Design's Next Frontier: Nudging Consumers Into Making Better Life Choices

Designers are beginning to understand how irrational thinking plays into the decisions people make. That knowledge can be used to openly influence consumers to make responsible choices.

The following is adapted from an Artefact white paper. The full version may be downloaded here.

Recent advances in neuroscience and behavioral economics, cognitive psychology and anthropology are helping us better understand how our brains work and how decision-making takes place. A core finding of this work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking; we are instead the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness. Reason, it turns out, is highly dependent on emotional value judgments and therefore is highly susceptible to bias.

This is a departure from the conventional wisdom of 20th-century economists and policy makers who tended to think of people as rational creatures who would weigh their options and make rational decisions. Successful advertising, branding, industrial and furniture designers seemed to understand instinctively that fundamentally emotion played a much bigger role in decision making, but there was no shared view about how, and as a result, design was sometimes regarded as an opaque process—clearly impactful but hard to reproduce, systematize, and control.

Organ-donor rates are mostly a function of whether programs are opt-in or opt-out.

Now we are starting to amass a body of evidence built from hundreds of scientific studies documenting dozens of human cognitive biases. (For more on that, you can read Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book, Nudge.) These biases are the result of mental shortcuts that lead us all to make less than rational (and in fact highly emotional) decisions, not just in the process of design but also more importantly as consumers.

Designers have been influencing behavior for a long time. Graphic design, for example, has generally been concerned with either the visual communication of information (implying static transfer of knowledge but not behavioral change) or the creation of attractive, eye-catching, coherent brand stories (attempting to encourage consumer purchasing and loyalty). This design concerned itself with changing or shaping attitudes and emotions toward brands and engaging their rational sensibilities. However, consciously "changing" the behavior of the users is something we argue is a relatively new role.

Shaping and informing opinions is still incredibly important. However, one of the clearest findings in the emerging area of "persuasive design" is that you can give people all the facts, create the most informative and attractive communications materials, and still not to get them to change their behavior.

While this recent knowledge of how our brains work is a significant step forward, we are still at the very beginning of learning how to do persuasive design effectively. In this century, we’re going to learn a lot more about our irrational behavior and decision-making abilities, and that knowledge is going to impact several design disciplines dramatically.

A good example of irrational behavior is the simple fact that many countries across Europe have dramatically different levels of organ donation. It turns out that the countries with participation rates below 20% designed the donation form so that drivers must opt into the organ donation program, whereas the countries with more than 95% participation have forms that make drivers opt out. This is something called the default bias. The principle of default choices has the same tremendous effect on retirement plans, software installation options, and others. In fact, it is so effective that it is commonly used in software installation option dialogs as an easy way to increase adoption.

Let us consider a design scenario that shows the default bias at work. Imagine you are a school administrator who discovers that in a school cafeteria the order you place the food items on display has a strong impact on what foods students end up consuming. You make inquiries, and there happens to be no particular logical order in which the food is placed in the display. You happen to know that According to the CDC (2011): "Childhood obesity in the USA has more than tripled in the past 30 years." Armed with this knowledge, what do you do?

  1. Leave the order of the foods as is—with the understanding that you are still, albeit arbitrarily, shaping behavior.
  2. Change the order of the food so that more healthy options are presented first to the students.
  3. Change the order so as to favor more profitable options (irrespective of the healthiness of the food).

So option 1 means you just embrace whatever random order the food was in to begin with. This is a false choice, because you are in fact ignoring what you know. As for option 3, as hard up for money as our schools may be, ignoring the health interests of the school children is simply an immoral choice. The only responsible outcome presented is to change the order of the food to promote healthier choices (choice 2).

Changing the foods people see changes their eating habits.

We think the second option is plain common sense. It puts the interests of the constituents in line with the interests of the institution, i.e., the general well-being of the student population. We also believe that an analysis of the intangible implications of choice number 2 would benefit the institution by resulting in fewer sick days and a healthier student body, which in turn, tends to perform better academically.

Some have called persuasive design "benevolent paternalism" or "Big Brother," but this characterization would only be accurate if we were limiting options, or forcing behavioral outcomes, say, by limiting the selection to only healthy options. While the scientific study for this example found that the food order did indeed dramatically affect choices, it was did not lead to an absolute change of behavior, as people retained the individual freedom to make different choices.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the knowledge we have about behavior in this scenario is a human bias in decision-making that can lead people to favor what is desired over what is actually needed and/or to bias a decision based on the order things are placed in rather than more rational criteria.

So as a designer in the 21st century are armed with powerful knowledge of our human bias and frailties, you have several choices:

  • Ignore what you know—and as a result potentially shape behavior in a completely arbitrary and unplanned way.
  • Participate openly with declared and responsible outcomes in mind.
  • Quietly manipulate behavior. We are using the term "manipulate" intentionally and very much in the sense of users being manipulated by unfair or insidious means to one’s own advantage, as in the case of option 3 above.

Why is it so important that designers learn to do this? Let’s examine the issue of global warming. A report from the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change communication examined people’s attitudes to global warming and bucketed them into six groups based on their attitudes, from "alarmed" to "dismissive." If global warming predictions are accurate, then the behaviors of all of these groups need to shift—including those of the 18% who are alarmed. These are people who are extremely sure global warming is happening. They’re confident that negative effects have already started. They want an international treaty. They want government to regulate CO2. But, tragically, this 18% are no more likely to have energy-efficient homes or cars than people who think global warming is a hoax. To reiterate: One of the clearest findings in persuasive design is that you can give people all the facts, which may alter their attitude toward something but won’t necessarily change behavior.

Designers are now armed with a growing set of persuasive techniques for shaping behavior. But with great power comes great responsibility. We are not advocating that commercial interests be de-prioritized, or that profits need to be diminished in some way. No outcome I’m advocating involves undermining basic market capitalism. However, it is our firm belief that corporate interests that are aligned to preferable outcomes will be the only way to sustain profitability in the 21st century.

It’s also our belief that individuals and governments are only part of the solution to some of the 21st century’s most wicked problems. Corporate social responsibility, as defined here, is about aligning profits to a set of preferable outcomes for everyone and building the power to realize those outcomes into your products. We may disagree on what those positive effects are or on what a desirable future is, but we encourage everyone to formulate a public ethical framework.

Images: B Calkins, Tinydevil, and Terrace Studio via Shutterstock

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