to give customers a well-evidenced nudge – a timely prompt when their contract ends – helped reduce by over one million (PDF, 1.3 MB) the number of broadband customers who had not updated their deal.

We’ll be publishing our research and will be writing about our findings, starting with our pilot testing the power of gamification to engage children with online safety advice that can help reduce bullying and harassment as well as even more serious harms, such as online grooming.

We look forward to engaging with industry, academics and other regulators to challenge our thinking and develop our expertise in online – and offline – behaviour to help consumers and improve online safety.

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