Thursday, December 18, 2008


by-default.GIFI just finished reading Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

I like it for two reasons: first, it feels to me like a direct application of computer user interface design to life, and second, I think it has a lot of applications for ASU's Web design and the ways that Web design can influence people to take advantage of what the University offers.

Simply put, the big idea in Nudge is the same as something my favorite band Rush used to say, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. It's just that the choice you make is one that someone else has provided for you.

For example, road lines may be painted closer together as drivers approach a dangerous curve or potential safety hazard; by arranging the lines closer together, the driver is given the illusion that he/she is driving at a faster speed than he/she actually is, nudging the driver to hit the brakes and slow down. 

Another example Thaler and Sunstein give is cafeteria design. By placing healthier food choices, like the salad bar, at the front of a cafeteria, a school might try to nudge students into making smarter diet choices.

This idea is really familiar to user interface designers. Every time a dialog box pops up with OK and Cancel, one of them is highlighted, making it the default choice. Most of us have gotten used to clicking right past all of the Continues and OKs and Accepts that stand between us and getting our work done. In the process, we agree to terms and conditions, install useful pieces of software, and in general make all sorts of tacit and uninformed decisions that user interface designers have in essence made for us. It's a lot of power to give over to someone else, but there's no loss of freedom. You're free to be as careful as you want and make every decision exactly the way you'd like. It's just that most of us have long ago reached a decision saturation point and so tend to reserve our careful judgment for fewer and fewer things.

Which brings us to University design and the Web. By carefully crafting default positions, we could achieve all sorts of goals that might improve student success and retention. Say a University believed that having students stay in residence halls on campus was a major factor in improving student success and graduation rates. According to the Nudge philosophy, an effective way to dramatically increase the number of students choosing to stay on campus would be to, by default, assign them to a residence hall immediately upon acceptance of their application. There's no loss of freedom since a student could easily change their residence hall assignment or even apply for an exception to live off-campus. But every student would start from a different place--by default they're on campus instead of having to opt in to campus living. So those who don't want to spend their decision energy on where they live in college will end up living on campus instead of the other way around.

Feels a little like Big Brother but given that everyone has a choice, I think it's high time it fall into our Web design as a way of helping students and the University achieve its goals.

It's an interesting read either way, with some serious implications for public policy.