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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  • Phillip Waite

    Rob - I enjoyed your article.  As a designer who looks at landscape architecture as a "tool" for use in recruitment I found the discussion about manipulation enlightening.  I agree that manipulation is occurring now whether it was intentional or not.  You mention in the white paper "the compilation of the 300+ universal human behaviors common to all cultures."  Can you provide a source or citation for that information?  I'd love to track some of that down.  Thanks.

  • Dirk van Erve

    I like the way you inform us designers to focus on helping the user in making better choices. The question always remains: who knows best what they want. At Eindhoven University of Technology's department of Industrial Design there is an entire project group focusing on Changing Behavior. Through persuasive technology, smart concepts and business models we try to improve the quality of life of the users on several different areas such as stress-release, safety, social behavior, etc.

  • Charles Marzette

    Wow, this is a great presentation, with some very noteworthy and very thought provoking implications!  We have TO BE RESPONSIBLE with the influence given us as designers.  We like any other profession are apart of our respective communities and like other professions are given the responsibility to have influence on a product process or experience etc, we have to be responsible in the decisions we make as designers, as influencers.

  • Jdk Dsgn

    Senorvicente, I appreciate your comment, however I'm arguing from an analogous case -- look at Washington. They claim to be writing laws and securing our freedoms which are in our best interests, yet we move onward toward a fascist system. America has become a people for the government, by the government and of the government. I do not wish to watch designers decide what is best for the consumer, for that is exactly the type of liberty that lawmakers have taken with us. Collectivism usually ends up explaining itself in impressive metrics and equations, but the truth is just like Mike Ridell says below, the smart consumer should always be asking 'what's in it for me?'. Collectivism sacrifices the individual for the whole - is this system really worth it?

    I see an agenda to this guy's argument, and I don't want to see them have the power to decide for the masses. Like I said, system ain't broke, no need to change - if the average American doesn't want to learn more about CO2 and greenhouse gases, then so what? Who's responsibility is it to get them to learn this info, and thus make informed decisions? It is that selfsame American. This is simply an attack on personal liberty.

  • mikeriddell62

    Sorry but i think you're over complicating the matter Mr Girling. It's the incentive that counts. Mass-customisation and personalisation are the answer to the only question that matters which is "what's in it for me?"

    And where was the audience in your video? ;)

  • senorvicente

    Thanks for the great article, Rob.

    JDK DSGN, I think Rob's point is more about awareness and understanding than about social engineering. What he describes is already happening and we're just now beginning to harness and implement these new discoveries.

    Since none of what we do as designers happens in a vacuum, it's better to understand the full implications of our work and the potential consequences; intended or not.

    Behaviors are already being manipulated, for better or worse, and having this newly acquired knowledge equips designers to make better choices in what they create to avoid misleading people or to help lead them to achieving their goals. 

    Of course, this can and will be abused, but to ignore it would be irresponsible and dangerous. 

  • Vicki Stephens

    I appreciate your article and response to Tim. Very insightful and informative. Thank you. I totally agree that persuasive design is the future and definitely part of the solution! After all, it's creative thinking and that's what designers do. 

  • Jdk Dsgn

    When did designers become social engineers,'nudging' the consumer to make the 'right' decision? This wreaks of majority rule: imagine two wolves and one sheep arguing about what's for dinner. Why not continue designing the best product? Competition begets innovation (not to mention profits). The system ain't broke. All this flavor-of-the-month mumbo jumbo is interesting, but it's a form of psychic coercion. Subliminal propaganda does the same thing as what this guy is proposing us to do - get consumer's to choose the products that WE (do I smell a new political class?) have determined are best for them, and neglect the 'worse' choices. Freedom is about making choices, without being coerced by someone else's agenda.

  • Rob

    I think you misunderstand the point of the piece. 

    Our brains are doing lots of things below the level of awareness that can impact decision making.  You have to recognize that you are being coerced already (either deliberately or unconsciously by the design of many things, services, products, environments) - there is no 'neutral' position you can take as a designer.  Learning to do some good in the world, e.g: increase empathy, decrease waste, save people money, help people take better care of themselves are attainable and worthy goals to aspire to.  Nobody's suggesting that can't also make for huge profits, most innovative products in any category. 

  • mikeriddell62

     With the right to freedom of choice comes the responsibility to choose wisely. I'm entitled to make myself happy. If it was at your expense how would you feel about that?

  • J.WIlson

    No, instead, "Designers" do exactly what they feel intuitively drawn to - which is exactly why they are hired by Big Media forms who have a product to push and they count on a good designer's 'draw' -> meaning that they have a following of people who'se BEHAVIOR is influenced by the "Designer" being 'themselves'.

  • Andrew

    Great Article,  I hope to read the whole treatise.  It makes me reflect on my own behaviour on subjects which I think I support.  And wow my design job suddenly seems a lot more important RESPONSIBILITY!

  • CA

    Here is another article which incites to be careful:
    Yannick Rumpala, “Sustainable consumption” as a new phase in a governmentalization of consumption », Theory and Society, Volume 40, Issue 6, November 2011, .

  • Food Genius

    I think putting healthy food at the end of the order would be most effective, assuming there is a line next to it to get one's food, and that you pay at the end. People tend to pass by their first opinions (whether they be fruit, shoes, etc) and start to make their choices somewhere in "the middle". Also, assuming there is a line, people will have to wait near the end. (eg: Why are there always candy bars and like near the cashier at the supermarket?)

  • Claire Brophy

    I love the "aligning profits to preferable outcomes", I just wish someone would tell my bank that... 

  • Aleksander Borg

    Today we had a test in design history and the final question was: 'What is your definition of a designer?'
    My Answer was: 'A Potential Superhero'

    PS: All humans are born designers - aka creators.

  • Tushar Sharma

    this is hardly any new information, since forever have the cigarette companies been quietly placing the cancer sticks in the hands of actors in intense movie scenes. they know the effects on people's minds will last, howsoever irrational it might be to smoke.

  • Tony7am

    Perfect example and comment ! It exist as" Consumer Behavior study " in advertising.

  • BrianPhipps

    Since the brand mission is to advance customers to richer realms of living, where they can lead more proactive and more productive lives, I'd expect the design mission to be no less. Design enables new leaps of context. The US Constitution is a design "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic
    Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general
    Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our
    Posterity." Nothing wrong with that.