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.


Alan Bradford December 18, 2008 at 5:21 AM  

Sounds like a good read, and probably a good companion to Gladwell's Tipping Point. I'm interested in learning about the methods that go into food packaging to entice people to buy products. I've noticed that the "healthier" options often are in white packaging. Also the font choices are usually some sort of script font.

Thanks for the tip...

Gene Tucker,  January 27, 2009 at 3:02 AM  

To "Nudge" is a great way of intertwining Sociology and web design. McDonald’s has a similar means by saying, "Would you like your order Supersized?" I believe your version is the next iteration. A positive nudge can create meaningful results and a increased sense of purpose. An example of this is recording laughter made by a studio audience while watching a taping of a sitcom. The "Nudge" would be to give the feeling that something said was funny. A "nudge" can add vital support to a product/organization. But doing it badly can hurt the reputation of everyone involved.

If anyone sees it more than just a "Default" setting, it will appear big brotherish and turn people off very quickly. Any "nudge" must be seen as a suggestion or a reflection of the norm to work.

Scranton Web Design February 16, 2009 at 5:57 AM  

That was a great post, I really enjoyed it. I will have to bookmark your site so I can come back later.

Adrian Sannier March 23, 2009 at 8:04 AM  

A fair criticism to be sure. But what are we going to do when we are asked to make more decisions in a given day than we have time to apply the core principles to? We'll need a way to get decisions to line up with our values for us. I just saw a video from TED about a technology that might help with that ( This device allows you to easily bring processing power to bear on the things you see. The relevant a store, when you pick up some paper towels, the device can give you instant feedback on whether those towels align with your values, without you having to do the math (cost, percent bleach, amount of recycled content, etc)...