How Choice Architecture Can Make an Impact

By Marlon Fuentes | Design Strategist, verynice

Let's face it. We don't always make the best decisions for our own well-being. And how can we blame ourselves? We're biased humans, not artificial intelligence. And so the question becomes, what are the factors that affect our decision making and if we agree that better choices should not only be made, but encouraged, what can we do as designers, policy makers, and executives, to create better outcomes? The answer can be found through the study of behavioral economics and what Chicago Booth Professor, Richard Thaler describes as "choice architecture." 

If you are in charge of choice sets, you are an architect.

If you are the food services director at a cafeteria and have the opportunity to influence where the fresh fruits and processed snacks are located, you'll have some decisions to make. Same goes for health workers designing anti-smoking programs or urban planners who want to achieve, healthier, cleaner cities. You get the idea.

In each of these cases, the choice architect has decisions to make about how they will lay out a set of choices. Does the food services director optimize for profit? Do they leave it up to their line staff to decide based on what looks best in the space? Or do they arrange food choices in a way that optimizes for healthier eating? Even doing nothing at all is a decision though often described as negligence in the worst of cases. 

Should smoking be banned or can we successfully encourage people to not smoke at all? Does adding a lane to the 405 freeway in L.A. reduce traffic? Or do shared mobility centers, and heftier parking fee's create more users of public transportation? 

Each of these scenarios involves human decision making, and unfortunately, while the right choice may seem blatantly obvious, many people make less than optimal decisions. While heuristics, or what is commonly referred to as "rules of thumb", can help us solve problems faster through mental shortcuts, they can also lead to cognitive biases that point us in the wrong direction.  

There's no such thing as neutral design. 

One of the most important things to take away from this is that as choice architects,  like architects in the industrial sense, must embrace the idea that "everything matters." Even the decision of where to put a drinking fountain can have subtle influences on how people interact with a building. Failure to be intentional about design can lead to poor outcomes, sometimes subtle, sometimes devastating. 

Design thinking for better outcomes.

Design is not only about making things desirable, but also feasible.  In urban design, we see this as the invitations created that can motivate people to take alternative forms of transit. 
If the set of choices for getting to work are: 1. Taking public transit 2. Driving to work 3. Riding a bike, we can look to motivators that lead to more desirable behavior.

Such motivators include cost savings, seamless experiences, illuminated sidewalks, and livelier spaces among others. In essence, we must encourage biased individuals to overcome impulses that loudly whisper to them, "busses are for people who can't afford a car" (representativeness bias) or the idea that driving is inherently better (choice-support bias).

A great example of how design can uncover ways to overcome bias can be seen in how the CARES (Committed Action to Reduce and Smoking) Program managed to decrease smoking by creating a savings program that allowed potential non-smokers to deposit the money they would have otherwise spent on cigarettes in a bank account. After 6 months, if the user tested negative for tobacco, they could keep the money. Results from MIT's Poverty Action Lab showed that opening up an account resulted in a 53% higher likelihood of quitting, a much higher return than using nicotine patches. 

The sweeping popularity of design thinking in the business and social sector is no coincidence given our uncanny ability as designers to uncover root problems, and solve using inventive approaches that lead to innovation. Do you have a challenge for us ? Let's get to work! We're on a mission to make the world a better place. 

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