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Digital Design Influences Retirement Plan Participation and Savings Rates

Digital Design Influences Retirement Plan Participation

Digital Design Influences Retirement Plan Participation and Savings Rates

Digital design has an impact on more than just the data that is being presented.  Enhancing the digital design of a retirement plan digital enrollment interface improves voluntary enrollment and contribution rates, according to new research cited in Harvard Business Review.

Shlomo Benartzi, Professor of Behavioral Decision Making at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and Saurabh Bhargava, Associate Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon University wrote a working paper with Lynn Connell-Price, post-doctoral fellow in the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Richard Mason at City, University of London. The researchers collaborated with Voya Financial to explore how changes in the digital design of online enrollment interfaces could influence the initial contribution decisions of employees in 401(k) plans.

Behavioral finance research has been a key driver of plan design features such as automatic enrollment and automatic contribution escalation, so it’s not surprising that researchers are tapping into its potential to influence the design of online retirement plan enrollment platforms.  This includes digital design.

The research of Professor Benartzi et al included 8,500 employees and a few hundred 401(k) plans. Before being automatically enrolled in the plan, the employees visited a standardized online enrollment interface to complete one of three actions — actively confirm their enrollment at the default rate, personalize their enrollment at a different rate or decline enrollment altogether. To complete the task, the employees had to select from one of three horizontally arranged options. The goal was to prompt employees to consider a higher deferral rate than the default.

The researchers wanted to find out how significantly the design of the digital interface (digital design) would impact the employees’ initial enrollment decisions, so they randomized employees to one of the two versions: Voya’s original commercial design, or an “enhanced” design that included three small changes:

  1. They changed the digital design color scheme of the options from a single color (orange) to a traffic light theme of green (personalize), yellow (confirm) and red (decline).
  2. They displayed the plan’s default rate on the enrollment screen, making it easier for workers to account for this information when making their elections.
  3. They simplified and standardized the language used to describe the alternatives, removing uninformative fine print and simplifying the headlines describing each option. For example, “I want to enroll with different choices” became “Do It Myself,” and “I don’t want to enroll” became “I Don’t Want to Save.”

The researchers found that, thanks to the digital design changes, personalized enrollment rose by 15% — a nine percentage point increase from the baseline of 60%. The shift to personalized enrollment also increased savings rates; employees who personalize enrollment tend to contribute at a rate (7.8%) that’s twice as high as those who are automatically enrolled (3.4%). The researchers estimated that the digital design changes led to an increase in overall contributions equivalent to a 60% increase in the typical plan match. As they noted, making a few simple design tweaks to the online enrollment platform is significantly less costly for employers than offering additional matching contributions.

The findings from this latest research supports other studies that have been done in the field of digital design. All of the studies found that simple digital design changes to an online platform have had noteworthy impact on users’ behaviors — from improving portfolio diversification to prompting employees to activate pension accounts in the U.K. to influencing how individuals choose health insurance and medical treatments in the U.S.

People have a tendency to underestimate the importance of digital design. However, as the researchers noted, it is more than a “prettifying” element — “it is an integral part of any product or service offering.”

They offered up five steps to creating behaviorally informed digital designs:

  • Gather behavioral insights on screen behavior, benefiting from the growing academic literature;
  • Conduct a behavioral audit of the existing digital designs, identifying gaps between the status quo and new designs that incorporate the latest insights on screen behaviors;
  • Test these new digital designs against carefully selected control conditions;
  • Once a winning digital design is identified, scale it up, implementing across as many digital journeys as possible; and
  • Keep a searchable “results library” of all experiments.

Plan sponsors whose employees use an online platform for retirement plan enrollment — or any type of benefit enrollment, for that matter — should review the offering, and where applicable, discuss with their service providers the potential for modifying the digital design to help influence employee behaviors and prompt them make more effective and personalized decisions. As Professor Benartzi et al opined, “Design isn’t the garnish — it is often the key ingredient.”

Steff Chalk

Steff Chalk

Managing Editor at 401kTV
Steff C. Chalk is Executive Director of The Retirement Advisor University, a collaboration with UCLA Anderson School of Management Executive Education. Steff also serves as Executive Director of The Plan Sponsor University and is current faculty of The Retirement Adviser University.
Steff Chalk
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