Scientific research reveals 5 easy ways to become a brilliant designer

Andrew Tate

People like vinegary beer, just as long as you don’t tell them.

They prefer chocolate cake when it has a ridiculous name. You are more likely to drive well when told about it, and graphic warnings on cigarette packs can actually increase smoking.

These are just some of the scientific findings that show how much design can influence behaviour. No doubt the designers of dire warnings on cigarette packs thought that they would decrease smoking, but the research shows otherwise.

Designers can learn a lot from science, particularly behavioural economics which looks at how people are influenced be changes in design. But finding the right scientific research that relates to your design can be difficult. Thankfully, a group called Artefact have put together 23 Behaviour Change Strategy Cards that distil this science into easy to digest ideas for designers and creatives to bounce off.

Design can be extremely influential, deciding what people eat, what they read, what they do, and even how long they will live.

If you are stuck on any aspect of your design, then consider the ideas below and how recent research might be able to improve your design and help you become a better designer.

01. Make people persuade themselves

Putting people in control of their own decisions is one of the best things a designer can do to make encourage a sense of ownership over the process and get the desired outcome.

If you can highlight personal stories, make people think about social norms, or make people make your argument for you, they are more likely to make the choice you want.

When people feel more ownership over their decisions, they are far more likely to follow them through. By making people make active choices, getting them involved with the decision making process rather than pushing decisions on them, designers can encourage users to take responsibility and make people continue longer with that choice.

In 2009, a group from Cornell University in the US used two insights from behavioural economics that people to make schoolkids make healthy food choices at lunch – reactance and self-arbitration. Reactance is our innate response is to rebel whenever we are coerced into a certain behaviour. If you want kids to not eat cookies, then one of the worst things you can do is to stop them from eating cookies. If you do that, they just want to rebel and find other ways to get their cookies. It is also more likely that their long-term behaviours will not change when people are coerced.

Self-arbitration is the principle that when we have ownership over a decision and feel like we came to a conclusion ourselves, we are more likely to stay with that decision in the long-term and have more enjoyment from the outcome.

In this case, the Cornell scientists gave some students a choice of two healthy options, carrots or celery, whereas other students were only given carrots. The kids that were allowed to choose their healthy option were far more likely to continue with that choice after unhealthy options were put back onto the menu. They felt that sense of self-ownership over their decisions needed for long-term change, and didn’t feel coerced into a decision so didn’t rebel.

This kind of behavioural economics can be used for more important decisions than carrots and celery. In 1997 researchers from the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in Oakland, California looked at how to get individuals to be satisfied with their doctors. They found that by simply giving people the ability to choose a doctor, rather than assigning them one, made them more likely to show high satisfaction with their doctor and recommend them to others, even when that doctor was generally badly rated. Again, the ability to make their own choice makes people far happier with that choice rather than just being forced.

For designers, this shows that the more a user feels in control of a decision, the happier they are going to be with that decision and the more likely they are to follow through with any decision. If you can make put any decisions into the hands of the user, rather than presenting then with single options or a fait accompli, the more likely those users will be happy with that decision. Consider multiple options for users in available and try to make users take responsibility for their choices.

This sense of ownership of a decision can also be expanded to the ownership of an actual product, even before people buy. This effect is most evident on eBay, which has designed its website specifically to take advantage of this. In 2008 Jens-Martin Bramsen for the University of Copenhagen studied 17,000 furniture auctions on eBay. He found that when people had the leading bid, they were more likely to then rebid on the item if subsequently outbid. Bramsen calls this a pseudo-endowment effect. The bidders on eBay already feel like they own the item, even though they don’t. Therefore they want to keep it, and have to continue to outbid others to retain the item.

For designers trying to people to use a product, the more ownership you can encourage in users, the more likely they are to continue to use the product. When people have this sense of ownership, they value it more and will go to greater lengths to avoid losing it.

02. Use gains and losses to influence behaviour

Whether you realize it or not, you are always weighing up the possible losses and gains from different choices and outcomes. If you eat this cake, you will be satisfied, but you will also put on weight. If you buy this pint, you cannot then use that money to buy a coffee tomorrow. These weigh-ups decide our lives and designers can use this process to influence different behaviours.

Scientists have found that incremental steps towards a larger goal often work better than one single mammoth stride.

Experiencing all of these smaller, separate gains is more rewarding than just one big gain.

A few online web designers have put this into practice. Progressive Car Insurance, an insurer in the US, uses such a system to show its customers all of the smaller savings it is making using the service, rather than just one big number. The customer’s savings are broken down into a ‘Multiple Policy Discount’, ‘New Car Discount’, New Student Discount’, or ‘Senior Adult Discount’ to show the customer lots of smaller gains they are making.

Another way to tip the scales and encourage a certain behaviour is to offer surprises, which have been shown to increase gains and make the experience more pleasurable. Amazon have recently begun to do just this, sending fresh flowers to new customers that sign up for grocery deliveries. This makes the customer immediately have a positive feeling towards the company and are more likely to use the service again.

Just as you can encourage certain behaviours through design, so can you discourage certain behaviours by emphasizing the losses associated with that behaviour. In their seminal 2008 behavioural economics book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein described how an energy company used two different campaigns to see which one saved the most energy.

In the first, the company wrote to customers telling them that “If you use energy conservation methods, you will save $350/year.” In the second campaign they tweaked this message slightly to present to savings as a loss, writing “If you do not use energy conservation methods, you will lose $350/year.” The second campaign was far more effective. People really do not liking losing, especially right now. When an option is phrased as losing out in the present it becomes more effective at discouraging behaviour.

Because people are so loss-averse, they are more likely to do things that will reduce or delay losses, and designers can use this to their advantage, designing packaging, sites, or products to reduce or delay losses for users.

A good example of this is pre-cut and pre-washed vegetables. Though we might sometimes scoff at this type of pre-preparation, it does work. People are more likely to buy vegetables that are pre-packaged and advertised as pre-cut or pre-washed. This is because they value their time and know that it will take time to prepare regular vegetables. People might want to eat veggies, but simply to not have time for extensive prep. When they do not have to do anything, they will buy and eat more vegetables.

As a designer, you can think about how what you will be designing can emphasize gains to encourage different behaviours, or alternatively emphasize losses. You could also look at how you can make people delay gratification for your product, or take advantage of our need for instant gratification to get them to make a choice now.

03. Make the entire experience worthwhile

We have all had the experience of going to the grocery store when hungry. You end up buying everything you see, stocking up on convenience food and treats that you want to satiate your hunger right then. But if you can make people make decisions in advance it can dramatically decrease these type of purchases.

In 2003, Jacqueline Kacen from the University of Houston in the US looked at what people bought online compared with what they bought at a regular bricks-and-mortar store. She found that people made 66% fewer impulse purchases when buying online. Because they were not hungry at that point, and were not presented with the actual, physical foods, the participants in this study made more rational choices.

An interesting finding from the cards is that expectations can override actual sensory experience. In 2006, an experiment lead by Dan Ariely asked pub patrons to taste and rank a few beers. Sounds like the perfect experiment. But with one of the beers, the researchers had added a few drops of balsamic vinegar. One group were not told about the vinegar and the people in that group 69 percent of people actually rated the vinegar beer as their favourite. Another group were told about the vinegar. In that group only 30 percent of people preferred the vinegar brew. This shows that what you expect to happen can change the way you actually experience it. In this case, we presume a vinegar brew to be disgusting and then experiencing it that way whether it actually is or not.

Another way this works is through description. A 2005 study found that the more descriptive a food title was, the more satisfying and delicious the food was perceived to be. In this case, a ‘Belgian Black forest double chocolate cake’ was thought to be more delicious than just a plain old ‘chocolate cake’, even when they were one and the same.

How we remember things can also be influenced through design for positive outcomes.

As a species, we are not the best at remembering things. If you try and remember a recent event, you will be unlikely to remember the whole thing, instead relying on a ‘highlights’ package that your brain puts together for you. You remember the high points, the low points and the end, and that’s about it. Designers can take advantage of this by making sure that high points last longer, and that whatever you are doing, you always ‘end on a song’.

This is even truer for things that we would usually perceive as being uncomfortable. A 2003 study from Toronto, Canada tried to design more comfortable colonoscopies for hospital patients. They found that, rather than trying to get it over and done with, as you would think, it makes more sense to make the procedure longer and more comfortable. This made the end of the colonoscopy much more comfortable meaning that patients remembered the whole procedure as a good experience and were more likely to come back for future procedures.

Providing constant feedback is one way that designers can make alter user’s behaviour. If you have that feedback constantly, then you better understand the consequences of your actions. The Toyota Prius does exactly that. The car will give you a score out of 100 for your driving, showing you how eco-friendly it was. This encourages drivers to beat past scores and shows them how changes in behaviour, aggressive driving for instance, can impact their mileage.

Crafting this journey for the user is one way a designer can make the experience interesting and useful for the users.  You can see how you design can help make people make commitments in advance and establish positive expectations before people have to make a choice. This also shows how important feedback is to a user experience and how a designer needs to give positive memories for a user if they want them to come back.

04. Give people the right options

Making sure you call attention to the right options is important when you are trying to change a behaviour through design.

A Caltech study published in 2012 studied the effects of packaging on people’s buying decisions. They found that when consumers were presented with two different choices, it was the one that was brightly coloured and had brighter packaging that was more likely to be chosen. This is particularly true when they have to make a decision quickly and when they do not have a particularly attraction to either of the brands. In these cases, it is simply the one that catches the eye that will get chosen.

Making the default outcome the desired outcome is something that designers can use to make users choose the correct decision.

In some cases this can be a matter of life and death. In 2007, a study from the Zimbabwe AIDS Prevention Project showed that simply changing AIDS testing from opt-in to opt-out for pregnant women increased testing rates from 65 percent to 99 percent over six months. When the desired outcome is not the default, it means people have to make a conscious decision for the outcome, and some might even miss the choice. By making it the default, people have to make a conscious, educated decisions against the desired outcome to opt-out.

Make the desired outcome a mid-range option is an age-old trick by salesmen, but it works. If you have a produce you want to sell, then making it the middle of three is the best option. No one wants to buy the cheapest option, as they always perceive that as the worst, but neither do people want to choose the expensive option, as then they think they will be getting ripped off. A good example of this effect is when American retailer Williams-Sonoma was trying to sell a $275 bread-making machine. When it was the most expensive option in the shop, no one wanted to buy it, but once the retailer introduced a more expensive option, people suddenly started by the $275 model, as they saw it as a relative bargain.

Make sure you have the right options in your design, and in the right order. Getting the options wrong can mean all other design considerations are for nought.

05. Keep it Simple

Most good designers will know that too much information is as bad as none at all.

Too much information can overwhelm users, making them shut down and stop paying attention.

In terms of health information, people can go back into their shells when presented with too much negative information, ignoring completely what they are being told. This has been shown to happen with cigarette packaging. A 2010 study on the effectiveness of on-pack smoking warnings showed that showing too much negative information, such as very graphic images or detailed warnings, actually increased smoking, as people would then completely disregard and ignore the warnings.

Another way that designers can overwhelm users is with too many choices. A 2000 study showed that when people are presented with too many options, in this case they were presented with either six jams to choose from or 30 jams to choose from, they were more likely to choose nothing when presented with more choice. This showed that, whereas no choice is often a bad idea, so can too much be.

Too many choices can also lead decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is another way that too much information and too many choices can have a negative effect on people’s behaviour. People living in poverty have so many financial decisions to take each day on small choices, that they then have trouble making bigger choices, simply because they then lack the willpower and energy to constantly make the bigger decisions. This leads to a negative spiral of behaviour, where they struggle to get out of poverty.

Another example of this can be seen on ballot papers at elections where a number of elections are happening at once. The further you move down the ballot paper, the more decision fatigue you encounter and you start to lack the care of your decisions. This means that people are more likely to make poor, impulsive decisions for elections that appear further down the ballot paper.

Keeping design simple is something you learn on day one, and the scientific research backs it up. Look at how you might be overwhelming users and make sure that you design does not have too much choice associated with it, with a clean, simple to follow design.

Do it now! Use science to make you a better designer.

The good news: The 23 Behaviour Change Strategy Cards have even more examples of how designers can learn from scientific insights. Whether you choose to use the cards or not, it is a great idea, whenever you come across a design obstacle, to look for any research that has been performed in that area and that can help guide your decisions.

You will probably find that there’s a lot of background to any area that you are working on, and that can help you become a better designer.

If you’re interested in the intersection between science and design and want to read more, why not check out: