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SXSW: Can ‘Choice Architecture’ Fix Bad Design Decisions?


by Alan Melson 9 Mar 2018

User experience designers share their theory at SXSW that rushed design choices and inherent biases are cheapening our daily digital interactions – and could contribute to the unraveling of our social fabric if left unchecked.

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Rushed design choices and inherent biases are cheapening our daily digital interactions – and could contribute to the unraveling of our social fabric if left unchecked.

This theory was discussed at length in a thoughtful session at South by Southwest on Friday, part of the highly-attended Interactive strand of the annual conference in downtown Austin.

The panel’s four design and strategy experts laid out ideas for making difficult choices and building a framework for design through a process called choice architecture, a term popularized by behavioral economist Richard Thaler – who won a Nobel Prize last year for his work around this subject.

Panelists discussed the creep into apps and websites of dark patterns – interfaces that are crafted to trick users into unintentionally doing things. To understand how this works, imagine visiting a web page that led you to click on something unknowingly, adding your e-mail to a spam list or signing you up for a financial commitment. It happens fairly often, and these dark patterns can easily occur as a result of design decisions made on deadline and under pressure.

“Bad design choices are often a result of short-term thinking, many times because of a need to meet a traffic or monetary goal,” said Lauren Bugeja, a user experience lead for Google. Bugeja said those decisions may initially help, but will ultimately drive away audience – and make goals harder to achieve in the future.

Senior user experience designer Elayne Safir credits our inherited “lizard brain” instincts and cognitive biases as the reason why dark patterns can be so effective; for example, the familiarity bias explains how, wired for survival, people look for a familiar option to meet a need, even when it’s not the best fit.

One could also say that product designers may also gravitate to familiar choices because they make sense on a basic level, even if they aren’t the best option for the end user.

Even well-intentioned user experiences can have unintended consequences. Diana Gonzalez, strategy director for digital agency R/GA, cited an example of children who have begun to talk to adults more tersely because of how they’ve learned to speak to voice-activated devices like Amazon’s Alexa. She also criticized voice device designers for not being more culturally aware in terms of speech pattern recognition.

“It’s 2018, and Alexa still can’t understand my father,” Gonzalez said.

The panel also agreed that the rise of digital user experiences that place a priorty on highly-personalized content has only served to disconnect us further, by feeding people a steady diet of content that reinforces what they already like or believe, instead of giving them a wider array of styles and viewpoints. Do designers have an obligation to fight this trend?

“What people want and what people need are very different,” Gonzalez said. “How do we find balance between our moral compass and meeeting our company’s KPIs (key performance indicators)?”

This is where choice architecture comes into play. Thaler’s concept that the way choices are presented or designed will affect users’ decisions can be a powerful tool for designers advocating for a better approach – especially when going up against business or marketing interests at a company.

“I often walk in a meeting and realize I’m probably the only one there to be a user advocate, and think about how people use a product instead of simply how to make money,” Bugeja said.

Jennifer Garfield, lead product manager for wedding planning website The Knot, said the ultimate focus should be on the long-term value of a customer. The company holds monthly user panels, bringing in different customer segments to provide feedback – and they invite everyone at the company to attend, so they can better understand user concerns.

Garfield said developers are likely to understand how to fix things more quickly when they see users struggling – and it also fosters a deeper understanding of how design actions can betray the confidence users have in their product.

“Whatever we do could break users’ trust,” Garfield said. “Ask yourself before any user experience choice: Will this continue to keep our users happy?”

Photo courtesy @amertzman on Twitter.

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