Choice Architecture is the careful design of environments in which people decide based on the choices available . Research has shown that people’s decisions can be greatly influenced by small changes in the context of how choices are presented to them.
A Choice Architect has the responsibility for organising the context and furnishing the choices using which people make decisions . There are many Choice Architects in this world, but most do not realise that they are one — a Sales person’s job is to present choices of available merchandise to a prospective buyer, an academic counsellor lists down a set of choices a student could pursue as a career — are just a couple of examples of Choice Architects in action.
A critical responsibility of Choice Architects is to protect people’s right to choose. Protecting people’s right to choose is known as ‘Libertarianism’ — for example, in a majority of the developed economies, business and economic trade is heavily monitored and regulated by the government to ensure that it’s fair and safe.
Choice Architecture in Interaction Design
Libertarianism is a political philosophy which can be applied in the context of design as well. Since Interaction designers (IXDs) are constantly creating environments with their designs which influence the way people choose, every Interaction Designer is a Choice Architect.
An ATM is designed to present the choice to withdraw specific amounts of money or print a paper receipt; an enterprise application is designed to allow the employee to select what type of leave he chooses to apply for and the duration of the leave; a social media setting is designed to allow users to post content, like, comment or share content which is posted by someone else — all these are environments designed to present choices in one way or the other.
On the other side of libertarianism is a concept called ‘Paternalism’. Paternalism is an action limiting a person’s or group’s liberty or autonomy with the intent of their overall good . Examples of paternalism in everyday life are laws which require seat belts, wearing helmets while riding a motorcycle, and banning certain drugs .
In the context of Interaction design, an example of Paternalism is when Gmail reminds it’s users when they forget to attach something to the email they intend to send when they have the word ‘attachment’ in the text of the email.
Another example is when a user is filling a form online, the form does not allow the user to submit and proceed to the next step unless all the required fields are filled in.
An Interaction Designer walks that thin edge between libertarianism and paternalism when designing applications — the thin edge between guiding a user on the right path to complete a task and forcing the user down one.
An important thing to note is — Paternalism can also imply that, the expected user behaviour designed is against or regardless of the will of an individual. Even if the intent of a design process or workflow is for the overall good of the end users, the end user would not like it one bit if the system behaves in a way which does not match his expectations and if he is not aware of what the system is doing when he is interacting with it.
Libertarianism Vs. Paternalism
Good applications provide a fair degree of control and freedom to the end user to complete his tasks. A well-designed system is one where the user is aware of what the system is up to, what should happen if he initiates an action and that it matches his expectations.
Plenty could go wrong when ‘Paternalism’ becomes the driving force while designing interactive systems while ‘Libertarianism’ takes a seat too far in the back. Such systems behave in a way which are inconsistent with the user’s mental models, do not match his expectations and leave him fuming in frustration at the end of it all.
An example of an interaction design driven by Paternalism (violating the principle of Libertarianism) is how Apple has chosen to configure it’s iPhone Wi-Fi settings.
Anyone who uses an iPhone or those who know how the iPhone works, would be familiar with the ‘Swipe up’ gesture to view the new ‘Control Center’ settings which were introduced in the iOS 11 release —
An iPhone user can switch on mobile data by tapping on the mobile data icon, as shown —
The iPhone user can switch off the mobile data by clicking on the mobile data icon again and it goes back to its initial state. The two states of ‘mobile data off’ and ‘mobile data on’ are as shown.
In a similar way, the user can switch on the Wi-Fi on an iPhone by clicking on the Wi-Fi icon. Once the Wi-Fi is turned on by a click on the icon, the iPhone will connect to the Wi-Fi network it is authenticated to.
It is important to note that, if the iPhone is not able to connect to any Wi-Fi networks when it is switched on, it will search for networks or hotspots. It will continue searching for networks for as long as the iPhone’s user authenticates a Wi-Fi network to connect to or until the user turns the Wi-Fi off.
Continuously searching for Wi-Fi networks or hotspots leads to battery drain. For an iPhone user (or any smartphone user), with the broadband and mobile data costs coming down (especially in countries like India), the phone battery life is now the most premium commodity.
iPhone users who are conscious of their iPhone battery life would not prefer to keep their Wi-Fi on and would switch the Wi-Fi off when they know that they are not in the range of Wi-Fi networks for which they have credentials.
The iPhone user would (obviously) expect that, once he has turned his Wi-Fi off in the ‘Control Center’ settings, the Wi-Fi would remain off until he turns it back on. Instead, in iOS 11, the iPhone’s Wi-Fi goes to an intermediate state from where it would turn itself on automatically.
It would be logical to conclude that users would not like it if they were not in control of their phone’s Wi-Fi and that their iPhone claimed to be a better judge of and had to decide for them when it would be the best time to switch the Wi-Fi on — especially when their smartphone’s battery life was a premium commodity.
These iPhone users who were not happy with their iPhone’s Wi-Fi switching on by itself had turned to Google for answers (as shown). The iPhone users also had no clue why their iPhone’s Wi-Fi had started to switch on all by itself even after they switched it off and wanted answers. Over time, there were a number of answers (including detailed videos) to help resolve the issue.
In iOS 11, the iPhone’s Wi-Fi is hard wired to switch on automatically from the ‘intermediate state’ when –
(i) the user walks or drives to a new location
(ii) it’s 5 AM local time
(iii) when the device is restarted
Though the iPhone user is able to switch on his Wi-Fi from the control center, to ‘completely’ switch off the Wi-Fi, the user has to take the longer path of going to Settings > Wi-Fi and turn off Wi-Fi.
Though the gesture of switching on the iPhone Wi-Fi takes just about a second on a swipe up and click via the control center, Apple Inc. decided that it was a very difficult task for the end user and that the iPhone should decide for him when the Wi-Fi should turn on.
How could Apple Inc. — the gold standard of User Experience Design and the company which coined the term ‘User Experience’ in the first place — even think of putting their users through this kind of an experience?
There is a reason that the iPhone’s Wi-Fi behaviour has not gone down well with a section (if not all) of its users — the iPhone’s Wi-Fi setting violates three basic design principles with its action of automatically switching the Wi-Fi on, namely (i) User Control and Freedom, (ii) Consistency & Standards and (iii) Visibility of System Status detailed in a preceding article.
Richard Thaler — the Nobel Prize winning economist — introduces the concept of Libertarian paternalism in his best selling book ‘Nudge’. Thaler puts forth the idea that — it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behaviour while also respecting freedom of choice by using what he calls as a ‘Nudge’.
A ‘Nudge’ — as described by Thaler — is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their (economic) incentives.
In a similar way, the middle path of Libertarian paternalism has to be applied to Interaction Design to create applications where the user feels that he is in control, where Designers use ‘nudges’ to guide — not force — the users down a certain path and in the end, design applications which are a delight to use.
1. Thaler, R & Sunstein, C, R Nudge (2011)
2. Wikipedia Libertarianism (Retrieved Aug 2018)
3. Wikipedia Paternalism (Retrieved Aug 2018)
4. Queensborough Community College, Medical Ethics Text Chapter 6: Autonomy (Retrieved Aug 2018)
4. Costello, S. 30 Tips to Extend iPhone Battery Life (Upated July 2018)
5. Haslam, K. How to improve iPhone & iPad battery life (June 2018)
6. Nielson, J. 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design (1995, Retrieved July 2018)
7. Wikipedia Libertarian paternalism (Retrieved Aug 2018)
8. Psychologist World Psychology of Choice (Retrieved Aug 2018)
9. Apple Support. Use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi in Control Center with iOS 11 (Retrieved Aug 2018)
10. Gordon, D Libertarian Paternalism (2017, Retrieved Aug 2018)
Author is a designer, startup co-founder, fiction novelist and a design educator. He can be reached at asadjunaid (at) gmail (dot) com
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