Humans are not rational beings. Let us be clear: most of the decisions we make every day are for irrational reasons. This is a behavioural pattern as old as time and psychologists and experts in behavioural economics have examined it in countless studies. A growing number of businesses are taking advantage of this finding and using the “nudge theory” in their digital design to develop individual strategies for influencing their customers’ decision-making processes in their favour.
By Julia Fehrle, Serena Garulli and Nicole Vesting, hicklvesting PR.
The nudge theory (from a book of the same name, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness) explains a view held by economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein whereby people’s decisions and habits can be stimulated easily and discreetly through “nudging”. With an intelligent nudge, companies can add important motivation to the customer journey, create a positive (shopping) experience and increase trust in the company, online and offline. Design elements make all the difference in the digital world. Visual design, that is, the design of user interfaces and the position, size and colours of buttons influence user behaviour, as does interaction design. Emotion-filled images and appealing content are also important tools that characterise user-centric design. Clear navigation and menu signage let users reach their destination more quickly, whether that be making a purchase or a bank transfer or booking travel. Design (or rather good design) is turning into an elite discipline and a crucial tool for digital nudging. A discipline in which not everyone can – or wants to – be an instant winner and “Good Samaritan”.
Digital design – a few do’s and don’ts
Bad design can achieve precisely the opposite, and examples that illustrate a “dark pattern” are evidence of this. They deliberately mislead and manipulate users through an interface with an intentionally bad design. Two American corporations offer renowned case studies for this, showing the impacts that bad user guidance can have. When consumers wished to cancel their “Prime” subscription, Amazon made the process significantly difficult. A study by Forbrukerrådet, Norway’s consumer protection authority (source: Forbrukerrådet: You can log out, but you can never leave (2021)), showed that it took just a few clicks to subscribe to Amazon Prime. However, to cancel the subscription, users had to go through a longer process. The corporation employed manipulative language (“Cancel My Benefits”) and hidden menus and buttons throughout the process for cancelling, with a purpose of completely confusing and unsettling users. Put simply, its intention was to prevent users from cancelling their membership by all means.
In the case of Citibank, its management received a costly lesson about the relevance of user interface design. The bank’s employees accidentally transferred an incorrect payment of USD 900 million to numerous creditors, instead of routing it to an internal account as intended. At fault for this mistake was the badly designed software for batch transfers, in which two checkboxes in the system had not been selected. None of the people responsible for monitoring the transfer process noticed the error or stopped the transaction. A small digital tip in the system, like a “friendly” suggestion or a “gentle nudge” from the machine, would have been enough to reveal the flaws in the ambiguous form. This is why digital nudges are increasingly being used when designing control systems to reduce dysfunctional decision-making behaviours of humans. Artificial intelligence and digital technology in particular have the potential to deliver improvements to systems and decision-making processes by using algorithms and codes.
More fundamental protections against digital nudging
Misleading design is also becoming a topic raised in connection with data protection, for example when “dark patterns” induce users to give away personal information. The online platform Netzpolitik.org says that digital interfaces are frequently designed to get users to share as much data as possible with businesses, even though the European General Data Protection Regulation mandates protecting users with “privacy by design” in preconfigured settings. People often underestimate the dark side of user experience design, which is why governments are now being called on to take action. Stiftung Neue Verantwortung has published a policy brief called “Dark Patterns: Regulating Digital Design”. It argues that governments should ensure people develop more awareness of manipulative design practices.
Graphics, imagery and content: a recipe for success in digital nudging
Design, including digital design, is a driving force behind all online user behaviours and experiences these days. Digital designers and software developers have a role as decision-making architects, which gives them much responsibility. They guide the users through the process and help them make their decisions. The major challenge is designing all digital elements in such a way that users behave predictably. Airlines use digital nudges by encouraging their customers to contribute to sustainability. They are given an option during the booking process to buy a carbon offset for their flight’s emissions. Ideally, nudges do not work by prohibiting things or providing financial incentives. Rather, they should always provide an option to make a free decision based on clear visualisation and a well-made layout. As appealing as the content’s wording may be, it will not have any effect if its visual presentation is not up to scratch. That is because “content is king – but design is queen.”
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