As designers, we spend a lot of time thinking about the future. We look for trends that give us clues about the Next Big Thing. We make predictions about how society, technology, and businesses will evolve. And we try to build products to withstand years of use.
What we don’t often do, however, is think of the future as a tool for persuasive design. But it is—and it can actually be quite powerful. When people get a peek at what’s in store for their health, their pocketbooks, and the environment, they tend to make better decisions—such as saving more money for retirement or going for a jog instead of watching television.
By making users’ futures—25, 35, or even 50 years from now—more salient in the products and services we design, we can nudge them toward future-oriented choices. A good place to start is by helping users feel more connected to their future selves.
Computer-rendered "aged" photographs project what someone might look like several years in the future. Although they’re typically used in missing persons advertisements, these "older self" photos can really help influence people’s decisions.
In a series of experiments conducted by a team from NYU, Microsoft Research, and Stanford, researchers showed people either a present-day or digitally aged photo of themselves and asked them how much of their income they would allocate to retirement savings. People who saw their aged photos said they would allocate more money to savings—6.17% compared to 4.41%. The aged photos helped people more vividly imagine their futures, which made those futures seem more tangible. They also increased people’s sense of self-continuity—the psychological connectedness they felt with their future selves.
Most of the time, we tend to think of our future selves more as an "other" rather than as a "self." Researchers at Princeton explored this tendency a few years ago in an experiment: They asked participants how much of a disgusting liquid they would be willing to drink for the sake of science (a delicious mixture of water, soy sauce, and ketchup).
When they asked participants how much they’d be willing to drink then and there, participants committed themselves to drinking less than a quarter-cup. Asked how much another participant in the experiment should have to drink, participants committed strangers to drinking nearly a half cup. And when people were asked how much they would commit to drinking themselves in a few months, they were much more likely to give answers closer to a half cup. Here’s what’s key: They treated strangers and their future selves quite similarly—in contrast to the way they treated their present selves.
Merrill Edge recently created a web app that shows people what their faces might look like at retirement age, tapping into the power of using aged photos to improve future-oriented decision making. (Customers use the app before creating a savings plan.) It shows you a projection of your face at various ages, all the way up to age 107, along with reference points alongside each photo—such as the estimated price of a loaf of bread 30 years down the line. The app preserves enough of your face and features to be fairly convincing.
Personally, once I got over the initial shock of seeing what I might look like at age 67, I found myself feeling empathetic toward the older woman in the photo. "This is an old lady who should be taken care of," I thought. The irony, of course, is that I’m the old lady. (I also forwarded my aged photo to my husband to let him know what he was in for.)
What’s keeping us from thinking about our future selves more regularly, especially when we’re making decisions with long-term consequences?
Behavioral economics and cognitive psychology suggest that cognitive biases impact the way we do (or don’t) take the future into account when making decisions. Equipped with an understanding of those biases, we can begin to craft design strategies that help combat them.
First, we tend to discount future outcomes.
Life is full of decisions where one option leads to a positive outcome in the present and another option leads to an even bigger positive outcome in the future. (This is called an intertemporal choice.) Most people choose the here-and-now outcome, even if it’s orders of magnitude smaller than the future outcome. We do this because we dramatically discount outcomes that occur in the future. The farther in the future an outcome occurs, the more we discount its impact. This is known as quasi-hyperbolic time discounting.
Second, we’re pretty bad at predicting our future selves.
We’re not great at predicting what we’ll want, what we’ll feel, or how we’ll react to life-changing events down the line. These are known as affective forecasting errors. They’re attributed to biases like the projection bias (we project our current emotional states on our future selves) and the impact bias (we overestimate our emotional responses to future events, such as the death of a loved one and don’t account for how we actually cope and adapt over time).
Third, we tend to focus on single events rather than additive consequences.
Even when we have good intentions about the future, we easily fall victim to narrow bracketing. That means we focus on the individual outcomes of smaller decisions instead of taking a more holistic or longer-term view to understand their additive effects.
So how can we tap into the power of the future and help users combat common cognitive biases?
1. Help people keep their future selves in mind at the moment they’re making decisions.
What if, every time you were about to make a major credit-card purchase online, you had to write a quick note to your future self, perhaps using a tool like Future Me?
The food and fitness tracking app MyFitnessPal makes strides in this direction by giving users a weight projection at the end of each day, based on that day’s caloric intake. ("If every day were like today, you’d weigh XYZ in 5 weeks.") From a purely behavioral perspective, showing the weight projection before users make food choices might be more effective—but it’s important to strike a balance between calling attention to the future and disrupting the user experience (particularly when you’re dealing with daily experiences). Testing with real people can help you determine the sweet spot.
2. Define future impacts in terms of personally resonant metrics.
Put future outcomes into clear terms that will resonate with users—like dollars saved, pounds of carbon dioxide reduced. We took the dollars-and-cents approach with Artefact’s SWYP printer concept; the interface makes clear how much each printed page will cost as users are deciding how many pages, and with what quality, to print.
3. Help people vividly imagine what the ebb and flow of their future lives will be like.
Thinking through the reality of day-to-day life can help people make more realistic predictions about their future emotional states. Without guidance to consider various minutiae, people will tend to focus on major life events (a birth of a child, a death of a spouse) and overestimate their impact.
Imagine if you had people describe a day in their life, 20 years from now, before making a decision with long-term consequences. This could be as simple as incorporating a basic either/or question into an existing experience: "Will you prefer your toast buttered or unbuttered when you’re 60? Would you rather do the crossword puzzle on Sunday mornings after you retire, or go for a bike ride?"
4. Make abstract future outcomes tangible in the present.
To give people a sense of what the future might look like, try to make distant outcomes feel more visceral. Whole Foods recently removed all of the produce that relies on bee pollination from its University Heights Market store in Rhode Island to help shoppers better grasp the magnitude of a future without bees. Out of the typical spread of 453 produce items, only 216 were left in the "post honey bee" store. As you can tell by the photo below, the effect of removing the 237 items that depend on pollination was quite striking—staples like apples, cucumbers, broccoli, and carrots were completely gone.
5. Pair each future preview with a call to action.
Once the impact of the potential future sinks in, people need to know what to do next to achieve (or avoid) that outcome. There’s a fine line between showing people a realistic view of a possible negative future and freaking them out. While graphic warnings on cigarette packages give smokers an idea of what’s in store—cancerous lungs and rotting teeth—they can be so upsetting that they lead people to revert to unhealthy coping behaviors. Like smoking. Which sort of defeats the purpose.
We want to help people get a better idea of what the future might be like, but we also have to help them understand that they have the power to change the course of events. Making sure people have a sense of self-efficacy—that they can achieve their goals and make change happen—is critical when it comes to changing behaviors. As designers, we must ensure that every time we give users a glimpse into their future lives, we also give them a clear path to creating a positive outcome.