Breaking the Habit: Why Understanding Workflow Habits Is Key to Successful Marketing

Habits are powerful. In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he talks about habits as “the law of least effort,” saying “if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action.” It makes sense. Scientists have conducted numerous studies that have demonstrated that the human brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. We’d all be completely overwhelmed if we fully considered every decision we made every minute of every day. Yet, we are typically taught to approach new product marketing as though every purchase decision is carefully and rationally considered.

We know from experience this is a false premise. We’ve seen the psychology of habituation play out in many consumer categories – from toothpaste to skincare to shampoo. We’ve also learned that habituation can be even more entrenched in healthcare and scientific categories where the customers are surgeons or scientists. While you might expect more considered and rational decision-making with these audiences, the simple truth is that the risks of stepping away from safe and proven habits is higher in their world. If a surgeon introduces a new device into their procedural workflow and it doesn’t work optimally, they could put a patient’s safety in jeopardy. A scientist looks skeptically upon changes in product or instrument mix because it could jeopardize the validity and comparability of years of longitudinal research.

What You Need to Know About Habits

So, if you are tasked with marketing a new product or solution to these types of audiences, how do you stand a chance at interrupting these entrenched habits? We think the first step is to acknowledge these habits exist. That will only get you so far. In order to get these audiences to change their tried and true workflow habits, you need to understand the mindsets, attitudes, and beliefs that are driving the habits in the first place.

Our perspective on getting underneath these habituation drivers is to explore them from multiple angles. Despite the sophistication level of physicians, surgeons, and scientists, we can never forget that they are also people. They are not immune to emotions, like fear of failure, influencing their choices or holding them back from trying something new, even in the presence of rational data to support the change. So, to truly understand what’s driving customer habits, we often advise clients to approach it through multiple lenses and to “go as native as possible” in their research approach (i.e., get as close to the “moment of truth” as possible in their surgical, patient care, or lab setting).

To explore habits with physicians or scientists, consider employing a combination of observational techniques, discussion techniques, and future-forward conversations.

Observe them in situ. Whenever possible, watch the scientists’ workflow, observe the surgical procedure, etcetera. Carefully watch and map what they do, and the choices they make throughout. Their approaches can be so deeply ingrained that they won’t think to tell you about it in a discussion, but if you point it out to them after the fact, they can explain what motivates their approach (or product choice), when they learned it, and how they feel about it vs. alternative actions or choices.

Discuss their workflow and habits. If your timeline and budget allows, create a “straddled” conversation on either side of your workflow/procedural observation. It summarizes their mindset going into their work, but it can also serve as a helpful reference point after your observation. For example: a surgeon may tell you they value advanced energy instrumentation for cutting and coagulation, but if they switch to a less advanced device in the middle of the procedure, it gives you the opportunity to understand why (what was it about that moment mid-procedure that caused you to switch instruments and was that just a nuance to that patient’s surgery, or existing standard)? These “disconnects” can reveal entrenched compensating behaviors that represent innovation opportunities if they can be solved.

Explore their view of how the future may look. Within a one-on-one interview, use some carefully selected stimuli (on trends, innovation developments, changing economic, clinical, or reimbursement dynamics) to get them imagining how their workflow or surgical procedures may evolve in the future. The goal is to push them out of today and create a safe “thinking out loud” discussion about what might be possible. Seek to understand what they would have to know, and be reassured of, to even explore some of these new approaches in the future. Explore their ecosystem of influencers to determine who might be helpful in advancing change, and who is likely to resist and be a barrier, as well as where they need help influencing the ecosystem and advocating for their needs.

Turning Insights into Action

Once you fully understand your audience’s habits and the underlying motivations and drivers that created them, you will be in a far better position to interrupt those habits to the benefit of your product or solution. Habituation insights can clarify the true frame of reference for your new product and inform a marketing and sales plan that more credibly connects with your customer and opens their mind to new possibilities instead of hiding behind their workflow.

–– Patty Klingbiel is president and a principal of The Connell Group, a research and brand strategy consultancy based in Chicago. The Connell Group’s strong expertise and global experience in healthcare and life sciences research sets them apart in their ability to translate customer insights into more effective brand strategies and growth-driving actions for their clients.