Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How brands decode behaviour and unlock the secrets of making users tick

Digital brands are counting on behavioural science to figure what customers want and earn their trust. It plays an important role in understanding their pain points, increasing revenue and improving team performance

Published: Jun 20, 2024 02:05:29 PM IST
Updated: Jun 21, 2024 05:00:22 PM IST

BluSmart’s strategic approach to attract potential riders is rooted in behavioural insights.BluSmart’s strategic approach to attract potential riders is rooted in behavioural insights.

Imagine this: After weeks of back-and-forth, you’re booking a trip, but have to sift through endless stays unsuitable to your budget and preferences. Or it’s the morning of an early flight, and you’re running late because two cabs cancelled on you. Or you’re giving dating apps a try, only to be ‘spoilt for choice’ with incompatible matches. You picked up your device for a quick-solve, but left feeling frustrated.

Poor design and unnecessary features—among pain points more fundamental to a brand’s operating model—can push users away or stop them from coming back. Behind the scenes of a smooth user experience are brands hard at work to understand what makes users tick. They identify challenges and motivators, and ask the question: How do we optimise this product or service for enhanced, lasting engagement?

Prakash Sharma, co-founder of 1001 Stories, a behavioural science and context architecture consultancy, shed light on this. “Here’s the guiding principle while designing—provide the right options to the right people at the right time.” Highlighting how people disapprove of cluttered interfaces and being bombarded with constant notifications, he asked, “Why are we still doing things that our users dislike?”

Another leading behavioural scientist, Anand Damani, adds, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication in terms of user experience.” He broke down what lay at the core of this journey, explaining that brands need to find the perfect combination of motivation and the ability to act, or ease, to encourage users to take the desired action.

With India witnessing a gradually expanding and evolving market of behavioural science adoption across domains over the last decade, with expectations of growth in the next, let’s deep-dive into how different brands and businesses decode user preferences and unlock secrets to retention in an era of both rapidly thriving and declining digital solutions.

BluSmart’s strategic approach to attract potential riders is rooted in behavioural insights.Anirudh Arun, co-founder & CEO, BluSmart Fleet. Image: Madhu Kapparath

Commute: Going Green or Blu?

Many can instantly recall a frustrating experience with a ride-hailing service. BluSmart, India's first and largest zero emission, all-electric ride-hailing service, was introduced in 2019 as a sustainable, reliable and safe alternative. The brand sought to address some of the challenges plaguing Indian riders, with majority of its audience in the 25 to 45 years age range, primarily including officegoers, as well as pregnant or young mothers booking rentals who plan their office pick-ups and drops alongside school or day care pick-ups.

“At BluSmart, our aim is to design the ride experience in a manner that reduces pain points and creates a more relaxing experience,” says Anirudh Arun, co-founder & CEO, BluSmart Fleet. What are these pain points? One that Anirudh stressed on was the unreliable assignment of cars. “On-demand apps would take anywhere from 15 minutes to upwards of 30 minutes to assign a car. There was no predictability in terms of availability and arrival timing.”

Another was the unwillingness of drivers to fulfil trips due to distance and payment mode. Anirudh also underscores the need for opaque pricing. “Ride-hailing applications have dynamic surge, and pricing is variable dependent on supply and demand factors, which are often not transparently shown. The same route might cost 2x on a rainy day, which is unfair to the user and adds to the cognitive load of checking for pricing.”

Further, Anirudh claims that existing ride-hailing cars pay little to no attention to cleanliness. Considering that an average of 60 to 80 minutes is spent travelling daily in cities like Delhi NCR and Bengaluru, he discussed their focus to make commute easy and hassle-free. BluSmart riders’ average trip distance is higher than other players, suggesting that customers travelling long distances prefer using it.  

BluSmart’s strategic approach to attract potential riders is rooted in behavioural insights. While it boasts India and South Asia’s largest electric fleets and noted a growth in eco-conscious customers proactively looking for sustainable travel options, BluSmart did not stop at positioning itself solely as a green option. Instead, it bet on what Indian riders emphasised more: Timeliness, reliability, safety and cleanliness. Anirudh explains, “These insights from existing norms in ride hailing is what BluSmart set out to solve for, introducing industry-first propositions such as zero cancellations, transparent pricing, and before or on-time arrival.”  

This, however, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t highlight its sustainability efforts. “With growing concerns of fuel costs and impending effects of climate change and global warming,” says Anirudh, “electric vehicles were the right choice to be adopted for a new-age ride-hailing service.” Over 90 percent of BluSmart’s riders experienced an electric ride for the first time through the company, which has completed 430+ million clean kilometres since inception, touching over 12 lakh unique riders. He also outlined a nudge they developed—a C02 tracker reminding riders of the CO2 and fossil fuel consumption saved after each trip, promoting a ‘good deed of the day’.

Over 50 percent of BluSmart’s rides are scheduled by the night before. In an era where on-demand options are rampant, Anirudh emphasises how the brand’s scheduled travel leads to a planned, predictable travel experience. It also offers a ‘Recurring Ride’ option to schedule a month of commute or airport travel. Airport journeys, which are typically early mornings or late nights, form 20 percent of BluSmart’s overall trip mix—which is higher than for other mobility players. The brand also caters to riders needing transport for certain durations, such as to attend meetings or run errands, with its ‘Rental’ category.

BluSmart doesn’t alienate users with unplanned travel needs, either. It introduced an ‘Express Ride’ feature, where cabs arrive in 20 to 30 minutes. This also optimises assignments for driver partners, supporting them with higher trip completion and improved earnings. Apart from regular riders, the brand also engages with corporates, with many opting for emissions-free travel services for their employees. BluSmart’s B2B arm has tied-up with over 400 multinationals, including Zomato, Apollo Tyres, and more.

Thoughtfulness underlies its innovations—its application interface is practical and intuitive. Further, as a safety measure, its cars deploy telematics with voice alerts notifying driver partners on regular intervals for speeding. The brand’s appeal to its audience is evident, with Anirudh noting the average wallet load is 3-4x the amount of an average ride, indicating “the stickiness and long-term intent our customers have in availing our services”.

Also read: Humans answer to intuition, not probability: Anand Damani

Taking the Path More Travelled?

The ordeal of travel bookings can be a frustrating process (similar to an endless game of Monopoly). MakeMyTrip aims to make these experiences as simple and stress-free as possible. “With over 24 years in the industry, we’ve honed our expertise in understanding travellers’ needs and anticipating their changing preferences by leveraging our extensive data pool,” says Ankit Khanna, chief product officer-hotel, growth & emerging businesses, MakeMyTrip. He highlights their goal to empower customers to make the best decisions for their next adventure through personalised features and thoughtful design choices.

One trend they’ve kept an eye on is flexibility, which today’s fast-paced travellers crave like never before. Recognising that plans can change in the blink of an eye, the brand introduced a ‘Book with Zero Payment’ feature. “Picture this: You get to lock in a tentative itinerary with confirmed booking without having to shell out money right away or having to worry about cancellation charges.” MakeMyTrip also found that the demand for flexibility extended to accommodation, such as accounting for early arrival, which is why it introduced Flexible Check-in.

Khanna also noted how travel behaviour has evolved, especially owing to the pandemic. One immediate shift was in how travellers viewed hotels, “not just as a place to crash, but as destinations in themselves”. He adds, “At MakeMyTrip, we were quick to recognise this trend and introduced Staycations, curated selections of nearby properties that cater to the desire for local getaways.” Alternative accommodation options—like villas and homestays—also became mainstream options post-pandemic. Additionally, it leveraged the ‘domestic discovery’ trend with the offering, ‘Incredible India Incredible Prices’. This tells travellers when flight fares to destinations of their interest, whether wildlife or the mountains, are most economical.

He highlights another transformation they’ve observed: Now, travel is seen as “essential and to be undertaken at every given opportunity”. Exemplifying this, Khanna adds, “Our recent India Travel Trends Report showed a 25 percent increase in the number of Indians taking over three trips in 2023 as compared to 2022.” Encouraging this, MakeMyTrip uses AI (artificial intelligence) to curate recommendations and give travellers trip ideas at opportune moments.

When it comes to event-related travel, user behaviour trends during the World Cup and Lollapalooza were also fascinating. “These occasions tend to draw travellers who are meticulous planners, often booking their trips well in advance—sometimes up to a year ahead,” Khanna notes. Harnessing data science to deploy predictive models, MakeMyTrip anticipates high-demand periods and nudges customers to book in advance.

It also assesses factors that people consider when deciding where to stay. “We recognise that proximity to prime spots and easy access to transportation are key factors for most,” says Khanna, which influenced them to provide distance-related details. It also offers personalised rankings of top properties. Anand highlighted the power of personalised labels, noting how vacation rental companies similarly apply behavioural science principles. “For example, Airbnb uses decision-making short-cuts like 'rare find' to suggest to users that a stay is great. It builds scarcity, and users are likely to feel lucky and also, to an extent, believe that they had some role in ‘discovering’ the rare find.”

“And let's not forget about decision automation,” Khanna adds. MakeMyTrip has all-inclusive deals to encourage people to stress less about the details, and label introductions for hotels like ‘Preferred by Indians’, signalling to travellers that it met other Indian travellers’ parameters.

Khanna also emphasises the role of leveraging tech, discussing how analysing consumer behaviour trends has been crucial to shape interventions and improve user experience. “We pay close attention to changes in content consumption. For instance, to adapt to shorter attention spans of consumers, we harnessed the power of Generative AI,” by selecting information most critical to the traveller—like details of kid-friendly activities if they are travelling with children. It also utilises AI technology for user accessibility and convenience, especially beyond Tier III cities, such as with its voice-based AI chatbot for flight bookings, which supports multiple languages.

BluSmart’s strategic approach to attract potential riders is rooted in behavioural insights.Anand Damani. Behavioural Scientist. Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India

Swipe Left, Right, or Up?

Making meaningful connections online can be tricky, and dating apps come with their unique challenges. “Bumble was founded in 2014 as the solution to what our founder, Whitney Wolfe Herd, believed was broken in relationships,” explains Lucille McCart–APAC communications director, Bumble. Wolfe Herd recognised that all the products on the market prior to Bumble were focussed only on the experience of men, leaving room for disruption. Prakash Sharma acknowledged this gap, too. “Dating apps have made it easy for heterosexual men to signal interest using swipes with almost no effort. Women, as a result, are overwhelmed with the choice overload.”

With the goal to centre women’s experiences, the brand set out to address two fundamental issues: Antiquated gender norms and the disempowerment of women, as well as the toxicity and lack of accountability online. Its features are designed to encourage members to build better profiles and initiate positive conversations, while giving them more control of their experience. Recently, Bumble also introduced an updated compatibility algorithm, ‘Opening Moves’, as a strategic refresh to lessen the pressure on women, allowing them to set prompts which men can respond to, starting the conversation. With these steps, Bumble aims to make dating fun again, while creating a world where relationships are safe, healthy and equitable.

The evidence of its effectiveness is in, too: Globally, millions of people have found connections on the app. McCart adds, “We launched Bumble in India in 2019 and since then, we’ve seen promising growth in key metro cities, including Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune. Post-pandemic, we have witnessed an increased rate of adoption in Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata, to name a few.”

Bumble also recognised that meaningful connections of all types are essential to a healthy, happy life. Bumble For Friends was introduced after observing that people are using their dating profiles to form non-romantic connections, like finding a roommate or making friends after a move. Bumble Bizz also offers an option for professional networking.

Also read: Why companies should prioritize science

To uncover the nuances of dating in India, the brand also looks to what its users feel. Case in point: Bumble’s annual dating trends report found that 65 percent of Indian women surveyed found it a turn off if someone they are dating is not aware of current societal issues, and 69 percent of Indians surveyed are more attracted to someone who actively engages in societal issues. Bumble’s features—such as Interest Badges—allow people to declare not just their interests but also what they stand for, and with these interests and values easy to identify, it can make finding compatible connections one step easier. In fact, research suggests this too: Studies suggest that sharing more information on your profile significantly increases your likelihood of finding a match. In particular, adding Interest Badges, sharing details about exercise habits, and more, can boost your match potential by up to 96 percent. More so, completing your bio can lead to a 41 percent increase in monthly average matches.

On dating apps, making the experience smoother for users is also about making it safer. “Safety has always been a top priority for us. We've been deploying machine learning to enhance our focus on user safety for a long time now,” McCart says, discussing how the brand’s built-in-house AI features enable them to train models on its proprietary data.

It also launched a system to prioritise severe safety reports and shorten response time. Another new feature—Deception Detector™—is a fast, reliable machine learning-based approach to assess the authenticity of connections and tackle online misconduct, including handling inappropriate images. Within its first two months, internal testing noted that this feature reduced reports of spam, scams, and fake accounts by 45 percent—a significant outcome to safeguard users.

The Pulse on the Future

Brands must spearhead efforts to create a seamless user experience to drive user engagement. Behavioural science plays an important role in understanding the pain points and factors that create delight to users, says Anirudh. “Our operations, customer experience, and application development are built upon strong user insights, and behavioral science is integral to our approach of designing an elevated travel experience for both our riders and driver partners.” Khanna echoes these sentiments. “Through meticulous analysis, we continuously strive to gain insights, detect patterns, and offer experiences tailored to individual behaviours.”

Highlighting a fresh way to look at behaviour change, Sharma discussed his team’s concept of ‘Fail Thrice’, suggesting that it took people overcoming three dips in exercising regularly to identify themselves as someone committed to fitness. This can apply across various domains—and there’s immense potential in evaluating behaviour from this lens. “For example, BluSmart can analyse how many rides within what time frame would convert a new user into an advocate, and design interventions towards this goal.”

At the same time, Sharma warns against the dangers of applying interventions universally. Taking the example of AI-driven chatbots for customer service, he asks, “When do you think customers prefer chatbots and when would they want a human being instead?” He offers a glimpse into preliminary findings based on his research, suggesting it is not equally welcome everywhere. “A BookMyShow will definitely benefit, but a bank? That remains to be seen.” However, he remains optimistic about the growing adoption of behavioural science across fields, from quick commerce and FMCG to BFSI, health care, and edtech.

Commenting on the potential of the sector, Damani discusses how businesses can use behavioural science to get consumers to try (acquisition), buy (retention) and upgrade (upsell) their products and services. “Those not using it are losing out on powerful psychological techniques that can improve user experience, build trust, increase revenues, and improve team member performance and happiness. Not using behavioural science is like not claiming money that's already yours,” he says.