The power of our gut feelings has finally been invited to the same gala party as the rational aspects of decision making. Does this mean we are seeing a shift in how systems and services should be shaped? And are we then ready to design them differently?
The economic models that form many of the functions and systems in our society are designed on the belief that humans are rational and make rational choices. But in October 2017, for the second time, the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded within Behavioral Economics, a research area that postulates we are mostly driven by emotions and deep-rooted behaviors, and only occasionally think rationally. In fact, we are actually human. And to that, we applaud!
How people make decisions is not yet really understood in detail. Areas such as neuromarketing are growing rapidly, connecting the fields within neuroscience (how the brain works) with psychology (and marketing) to better understand just that: how we make decisions. What we do know is that the decisions placed in the first quadrant in the matrix below happen very seldom. What activities from your life would you put there, in the “how-about-never”-quadrant?
There are many studies and theories about why we tend to postpone these activities:
- We tend to value things that are closer to us more than things that will happen in the future.
- We lack the ability to self-control, and fail to do what is right for us.
- We are time-inconsistent, meaning that the “future self” will not follow what the “present self” set up as a plan for us. 
We can view it as two different systems co-existing in our brain, constantly in conflict about how to act in a given situation. We can think slow (letting the decisions run by the pre-frontal cortex and be analyzed, which takes a bit longer and increases the cognitive load), or we can think fast (driven by the limbic system “fight and flight”). The fast behavior is triggered naturally in us, left over from when we lived on the savanna, where it helped us survive.
So, if we consider these two ways of thinking as personas, they would be:
Living Type A
Type A, she is completely rational and she enjoys eating potato chips. This means she will stop eating chips at the exact point when the value she receives from eating another chip is not greater than the value she got from eating the previous one. A.k.a when the difference of the value-function (Y) depending on number of chips (x) has a negative gradient (tilt). Hence once the optimum point of that value-function (Max y’(x)=0) is reached, the next amount of chips (x) will not contribute to her value maximization any longer (given the function for value is a differential equation), and she will not take another chip. Her prefrontal cortex is working by default.
Living Type B
The other persona is the Type B: she can’t stop eating. Since every bite is triggering her fast system, rewarding her for the chips. She is the one that needs to hide the bowl of chips not to eat it all, and if she is really lucky she has understood that the only way for her to not eat chips is to stop buying them (but this is also something she has postponed for later, because she enjoys eating chips). Her prefrontal cortex is not working in this context by default, she needs to focus for it to work.
In October 2017, the Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to Richard H. Thaler, a man who challenges the impact the current economic models (the ones that are designed for type A personas) have on our societies. He argues that the majority of the people are type B personas, and that the type A, “Econs” as he calls them, from Homo Economicus, are a fictional constructed version of Homo Sapiens. He was recognized for integrating economics with psychology and his contribution to Behavioral Economics. He has also made a great contribution to libertarian paternalism, helping to nudge people towards making the right decision for themselves by making small behavioral changes.
Studying behavior to help end users
For us at Designit, our work as designers is to make the jobs/tasks that the end user needs to do easier, reducing the cognitive load when possible, nudging the user towards better actions. So, in the digital world this might be about putting a Call-To-Action (CTA, a button) in an appropriate place or arranging the Information Architecture (IA) based on usage. In the physical world, it might be about making the total user journey less cumbersome, seeing how real, malleable people behave in different ways depending on their changing circumstances, and observing how they interact with a company. In other words, design the journey around the user rather than the internal functions of the company.
We want to design what matters. And to us, Thaler’s research, the research around decision architecture and the impact of default choices make us passionate about creating experiences that nudge the end user in the direction that is best for them. We see this Prize in Economic Sciences as a wake up call for companies to work differently, to understand users better through research, and to apply a more open approach in solving the issues at hand. Like prototyping and testing with real-life complicated emotional people (type B personas), having them react to proposed solutions and including them in the design of the experience. These realizations about the true nature of users — and our assumptions about them — are very exciting! The research world is finally opening their eyes to the possibilities of the marriage between design and behavioral science.
…but are you ready to act differently and to redesign products and services for a more human fit?
We hope so.
Last, but not least, don’t postpone it for tomorrow!
[CTA to what whatever you thought of in the beginning of this article]