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  • Charlotte Vosseler

The Design of Choice

If you’re anything like me, sometimes simple choices can seem overwhelming and absolutely impossible. Don’t ask me what I want for dinner I really don’t know and probably won’t care, I just want you to make the decision. I like to blame it on being a Libra (I blame most of my issues on astrological wee-woo don’t judge me) but I know I’m not alone in my decision fear and fatigue.


A collage of many different colorful cocktails
So many choices, so little time!


In software and application design, users are presented with options. This can range from choosing something from a menu, selecting things from a list, to simply choosing to continue using whatever was opened. The user is in charge of their choice, but how do I as a designer guide their choice? That’s our whole goal as designers - to guide our users easily and comfortably through using our products in the way we intend them to be used. In an extremely interesting article by Jesse Weaver, there is a simple framework for how and when to nudge users to make a decision that is in our best interest. As with all user-based design decisions, we begin with asking about our users! What are their goals? Which options help them achieve those goals? Do they match the goals of the product? How can we make those two things match up?


Jesse recommends a choice outcome matrix to plot possible choices based on the benefit to the user vs benefit to the business. As with all SWOT matrixes, choices that are good for the user AND the business are good to go’s, and all design choices should prioritize those choices. For items that are better for the user over the business and vice versa become more complicated. (I’m not even bringing up bad for the business and bad for the users, use ya brain).


For example - a “freemium” service. We have the free option: generally will have something that helps make the service free (more ads, limited access per month, etc.), and we have the premium/subscription option that eliminates the hurdles that users may want to avoid while also potentially adding features that make paying for a service more desirable for the user. The subscription is the better option for the business since it grows revenue, while the free version is better for the user since it’s free. As a designer (working for a business), I’m trying to nudge our users into making the choice that’s better for the business. Here is how a few popular companies guide you towards choosing their subscription:


A screenshot of Zoom's pricing plans
Zoom uses a catchy CTA color as well as these nice green flags to tout benefits
A Screenshot of Slack's pricing plans
Slack draws your eye immediately to the easiest upgrade option
A screenshot of Medium's subscription page
Medium provides unlimited articles with 2 easy account creation options

The NY Times offers print and digital or digital only options while enticing with a discount

These are prime examples of a visual nudge using color, size, and placement as well as showing users what they’re missing out on by not being a member of these services!


But what if you’re designing a form? The design of forms affects users' decision making as well. We see this often in my favorite dark design technique (favorite being the one that makes me endlessly angry because I fall for it ALL THE TIME): the email unsubscribe form. Here, we are designing for explicit choice. A simple yes or no, opt in or out. Businesses want you to subscribe to their newsletters and coupon emails, it makes you more likely to spend money with them. I am the biggest sucker for a good sale - so I have to be very vigilant about the emails I get from my favorite stores so they don’t bleed me dry.


In this research study, the researchers were interested in comparing the outcomes between 2 approaches of getting users to make a choice. Each of the 2 options had 2 options:


Example 1:

  • “I want to enroll in a 401(k) plan.”

  • “I don’t want to enroll in a 401(k) plan.”

Example 2:

  • “I want to enroll in a 401(k) plan and take advantage of the employer match.”

  • “I don’t want to enroll in a 401(k) plan and don’t want to take advantage of the employer match.”

In example 1 the options are completely equal. Example 2 shows what the user could potentially gain (this sounds familiar, right?). The study showed that enrollment in the 401(k) program increased when the options were “enhanced” like in example 2. It went on to say that because people are generally unlikely to seek out information to inform their decision, so including that in the description helps entice the user. We can take this to the next level by taking advantage of users' motivation to avoid loss! For example:

  • “I want to enroll in a 401(k) plan.”

  • “I don’t want to enroll in a 401(k) plan and don’t want to take advantage of the employer match

This allows users to realize they have something to lose by NOT enrolling. But we can’t stop there! Don’t discount the default! If a box is checked by default, many don’t uncheck it. These 2 things combined make those unsubscribe pages the WORST. The box that’s checked always says “stay subscribed” and the unchecked box says “unsubscribe and miss out on exclusive offers!”

A collage of two women staring down the left of 2 tunnels lined with wine barrels while a man looks down the right side with a pair of binoculars.
Which tunnel gives me the greatest possible outcome?

So what am I getting at here? Designing users choices is interaction design. Our designs influence user behavior and decisions. We can help guide users toward both what we want them to interact with and what makes them the happiest! And if anyone knows of any product that can make dinner decisions for me, I’d really like to know about it.


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