Last year, The Huffington Post published some fascinating statistics about the U.S. prison population. The headline for the article blared, “America Has More Prisoners Than High School Teachers.” It’s no secret that the United States has a high rate of incarceration, not to mention a recidivism rate of nearly 60% for serious criminals.
These stark facts put into perspective the incredible work of the Delancey Street Foundation, a drug and rehabilitation center based in San Francisco. Delancey Street accepts the most hardened criminals and drug addicts; most have multiple felony convictions. But despite the difficulty associated with overcoming a criminal past, over 14,000 Delancey residents have returned to society as productive citizens. Perhaps Delancey’s most impressive accomplishment is the fact that over 90% of its graduates never return to prison.
I first learned about Delancey Street when I read the book Influencer. The book details the rehabilitation process used at the facility. After reading about Delancey Street, I asked the same question most people ask when they hear about Delancey Street’s incredible success: “How do they do it?” The authors of Influencer answer this question by describing the process of teaching new behaviors to those admitted to the program.
The more I thought about Delancey Street, the more I began to connect how some of the world’s most successful technology companies utilize similar principles in the design of their products. The strategies Delancey Street uses to help ex-convicts overcome bad habits can be applied to technology products intended to help users learn new beneficial behaviors. Since most of us don’t work with hardened criminals and addicts, let’s take a look at how we can use the behavior change principles from Delancey Street to create better products.
It’s About Us
When people arrive at Delancey Street, they’re looking for help. They’ve realized they can’t overcome their drug habits or tendencies towards crime on their own. In a similar way, new users show up to your product hoping it will solve a problem. And though it may sound counterintuitive, it is important to give users a “responsibility” when they arrive — ask them to complete a task that teaches them the importance of your product and how it can help them connect to something larger than themselves.
Shortly after entering the Delancey Street program, each new resident receives a small assignment, such as learning how to set the table at the foundation-run restaurant. The revenue from the restaurant helps fund the program and after just a few days of doing this small job, residents receive an additional responsibility, for example, training the newest incoming residents.
At this year’s Habit Summit, Josh Elman an early Product Manager at Twitter, stressed the importance of the on-boarding process to technology companies. “It’s your moment to take as much time as you possibly can from this user to train them on what’s important in your product,” Elman said. Twitter’s on-boarding process is able to assign users small tasks that teach them why the service is valuable to them, namely, it connects them to other people in a valuable new way. Just like at Delancey Street, Twitter teaches new users that the product isn’t just about them, it’s about others.
Easy Steps to Success
In applying the principle of starting with small tasks, it is important to guarantee success. The job must be easy enough that any user can accomplish it quickly. Delancey Street is careful to give residents tasks they can handle at every step of the program.
A great example of guaranteeing success online can be found in the registration process used by a social media tool called Buffer. The service’s first goal is getting people to sign up, but that action alone isn’t enough unless users ultimately share content.
Buffer realizes a key behavior for new users is to schedule content; they also realize finding new content, deciding to share it, and scheduling it, can be inconvenient, especially if a user is learning how Buffer works for the first time. To ensure users share a post and realize the full benefit of the product, Buffer hands them high-quality curated articles.
By offering-up good content for users to immediately share, Buffer guarantees anyone can be successful using their technology — all the user has to do is hit “Schedule.”
Making a Contributor
Just a few days after Delancey Street residents check into the facility, they’re given responsibility to oversee other residents. In this way, Delancey Street is able to keep their newest residents accountable and teach other residents new responsibilities. This principle manifests in technology products when companies help consumers become contributors.
Many companies depend upon user generated content to keep their online communities engaged. Pinterest, for example, relies upon users pinning and re-pinning interesting images from the web. Tumblr needs users to post content they find to their own tumblelog. Instagram needs users to find and filter fantastic images to provide content for other users’ photo feeds.
These products succeed by teaching users what is most important about their services and simplifying the steps to participate in making something other people value. Each of these services turns content consumers into content contributors.
Using principles from the Delancey Street Foundation, which is one of the most successful behavior change programs in the world, tech entrepreneurs can help users live better. By giving people a way to connect with others, providing simple tasks to make them successful, and enabling them to contribute towards a shared purpose, services can sustain ways to benefit the individual as well as the community.
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