DesignMatters_Decision-Making_Images_7Decision making can be difficult. Deciding between various options when making an important decision can be daunting simply because of the breadth of information to be taken into consideration.

Let’s take health care as an example. For many people, deciding between health plan options can be a challenge.

Probably all of these aspects of the plan should be taken into consideration.

We stand in a position of substantial power—through the influence of what we design—to impact people’s lives in very important ways

What’s difficult is that some aspects are easier to understand and evaluate than others. Cost, for instance, is straightforward to evaluate because it’s easily quantifiable and familiar. But should the cost of a plan get more “weight” in the decision- making process just because it’s easier to evaluate than other plan attributes?

Research shows that the weight given to an attribute in a choice is proportional to the ease or precision with which it can be evaluated and understood as something good or bad, desirable or undesirable. Because attributes of a product or service are rarely easy to evaluate equally, UX designers and their business partners face a challenge in how to design effectively in order to nudge people towards considering all the attributes they should, and to weight them accordingly in the decision-making process.

In this article, we’ll look at how the design of information and digital layout influences and drives the decision-making process, as well as decision outcomes.

How to Use Design to Influence What Gets Considered

To start, let’s take a hypothetical example. Let’s say we’re responsible for designing the information that people will use when making a decision about which medical plan (HMO) to choose, and our goal is to get people to give more weight or consideration to HMO satisfaction ratings than we suspect they currently are.

There are a variety of ways we could present information about the plans. For example, we could present the cost of each plan along with the most current satisfaction rating for each one:

Option 1: Current member satisfaction with quality of care

Based on this display, most people would likely consider HMO A to be better from a member satisfaction perspective. And they might conclude that the higher cost of the plan may be justified by this, and therefore opt for HMO A.

But what if the historical ratings painted a more holistic picture? We could add historical trend data to provide more context.

Option 2: Historical member satisfaction with quality of care

Clearly, the data shows that, year over year, the ratings for HMO A are in a steady decline while the ratings for HMO B are on the upswing. The addition of this contextual data might give some people reason to give HMO B greater consideration than they had in the first example, where only the current performance ratings were provided.

But what if we took this a step further and added another data element—the percentage of change (positive or negative) year-over-year…

Option 3: Percent change in member satisfaction

Here, the amount of change is made more obvious, negating the need for people to do the math in order to quantify the change. Indeed, in a research study that examined how this version of the display might impact decision outcomes, findings indicated that people made choices consistent with giving more weight to the trend information, and less weight to the current levels of performance, when choosing a plan.

But we could go a step further. Instead of simply listing the percentage change in numeric format, we could visualize the data in a graph. Could this influence people’s perception of the data? For many people, a visual depiction makes the data much easier to see, potentially focusing more attention on this information.

How to Design Information to Affect Decision-Making

When making decisions, people are affected by what information is presented, as well as by how it’s presented. Earlier, I said that the weight given to an attribute when making a decision is proportional to the ease or precision with which it can be evaluated and understood as something good or bad. That is, people are more likely to use and consider information when it’s readily available and easy to evaluate. So, the design of the information is critical to how people decide.

… people are more likely to use and consider information when it’s readily available and easy to evaluate. So, the design of the information is critical to how people decide.

Particularly in financial services and health care, consumers are required to make important decisions that have substantial implications for themselves and those they’re responsible for. These types of decisions are difficult precisely because there is a lot to consider. Indeed, many people find “information overload” to be a primary factor in what makes decisions difficult.

From a UX design perspective then, we might try to simplify the information in an effort to make decision-making easier. One potential way to do this is to aggregate or summarize data. But it’s worth considering any (unanticipated) implications that might result from this strategy.

Designing Data for Choice

Earlier in this article, we looked at different ways to display member satisfaction ratings for two medical plans. What if we needed to provide a breakdown of even more detail, such as displaying ratings on ease of getting medical care, quality of treatment, etc.? How might we best display the information as simply as possible?

Figure A: Shows performance measures for all nine attributes for both plans categorized into three sections.

Figure A shows performance measures for all nine attributes, for both plans, categorized into three sections. But what if, in an effort to simplify, we aggregated some of the data as we’ve done in Figure B.

Figure B: In an effort to simplify, some of the data is aggregated.

How might a design like this affect the weight people give each attribute in the decision-making process? While we might assume that people would recognize and adjust for the differences between aggregated versus non-aggregated ratings, researchers found instead that people simply tallied up the number of “above average” and “below average” ratings and compared the two sums in order to make a decision.

That is, they did not account for whether or not the attribute ratings within a category had been aggregated or not! The result, then, was that non-aggregated categories received more weight than those that were aggregated, because every rating (whether aggregated or not) received equal weight.

Perhaps even more surprising, though, is that people were not aware of the influence of the display format on their decisions. They believed they had weighted the factors similarly, regardless of the difference in display.

Summary & Conclusion

Implications from the research findings are significant. If our goal is to help consumers make better decisions by nudging them towards considering more (or specific) product or service attributes, but also to help them give appropriate weight to these, we need to have effective ways to do that.

We also need to understand and take into account the decision strategy people are using. Even very small changes in the display format can affect interpretation and weighting of information in the decision-making process. It’s important to realize that every change or tweak that is made to the presentation of comparative data may influence the resulting decision. People’s preferences and decisions are not absolute, and this is why the design is so critical – and so powerful!

The authors of the research study referenced in this article make a critical point:

Every change made in the presentation of comparative data has the potential to influence decisions. Those who disseminate information have a responsibility to be aware of how they use that influence and to direct it in productive and defensible ways. The alternative is to manipulate people in ways that are unknown, are not thought out, or are not defensible, but are no less manipulative.

As UX practitioners, we have a responsibility to understand and appreciate how what we design is being consumed and used during the decision-making process. We stand in a position of substantial power—through the influence of what we design—to impact people’s lives in very important ways. My hope is that we strive towards becoming educated and insightful about what we do, so that we impact the world in positive ways.