December 1, 2020
The Human Mind and Usability: Problem Solving & Decision Making

Let’s start with an everyday example of decision making

Similarly, as author David Ludden describes it in his article Deciding, Fast and Slow, I often experienced it as well that I was rushing to catch a train and because I was out of time I decided to skip buying a ticket and just jumped on the train. I remember one particular time from my student years when I was really in a hurry to get to my hometown to visit my parents and wanted to catch the last train. Back in those days when I was a student, you couldn’t really buy a ticket on the train nor online. Actually, you could easily get away with not buying a ticket, as sometimes no one came to check if you paid for the transportation fee.

So there I was running to catch the train, and just before I reached it I started to think: what if I skip buying it and this time someone actually comes and checks for my ticket? That would mean I get a fine! And of course, as a student, you don’t have that much money, so spending extra money on a fine, when you have already a really tight budget, is always very painful. I saw that the cashier was just a few steps away and no one was standing in line so I ran there and bought my tickets in the end.

The train was about to leave when I finally reached it and luckily I did make that very wise last-minute decision, as that evening they did come to check my ticket. And boy was I relieved that I had made that purchase!

So what did happen here?

Traditionally, economists have assumed that humans are rational decision-makers, yet in the recent decades psychologists working in the field of behavioral economics have come to realize that people are limited in their ability to make rational decisions. In some cases, such as when we have the time and the cognitive resources to think things through, we can be quite rational in our decision making. But when we’re short on by time or bombarded with other things that demand our attention, we tend to make quick, gut-feeling decisions. The same happened here with me in my little train story, I didn’t really have the time to think this through rationally, I just relied more on my gut feeling and grabbed the opportunity that no one was standing in line at the cashier at that moment.

Ludden says going with your gut isn’t necessarily bad. We, humans, have evolved some pretty effective intuitions that usually lead us to very quick – and reasonably accurate – judgments. On the other hand, taking the time to make a rational decision can lead us to what psychologists call “paralysis by analysis.” Which means, we’re unable to make a decision in real-time because we’re slowed down by slow reasoning processes.

Ok, but how does this affect usability?

Slow vs. Fast Thinking can be used to narrow down big volumes of information without overloading the user:

  • An example can be the payment process. Instead of showing everything at once, you can break it down. Show the screen with the shopping cart details first, then another with delivery information, then the optional account creation, etc.
  • Having too many options with equally perceived hierarchy can cause analysis paralysis. That leads to frustration, which of course is not the best user experience. In contrast, systems with fewer and clearer options are rated frequently by users as a better-perceived user experience.
  • Highlighting is another way: make a few important options to stand out among a cluttered user interface to speed up the response times.
  • In the decision-making context aim at reducing distractions. Having distractions can act like having more choices which will lead to slower response time.

The Psychology of Choice

In order to make a decision, we are first of course presented with a lot of choices. We live in a world full of options: cars, phones, jobs, products, lifestyle… endless choices till your head starts spinning. It is the purest expression of free will but choosing the right option for yourself can be tricky, because it also represents sacrifice. Choosing something means giving up on something else, something we might want tomorrow, or next week and that won’t be available to us if we don’t get it right now. Marketers and salespeople have been trying to crack the secret behind choices for decades.

While it is not an exact science to know what makes people buy one specific product over another, decades of research provide us with some insight into how choices are made:

  • If people are overloaded with choices they are less likely to buy things. The trick is to find a balance between having enough options to attract buyers, but not so many that they become overwhelmed and walk away.
  • People have to understand the consequences associated with each choice, they have to be made as visible as possible because if consumers make a connection on a visceral level with a product, they are more likely to buy it. An aesthetically pleasing site will definitely attract more users and motivate them to buy the offered products there than a cluttered and outdated design.
  • Separating products into discrete categories prevents choice overload by reducing the number of products consumers have to compare to each other. It’s also better to slim down the total number of products we have to choose from than to have an overload of the number of product categories with which we’re presented.
  • Choices might be hard, but our brains are totally capable to make complex calculations for us. It’s important that we build up choices from simple ones to more complex ones, and to keep in mind that users might dropoff during the buying process, so finding those steps and preventing them from quitting is also crucial.

…and there are also the psychological factors that affect our choice

Significant factors that influence our decision-making process when presented with a lot of choices are:

  • Cultural & Individual differences including age and socioeconomic status: e.g. older people are much more confident regarding their ability to make decisions, which inhibits their ability to apply strategies.
  • Past experiences: when something positive results from a decision, people are more likely to decide in a similar way, given a similar situation. On the other hand, people tend to avoid repeating past mistakes.
  • Belief in personal relevance: when people think, what they decide matters, they are more likely to make the decision.
  • An escalation of commitment and unrecoverable costs: people invest larger amounts of time, money, and effort into a decision to which they feel committed and they will tend to continue to make risky decisions when they feel responsible for the unrecoverable costs, time, money, and effort spent on a project.
  • And a variety of cognitive biases: there are several cognitive biases that influence decision making. Cognitive biases are thinking patterns based on observations and generalizations that may lead to memory errors, inaccurate judgments, and faulty logic.

So why does a UX Designer need to know about the psychological factors that influence us?

User Psychology is everything that can happen in a user’s mind when they use your design. Only when we understand the reasons behind what drives users to certain behaviors, and when we understand the broader mechanisms that guide the actions of our users, will we be able to create usable interfaces. And for that, we need to look at Psychology:

  • With your designs you create an effect on people, in other words, you make them feel, think and do things
  • The more you understand your users’ feelings, thoughts, and actions the better designer you are
  • Understanding Psychology will allow you to know: why people share things? Why they don’t choose the cheapest option all the time? Why they do or do not sign up for your services?

Are you interested in more psychology topics related to UX Design? Then stay tuned for further blog entries to come in our “Human Mind and Usability” section!

Sources which have been used for this blog entry and where you can read more about the topic: