Psychology of Design Masterclass – 7 Important Facts About Decision Making

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How hard it is to influence or change people’s decision making process? Is there any way we can use design to help people make better decisions? What if I would tell you that external factors can influence your decisions more than you would think is possible? In this last part of psychology of design series we will discuss seven most interesting facts we know about psychology and how we make decisions. My hope is that these facts will help you understand how our minds work and design much better user experience.

Table of contents

Psychology of design and our decision making process

Every one of us is making at least decision every day. Some of these decisions, we make, are more important, while others are almost meaningless. When we have to decide about something that’s important for us, we give our decision making process enough time and energy. Otherwise, we are not afraid to choose in a split second. The, sometimes uncomfortable, truth is that our lives are consequences of our decisions. It is, therefore, quite interesting how little many of us know about how we make decisions.

When we realize what consequences can seemingly small decision has, understanding of what’s behind our decision making process will become even more apparent. This is also probably why Thinking, Fast and Slow written by psychologist Daniel Kahneman is one of the most successful books in the past few years. Our lives driven are by our decisions. On the global scale, decisions are what keeps our world and society going. In the smaller scales, decisions made by users and customers are what determines which products will survive and which will fade out.

This is why, I think, we need to have at least some basic understanding of the psychology behind our decision making. Then, we can use this knowledge to design much better user experience that will result in more successful products and much happier users. We should also don’t forget that when we know how people make decisions, we can exploit this knowledge and use it to increase the probability that it will be our product what will people decide to use. This may seem a little bit unethical. However, if your product will benefit users, it is a good type of hacking psychology.

No.1: The majority of our decision making happening unconsciously

When we want to buy some product, the process is often the same. We gather information about available options on the Internet. We may also talk with couple friends or family members to get their ideas and feedback. Then, when we think we have sufficient amount of information, we compare all available options to make sure that we will choose the best product on the first attempt. Before we make the purchase, we may also try to find the same product somewhere else for better price. We may also think about whether it is the right time.

When we go through this decision making process, we like to believe that our decisions are rational, conscious and based on logic. This may not be truth. Research suggests that the majority of our decisions are actually made unconsciously. For example, when we take a look at product in some e-shop, we read reviews of other customers. These reviews, then, play important role whether we consciously know about it or not. When we think about buying something, we also think whether the product is in accordance with our personality.

Am I that type of person who always has the latest tech gadgets? Or, am I that type of person who prefers vintage products? Or, am I that type of person who is always looking for the most exclusive products? Maybe you want to pay off some old debts. For example, one of your friends invited you on barbecue a few months ago. Now, you are thinking abut buying new grill and inviting him in return. Loss aversion can be another factor influencing our decisions. You wanted this product for a long time and now, there is huge discount on it. Will you have this chance again?

The majority of information processing and also our decision making is happening on unconscious level. However, this doesn’t have to mean that our decisions are irrational. We need to understand that we can consciously process only limited amount of information that’s available. The rest of these information is processed unconsciously. Otherwise, our brain would not be able to handle it. Our brain evolved in a way that our unconscious is making the majority of decisions for us according to certain “protocols” and rough estimates. Some people call this intuition.

The takeaway

First, we can design more convincing websites, products and interfaces if we understand unconscious motions of our users and customers. Therefore, proper user research has to be inseparable part of our design process. Then, we can use our findings to form hypothesis we can test (and measure and analyze). Second, if we ask people on their motivations for doing certain activity, we should take their answer with reserve.

People will often tell us only about their conscious motivations. The problem is that this is only one part of the puzzle. We also need to know their unconscious motivation, which are often stronger. Unfortunately, people may not be aware of these motivations. Therefore, we should always dig deeper and try to get to the core. Third, although our decision making process is largely based on unconscious factors, we still need to justify it with something that seems rational and logical.

This means that we should always give user and customers some rational and logical reasons so they can justify their decisions. Whether these rational reasons will be the real reasons behind users’ or customers’ actions is not important. People just need something to justify their decisions.

No.2: Our unconscious mind is faster than our conscious mind

Thorough the history of human kind, it was important for us to be able to recognize any potential danger and react immediately. Our survival depended on this ability. The nature took care about it in an interesting way. It basically gave us two systems of thinking. One that is conscious and second that is unconscious. Then, the majority of tasks that was necessary to keep us alive was delegated to the unconscious mind that is at work 24/7. What remained was delegated to conscious mind.

I mentioned couple times that our brain has to process incredible amount of information. The problem is that this amount is just too much for the conscious part of our brain. It can’t handle of that. Well, it is too much even for our unconscious mind. Fortunately, nature was pretty smart again. It found a way to decrease the amount of information we need to process. Instead of processing every bit of information, our unconscious mind looks mainly for specific signals such as movement and patterns. We can say that it is decision making based on heuristic.

All these features allowed our unconscious mind to work incredibly fast, much faster the its conscious sibling. And, this is not the end of our evolution. In a fact, our unconscious mind is constantly learning and adopting new patterns. When we learn that something is dangerous for we create new pattern for it. Then, when we encounter this danger again, we no longer have to contemplate on it and be killed and eaten by some animal. The same principle applies to things that are not dangerous. We form new pattern and our unconscious will stop looking for it.

The last thing about unconscious mind we need to understand is that it is also incredible powerful. It would be nonsense giving something such a power without the ability to use it. That would not be so helpful for our survival. Therefore, nature did one more thing. It gave unconscious mind the ability to override its conscious sibling. Meaning, when danger appears, unconscious mind can take control over us and make sure we will survive. This is why we sometimes react strongly on certain things, such as spiders, even though we may consciously know they are not really a threat. The problem is that our unconscious mind is leading now and it doesn’t know it.

The takeaway

First, our unconscious mind evolved to protect us from potential danger. It is constantly monitoring our environment for danger. Second, when we see some danger, our unconscious mind will override our conscious mind and take control over us. Third, our unconscious mind evolved to be much faster than our conscious mind, which is responsible for our decision making process. Fourth, we may behave or prefer something without having any rational reasons to explain it.

No.3: We want more choices and information than we can process

When you enter some store, what do you see? It is quite likely that you will see very high amount of options and choices. It doesn’t matter whether you want to buy tea, coffee, jeans or phone. In all these situations, we are basically flooded with options from which we can choose. Also, what will happen if we ask someone, whether online or offline, if he or she prefers having more alternatives or less? The majority of people will tell us that they prefer having more alternatives.

This finding is interesting because, as science suggests, the more option we have, the harder our decision making process will be. The hing is that when the amount of options exceeds certain level, our decision making will start to suffer. What’s more, abundance of options can even paralyze us. Imagine that you want to buy some tea. When you enter the store, you will find out that there are more than thirty tea variants you can choose from. Which one will you buy and how much time will your decision making process require?

If you remember, we discussed in memory part of psychology of design that we can remember only four pieces of new information. Therefore, one problem with having too many options is that you will not remember all of them. For example, if you take the time and taste all thirty variants of tea, you will remember only about four of them. Sure, you can “hack” this by creating seven groups containing four tea variants in each and one group with two variants. Then, you can focus your decision making process on one group at the time and gradually reduce the amount of teas.

This approach has two potential downsides. First, you will probably soon need to go to toilet. Second, this approach to decision making is a little bit time-consuming and chances are that you don’t want to spend whole day buying one tea. Beside these two downsides, we should also think about how many people would give up as soon as they would see the amount of teas. In other words, abundance of options may not only paralyze us, it can also discourage us from choosing.

Since we are talking about how having too many options can harm or decision making, I should mention study done Sheena Iyengar on this subject called The Art of Choosing. In this study, she did something like we did with teas. She used two marmalade stands to see which one will be more successful in the terms of attracting customers and selling jars with jams. The first stand offered six variants of jam. The second stand offered twenty-four variants of jam. The results were very interesting.

Around forty percent of people stopped at the first stand with six variants and tasted some jams. Thirty-one percent of people these people bought some jam. In case of the second stand with twenty-four variants, sixty(!) percent of people stopped there and taste couple jams. Interestingly, the percentage of people who also bought some jam was only three percent. In other words, jam stand with more variants attracted almost twice as many people. However, jam stand with smaller amount of variants sold much more jars of jam.

Why we desire to have more options and get more information although it can have negative consequences for our decision making process? The reason is that searching for and finding information is rewarded with dopamine. This can go so far that we can even become addicted to searching for information because we will become addicted to the rush caused by dopamine.

The takeaway

First, we have to keep the amount of information and choice on reasonable level. Otherwise, our users can be overwhelmed and their decision making abilities will suffer. Second, we shouldn’t believe everything people will tell us. Meaning, people will always want more information and options than they can handle. Therefore, take their answers with reserve and always be willing to deviate from it. Third, the most “user-friendly” number of options is around four, stick to it. If you need to offer users more options, reveal additional options gradually.

No.4: We believe that decision making gives us control

This principle may not apply to every situation, but, in general, we associate opportunity to choose with feeling of control. This is why we sometimes prefer situations that give us space for decision making over situations where someone else makes decision for us. This is true even if the options are the same. Let me tell you about one experiment to illustrate what I mean. In this experiment, participants were given game chips to play roulette.

Next, participants were given choice to either play with their game chips at the table with one roulette or at the table where they could choose between two roulette. It turned out that the majority of people participating in this experiment preferred the second table with two roulette. The interesting thing is that all these roulette were the same. There was no difference between them. Still, people preferred the second table because it gave them freedom to decision making.

One of the best ways to help people feel that they have control over the situation is to do these two simple steps. First, we have to show them that their steps and actions have some effect. When this feedback is not present, people will sooner or later give up. Second, we have to give people the freedom to choose. As we saw on the example with roulette, decision making is more important than the fact that all alternatives are actually the same.

The takeaway

First, people need to feel that they are in control. People need to feel that they have the freedom to choose. Second, we can give people sense of control by creating alternative ways of completing tasks. There is one interesting thing. People are sometimes willing to choose less effective and even more complicated way of doing things just to feel that they are the ones who make decisions. Therefore, you don’t need to look for alternatives that are better. Look for any alternatives.

Third, when you give people alternative options they can choose from, don’t take these options away in the future. Otherwise, it is very likely that people will be unhappy. Therefore, if your product offers several options for executing certain task, it may be a good idea to keep this option “alive” in future versions.

No.5: Mood, decision making models and our decision making process

Nowadays, we know that our decision making process can be influenced by our current mood. It is our mood what can determine whether will we base our decision on rational reasons or our intuition (I will sometimes refer to this as decision making models). What’s more, there are ways we can use to gently influence the odds whether will people base their decision making on rational reasons or intuition. For example, we can use video clips to evoke positive or negative emotions. We can use music to achieve the same effect.

Thanks to couple studies and experiments, we also know that all of us have natural inclination to decision making based either on intuition or rational reasons. It turned out that some people are more likely to rely on intuition while other people will rather follow rational reasons. It is also quite possible, just like in case of introversion and extroversion, that there are people in the middle using both depending on the situation. Why can be understanding of what decision making models our users and customers useful for design and user experience?

In one experiment (pdf), psychologist Marieke de Vries found that there is a correlation between people’s decision making model (intuition or rational reasoning) and how positively they evaluate something. People with inclination to making intuitive decision will give more positive evaluations when we give them intuitive instructions. People who prefer rational reasons will give more positive evaluations when we give them more rational-based instructions.

This doesn’t mean that we should customize the instructions to manipulate with people’s opinions to get better product reviews. We should try to understand the decision making models of our users so we can provide them with instructions that will be easier for them to follow. We must keep in mind that the way we present information has an impact on how good the overall experience from using our product will be. When instructions are simple and easy to follow, users are more likely to follow them with success. As a result, their experience is great as well.

The takeaway

First, some people have innate tendency to base their decision making process on intuition while others on rational thinking. Second, we can increase the probability that people will value our product by giving them the freedom to choose according to their natural style. Third, we can change people’s mood, for example, with short video or photos expressing certain emotions.

Fourth, if we encourage people in good mood to base their decision making process on their intuition, they will evaluate our product more positively. Fifth, if we encourage people in bad mood to base their decision making process on rational thinking, they will also evaluate our product more positively. Sixth, we can gently suggest our customers how they might think about their decision making process using visual clues.

No.6: Groups are sometimes the very bad at decision making

How often do you find yourself in a room full of people trying to make decision about something important? People are making thousands of decisions every day. Sure, some of these decisions are more important while some less. Some of these decisions are personal while some are work- or business-related. A few of these decisions are made in solitude while some are made in groups. We often hear that more people know more. Unfortunately, this may not be always the true.

According to theory called groupthink, decisions made in groups are worse than decisions made by individuals. This theory states that people in groups are prone to suppressing their opinions and viewpoints if they are in conflict with opinions and viewpoints of the group. In other words, people will often rather stay quite to avoid disrupt group harmony and conformity. This is why groups of people are sometimes making decisions that are obviously irrational.

We can make this even worse when we start the meeting or session by introducing the preferences of the group. By doing so, we are putting the group in the forefront, suppress individuality of the members and also setting direction of the discussion. The problem is that when we follow the same direction, we will get the same results. Innovation and progress requires ideas that are new and fresh. These ideas are often in conflict with current viewpoints and preferences of the group.

We need to make sure that we will not restrict or suppress decision making process of individual members of the group. Therefore, it is important to put more emphasis on ideas of the members than group preferences. When we want to discuss something, we should start the discussion by communicating relevant information that have to be considered. Then, we can give everyone space to express his or her opinions and thoughts.

The takeaway

First, we need to provide everyone with all relevant information and let them think about it. Second, we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on preferences of the group. This will influence decision making process of group members and suppress new ideas. Third, we have to give people enough time to discuss opinions and ideas of other people in the group. Fourth, it may be a good idea to let everyone write his idea on piece of paper before the discussion and let these papers circulate through the group. People may feel safer when they express their ideas in anonymity.

No.7: When we are in doubt, we let others to decide

Imagine that you think about buying some book. This book looks interesting, but you never read anything from that author or from this genre. What will you do? Chances are that you will take a look at the reviews of other people who read the book and on praise included in that book. You will probably do the same in case of any other product you have no experience with. This is common that, in the moments of doubt, we follow other people. This is called social validation.

Social validation can occur in many forms and shapes. Let me give you a few examples to illustrate this. Let’s say you are standing at traffic lights. In scenario number one, you are the only person there. Let’s suppose that the traffic is quite low and there are no cops around. Will you wait for green light or will you go? In scenario number two, there are another ten people with you waiting at the traffic lights. All these people are waiting for green light. Will you wait or will you go?

In scenario number three, there are again another ten people with you. In this case, however, all these people will decide to ignore the red light and cross the street. Will you join the crowd and cross the street as well or will you be the only one waiting there? According to what we know from number of experiments, the highest chance that you will cross the street on red light is in the first and third scenario. In case of the second scenario, the majority of people will wait.

The takeaway

First, we often let other people influence our opinions, choices and behavior. The less sure we are, the stronger this inclination is. Second, references, reviews and ratings are the most powerful tools to influence people’s decision making process. Third, the more information about the author of review or rating we know, the more persuasive the review or rating will be.

Closing thoughts on psychology of design and emotions

I hope that this article and these eleven interesting facts helped you understand the psychology of emotions. I also hope that this information will help you design better products. Let’s recap what we discussed today about psychology of design and decisions. First, the majority of our decision making happening unconsciously. There is simply too much information. Our brain handles this by processing majority of it unconsciously. Otherwise, we would quickly become paralyzed.

Second, our unconscious mind is faster than our conscious mind. The reason is that our unconscious mind evolved to keep us alive. It is constantly monitoring our environment. When there is some danger, it can even override our conscious mind. Third, we want more choices and information than we can process. This can lead to negative consequences such as paralysis or worsened ability of decision making. Fourth, we believe that decision making gives us control. We like to have the freedom to choose. Fifth, our mood can significantly influence or decision making process. We all have inclination to base our decisions either on our intuition or rational reasoning.

Sixth, contrary to some popular opinions, groups are sometimes the very bad at decision making. There is even something called groupthink phenomenon which says that we want to avoid getting in conflict with preferences and ideas of the group we belong to. We will often suppress our ideas if they are going against ideas of the group and other members. Seventh, when we are in doubt or have no experience with something, we often look for opinions of other people and let them influence our decision making process and behavior.

Thank you very much for your time. And, until next time, have a great day!

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