Create Guidelines That Work

Recently, the Obama administration scrapped the Food Pyramid that had been the centerpiece of the nation’s dietary guidelines for two decades. This move was long overdue. Americans’ poor dietary habits are leading contributors to our high rates of chronic illness and obesity, and to the associated social and economic costs. A great deal of policy and business innovation will be required to tackle this problem, but at very least the nation should have a dietary guideline that consumers find both memorable and actionable. The new MyPlate guideline, which provides a visualization of how a typical meal should be portioned, is a great improvement on both dimensions.

In some recent experiments, we sought to compare the effectiveness of the detailed MyPyramid guideline with a much simplified plate-based recommendation by randomly assigning participants to study one guideline or the other. Participants who were randomly assigned to study the simple plate representation not only showed much better memory for the guideline (and this memory difference was apparent even immediately after the study period), but they also reported that this guideline was more likely to motivate them to action. In another experiment, participants studied the guidelines and were later given a food choice task. The participants who studied the simplified Plate guideline made healthier choices. While the plate representation in our studies was even simpler than the new MyPlate, our results leave us optimistic that the new USDA guideline will help move consumers in a healthier direction.

Unfortunately, memorable and actionable guidelines are not developed as widely as they should be, neither in health contexts, nor in consumer or organizational contexts. This doesn’t have to be the case. Many environments would benefit from a simplified set of guidelines. Based on the results we saw in our experiments, we believe that to be successful, these guidelines need to be memorable and actionable at the appropriate decision level. Here are two simple tests to help you devise the right guidelines for use at home or in the office.

A minimal test of whether or not a guideline is immediately memorable is if it can be understood “at-a-glance”. Not all simplifications pass this test. Atul Gawande’s recent book, The Checklist Manifesto, highlights the importance of checklists in many professional contexts, including surgery, engineering, and commercial transportation. But checklists still require careful attention, and step by step actions. Most of us, whether at home or at work, are not prepared to pay careful attention, and have no appetite for step-by-step instructions. In such cases, checklists won’t do, and memorable guidelines have to be “memorable at-a-glance”.

A good test of a guideline on our second dimension, actionable, is whether or not it guides behavior at the unit of a typical decision. The Food Pyramid failed in that sense, because it guided behavior over the whole day. Food decisions are made by the meal, so a plate based guide is more actionable.

Besides eating, are there other situations where guidelines should be memorable-at-a-glance and actionable for each decision? Two other general situations where we think these kinds of guidelines are particularly useful are time planning and customer service.

We regularly make decisions on how to spend our time and most of us feel that we could be better at it. There may be a temptation to formulate detailed schedules to make sure that things get done. Sometimes for some people, that works. But for much of daily work life, people don’t want to, and simply won’t follow schedules. In these cases, general guidelines for certain time blocks might help. Can you create a visual guideline for how you should spend a two-hour block? How would you allocate time between the hard stuff, the easy stuff, and email?

In customer service, interactions are fluid so employees can’t be prepared for everything. A certain amount of specific scripting may be useful. But there may be some high level, “memorable-at-a-glance” guidance that can be given to inform each interaction. Here the advice may not be around quantities (as with food and time planning), but it might be around three different objectives that must be met. Does the customer feel that they were heard? Did I (the employee) take the high ground? Was I efficient? A simple graphic showing these three objectives (or three better ones) could be a useful tool to create and maintain good standards.

The details of your guideline will depend very much on the specific context. Sometimes you will want checklists and detailed procedures, but we think there are many situations when we need something simpler. In the case of eating, the US hasn’t had such a guideline, until now. MyPlate is not perfect. But it passes the basic tests of 1) memorable at-a-glance and 2) actionable at a relevant decision unit. It alone will not solve America’s eating problem. But it is one innovation among many that will be needed to make it easier for people to live healthier lives.

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