The human mind and usability part 3: Decision-making

In the third in our series of blog posts looking into psychology concepts that affect design, we look at how we make decisions and how to design environments for effective decision-making.

Designing for effective decision-making

When creating an online shop you certainly want to make it easy for users to buy, right? But are you also making it easy for them to choose?

Traditional usability focuses on designing for user action (the ‘can-do’) and usually assumes that people will take that action. However, It’s important to understand that everyaction is preceded by a decision about what to choose (the ‘want-to-do’).

Decision outcomes are, of course, affected by the context or environment in which those decisions are made and so the design of a website has a crucial impact. Because when people can’t decide, they won’t decide anything at all — which can have huge implications for achieving website (and ultimately business) objectives.

So, how do we design effective environments for decision-making? First, we need to understand more about how the process of decision-making actually works and what affects it.

How people make decisions

Decision-making is a complex process, in which people process information through two mental modes that operate alongside each other: ‘gut processing’ is quick, intuitive and emotional, whilst ‘head processing’ is slow, analytical and rational. Gut makes decisions quickly but head can monitor guts decisions and over rule them. However, even when head overrules gut, it doesn’t undo the impact of our first gut reaction to something, which can still effect the judgement that follows.

Researchers who’ve conducted studies with people who have damage to the parts of the brain that process emotion concluded that decision-making is impossible without the influence of emotion (gut); when we’re making a decision, ‘gut’ plays the role of tipping the scale toward one option or another.

Gut processing is fast and effortless, whilst head processing is slow and requires effort. One reason that head could fail to take part in the decision-making process is because conscious thought takes effort. When choosing between different possibilities people tend to weight up the cost against the benefit, i.e. “is this worth the effort”. A person’s objective in decision making is usually to get the best possible decision outcome with the least amount of effort; however, these two objectives are usually conflicting with each other. Better decision outcomes usually require more effort.

Decision-making strategies

One of the most effective ways to design for decision-making is to leverage people’s natural behaviours and decision-making strategies. At Code, we use persuasive design principals to plan and design online experiences. Here are some of the techniques we use to aid and influence decision-making.

1. Social proof
The actions of others serve as models for how we think we should act. In uncertain or unfamiliar situations especially, we look to others to validate our decisions. We also tend to be swayed more easily when we believe the models we use for behaviour are similar to ourselves.

Ratings, comments, feedback and testimonials can all be used to demonstrate the relevance and quality of your product/service, and sway the decision making process.

2. Value attribute
People are unable to objectively determine the absolute value of things, and they instead use a process of comparison. Comparison is a key part of people’s natural behaviour, so we are constantly comparing things: products, people, places, etc. Facilitating easy comparison through your design can make it easier for people to make a choice. Including data such as a regular price or industry standard amount can all be used as reference points to allow people to assess value.

3. Limited choices
We are more likely to make a choice when there are fewer options. Too many choices create indecisiveness and will make some people fail to make a choice at all (this is known as choice paralysis). People often think that more choices is better, and yes having greater variety can be enjoyable, but the decision process can be more frustrating if there are too many options which leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the final choice.

It’s good practise to consider the choices people have to make on your site and find ways to limit those choices.

In his book ‘The Paradox of Choice’, psychologist Barry Schwartz describes the very memorable jam jar study by psychologists Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar:

“When researchers set up [in a gourmet food store] a display featuring a line of exotic, high-quality jams, customers who came by could taste samples, and they were given a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. In one condition of the study, 6 varieties of the jam were available for tasting. In another, 24 varieties were available. In either case, the entire set of 24 varieties was available for purchase. The large array of jams attracted more people to the table than the small array, though in both cases people tasted about the same number of jams on average. When it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. Thirty percent of the people exposed to the small array of jams actually bought a jar; only 3 percent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so.”