If we define “best” as healthiest for users’ well-being, should we as designers be forcing users into what we know are the “best” options? A few examples to get us started:
- Should Netflix turn off its services temporarily for users who have been watching for a few hours because Netflix knows about the negative effects of binge watching?
- Should Apple force users to use Nightshift during sleeping hours because blue light emitting from smartphones affects users’ sleep quality?
- Should a pizza app not allow users to complete their order unless they have a healthy topping such as spinach on their pizza?
- Should a company force all employees to participate in a 401(k) without an option to opt out?
The answer to all these questions are no, we shouldn’t. While these could be the “best” options for users, many products may not be successful by employing such strategies because people generally do not like being told what to do (obviously).
Often times, users and stakeholders don’t pick the “best” options because they are ill-informed on the problem our system is attempting to solve. Despite this, they ironically always think they are making the right choices, which is why they make them.
Our responsibility to be more creative
Drawing from a well-established study in behavioral economics and cognitive psychology, we know that individuals make inferior decisions in terms of their own happiness and well-being all the time. Although, those decisions would likely change if they had complete information on the topic. This is true in many domains (our products included), as people lack stable, clear or properly ordered preferences. The shoddy choices they make are a result of framing effects, starting points and default rules designed by us.
There is no way for our users to know what is best for them as well as we do. They did not conduct heaps of user research regarding our products and they do not understand the problem our products aim solve as well as us. It is not their fault for having poor judgment when using systems we design, but rather it is our fault for not designing around it. We, the designers, are responsible to help them pick the best option. They are not UX designers and should not have to be to use our products.
With that being said, forcing users to do things or using any type of cold turkey mechanism is not the solution we are looking for. We can do better than that! As designers, it is our duty to find ways to steer users in the right direction rather than just blocking users out.
Enter the concept known as Libertatian Paternalism: an approach to addressing a complex web of values including free choice, self-control, human welfare, among others. In simpler terms, libertarian paternalism nudges stakeholders toward making choices that are “best” or “good” for them while also enabling stakeholders to make their own choices.
To help me describe the importance of Libertarian Paternalism in Design, let’s explore a simple scenario. Consider a high school cafeteria that offers lunch daily for students. Each day the cafeteria makes multiple decisions such as what foods to prepare, what ingredients to use, and how food options are presented. One observation the director makes is that the students have a tendency to choose more of the items that are presented earlier in the line. With this information, she now needs to decide the order in which they are presented. Some strategies are:
- She could keep the items in random order.
- She could put items that are healthiest at the front of the line.
- She could put items that are unhealthiest (worst off) at the front of the line.
- She can just give students only the healthiest item limiting their freedom of choice.
By looking at this scenario through a Libertarian Paternalism lens, we can easily choose option 2 because it gives the students all the choice in the world to eat what they want, but we are nudging them in the right direction to make the choice that is best for them: the healthier food option.
Other examples are listed below:
- Companies having employees opt into their 401(k) by default, but allowing them to opt out at anytime.
- Apple defaulting Nightshift to change from sunset to sunrise but letting users change this with ease.
- Reddit making comments sort by “new” for ongoing discussions such as a football game thread but sorted by “top” for opinion based discussions such as a political thread. Another option that can be changed with a single click.
- A pizza app presenting the veggies before meats when customers order pizza.
Libertarian Paternalism and the idea of nudging users in the right direction without forcing them into options is a core aspect of Design and is something we should all consider when attempting to solve new problems. It is our role as Designers to think of more creative ways to get users to make the “best” choices without them even thinking twice. We can do better so our users can be better! Little pushes go a long way.