The Big Issue – Smart Bib – Case Study


We recently finished the first phase of a really exciting pro-bono project with The Big Issue, a social change organization based in Cape Town and the UK that has created a great entrepreneurial program to help the disadvantaged get themselves out of poverty.

The initial objective of the project was to find ways to help the vendors increase magazine sales, which have been sitting at around about five sales per day per vendor. The vendors buy these magazines from the Big Issue for R10 and sell them for R20, and so selling five magazines a day gets them to R50, which is barely enough to pay for transport services and food for the day, let alone support their families and personal ambitions.

In order to understand how we could improve the vendor’s sales, we first had to understand the interaction been them and their customer. So we camped close to various traffic lights that vendors sold at in order to observe and try understand the interaction between them and the drivers, or lack thereof.  We also opened up conversations with the vendors and talked to many drivers about that point of interaction.

There were quite a few bottlenecks that we found were decreasing the likelihood of a sale, but the main behavioural problem derived from the research, was that drivers were initiating a negative automatic response when approached by the vendors.

Driving, especially when you are on your own and as part of a routine (to or from work), is an excise filled with automatic responses that have turned into unconscious habits.

This meant that when drivers were pulling up to the stop street and being approached by the Big Issue vendors, they would automatically, almost instinctively, respond defensively to the vendors, instead of interacting with them and seeing if the new month’s magazine had content that was of any value to them.

It was if the blue bib with the Big Issue text was a huge visual signal for the driver to automatically respond in a defensive manner. The consistency of this behavior was fascinating from a behavioural perspective, but slightly unsettling too.

To backup this insight we also spoke to the vendors, who expressed that they often felt like they didn’t even exist.

On the foundation of the ethnographic research done and understanding of the driver’s decision making within the relevant context, we then developed a new bib for the vendors, utilizing some core behavioural design principles, in order to alleviate the bottlenecks found.

The major goal of the bib was to break people out of the habitual automatic responses that had formed, and get them to empathize, engage and see the vendors has actual human beings, with real dreams and ambitions instead of mobile Big Issue sign boards.

To do this, the first thing we did was reframe ‘the Big Issue’ to ‘My Big Issue’, and therefore a personal problem that the drivers are helping the vendor to solve.

This breaks down the drivers’ assumptions, caused by something called the representiveness heuristic, a mental short-cut our brains use to make judgments and assumptions through stereotyping. By breaking down the preconceived assumptions that drivers have attached to the Big Issue, we open up the opportunity for a more personal interaction that allows for empathy, understanding and hopefully support.

The vendor’s personal problem is handwritten in the white space under ‘My Big Issue’. The use of hand writing is a well-known behavioural design tactic for increasing personalization and authenticity.

Another behavioural design tool we have used was goal visibility. The idea is that by showing that drivers can make a tangible difference in helping the vendor to reach a goal, and therefore make strides forward in solving their ‘Big Issue’, drivers will be more likely to engage with the vendors and support them.

On the foundation of the ethnographic research done and understanding of the driver’s decision making within the relevant context, we then developed a new bib for the vendors, utilizing some core behavioural design principles, in order to alleviated the bottlenecks found.

The '10 more' is a laminated card and is in a smartly designed see-through sleeve. When a customer purchases a magazine, the '10 more' card is taken out and placed at the back, revealing '9 more' at the front.

This will give drivers the necessary feedback they need to feel like they have made a real contribution in helping the vendor solve their problem. It should also attract attention from other drivers thus snapping them out of their habitual automaticity.

Another design feature was developed to alleviate a bottleneck that might inhibit those who want to support the vendors, but aren’t carrying cash with them, or don’t have the exact amount (R20) and don’t want to go through the tedious process of counting coins or trying to get change from the vendor.

To solve this, we have partnered up with SnapScan, a mobile payment application, developed by the Standard Bank incubator, Fire ID. The app, which is connects to users credit card account, allows them to pay via their mobile device by simply taking a photo of a QR code, typing a four digit password in and confirming.  It’s fast, simple, reliable and all the vendors need is a feature phone that is capable of receiving a sms.  For a better understanding of how it works have a look at their website here:

SnapScan also has other inherent features that are incredibly beneficial to the vendors. The first is that it offers the vendors security. A lot of the vendors are middle aged, mothers, and are therefore often easy targets on the trains, when they are returning home with all their cash from a day of selling. SnapScan solves this problem, as the money is no longer held by the vendor, and therefore safe from the actions of opportunistic criminals.

The other benefit, and the one that we are really excited about, is that SnapScan offers the vendors an opportunity to practice a behavior that they really struggle to do with hard cash, that being saving. Because the money is stored in a Standard Bank Instant Money account, it can safely accumulate until such a time that a vendor really needs it, say for example, to realize a long term goal such as a child’s education, or some emergency such as an expensive medical operation.

From our side, a small follow up project will definitely be to look at incentives, rewards substitution tactics, and other nudges that help the vendors to better manage their finances and keep saving at a realistic rate. Any ideas are welcome.