Are you a choice architect?

Informed choices are important in life and in business. In the second of a two-part series on behavioural economics, we look at choice architecture, the practice of influencing choices.

February 20, 2021 / 09:02 AM IST

Note to readers: Soch to Success is a weekly column to enhance critical thinking skills for you to achieve success. Each article is packed with insights, tools, and a roadmap to action.

Have you joined Koo? Or Clubhouse? Or both? Koo is the latest social media platform made in Atmanirbhar Bharat and is similar to Twitter, I am told. Just the fact that it is in more languages than one, adds to its charm. On the other hand, Clubhouse is a platform for listening and talking that means only audio, no text, no video and no recording, again I am told. I have not joined any of these platforms, not yet. I am worried that I may come across as rude to people who have sent me invites. I am very tempted to join Koo to read the conversations in Hindi. I am also tempted to join Clubhouse as I want to attend a chat around writing skills. Wait, to listen to learn about writing? Sounds odd.

Some things do not come with a choice architecture. A choice architecture is a place that lays out boundaries for you to make decisions. Like, as a mother, I am laying boundaries for my children to make decisions for example late night boundaries or mobile app boundaries.

For adults, there is no such thing like a phone that comes with a choice architecture. Something like you can only be on only two social media platforms. Sounds criminal. Suffocating may be the right word. Lack of choice architecture in adult life makes us feel free but that also means the onus of right behavioural decisions completely lies with us.

What is choice architecture?

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Choice architecture coined by behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008) refers to the practice of influencing choice by “organising the context in which people make decisions”.

Here is an excerpt from their paper:

Decision-makers do not make choices in a vacuum. They make them in an environment where many features, noticed and unnoticed, can influence their decisions. The person who creates that environment is, in our terminology, a choice architect. In this paper we analyse some of the tools that are available to choice architects. Our goal is to show how choice architecture can be used to help nudge people to make better choices (as judged by themselves) without forcing certain outcomes upon anyone. The tools we highlight are: defaults, expecting error, understanding mappings, giving feedback.

In this week on Habits for Thinking and the second part of the last week’s write up on behavioural economics and nudge theory, I am drawing your attention to designing your choice architecture.

Choice architecture is exercised by policy-makers and many businesses to influence your decision-making. Policy makers' role is to get behaviours that are good for the people like nudging bike riders to wear helmets for protection or demeriting a product that is not good for consumers like putting a cancer-stricken person’s photo on the pack of cigarettes.

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On the other hand, businesses have to thrive in a highly competitive environment. Most brands and businesses turn choice architects to influence behavioural decisions by their consumers. The question is how do we, as individuals, as consumers become a choice architect of our own to protect our interests. How do we make decisions that are not driven by someone else’s influence?

The first step is to define our behavioural rules. To become a choice architect, let us look at the framework designed by Thaler and Sunstein. There are four tools in designing a choice architecture:

1 Defaults: Padding the path of least resistance

Thaler & Sunstein research paper suggests making certain behaviours a default option—an option that will obtain if the chooser does nothing—then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option, whether or not it is good for them. They used these nudges for organ donation, for signing up for savings.

How a company uses it: when you sign up for a website, you have to opt out to receive promotional newsletters. If you do not opt out, you get all promotional emails by default.

How you can use it: when you want to spend unadulterated time reading to your child, or in a meeting, leave your phone out of the room. By default, you will not have the phone distracting you.

2 Expect error—humans make mistakes.

A well-designed system expects its users to err and is as forgiving as possible.

How a company uses it: If you draft a mail on Gmail and forget to attach the document you have mentioned in the mail, Gmail reminds you to add the attachment. That is a positive nudge.

How you can use it: You have put a task, for example to write to someone, on your to-do list. It has been there for the last few days but you have not been able to complete this task. That’s an error that you are making. To design a productivity nudge for yourself, write a rule—either attack or kill the task after two days. This means that after two days of being on the list, any task should either be addressed first thing on the third day or get discarded from the list if it is not important enough. By expecting that you may miss something on your to-do list, you can design a choice to be more attentive and productive.

3 Give feedback

The best way to help humans improve their performance is to provide feedback, writes Thaler. Well-designed systems tell people when they are doing well and when they are making mistakes.

How a company uses it: iPhone users have the facility to control screen time. The phone reminds every time the limit, set by the user, is reached.

How you can use it: You want to change a habit, maintain a log of the new behaviour and this will become your feedback system. For example, maintain an entry for your fitness regime that you want to improve, write down your workout details and how you feel after the workout. This journal will become your own feedback. How you feel will be your personal assessment tool, your frequency of workout will work as a feedback score.

4 Understand mapping

A good system of choice architecture helps people improve their ability to map and hence to select options that will make them better. One way to do this is to make the information about various options more understandable, by transforming numerical information into units that translate more readily into actual use. For example, when buying apples to make apple cider, it helps to know the rule of thumb that it takes three apples to make a glass of cider.

How a company uses it: Car sellers give comparative features and prices for models in similar categories. This information mapping helps the buyer to make informed decisions.

How you can use it: Before joining another social media, map the time that it would consume from your 24 hours in a day. Map your other engagements. Remember, there are only 24 hours and that you are your own choice architect.

Choice architecture is not limited to only these four tools. Reducing choice overload, incentives and communication like advertisements to influence behaviour, packaging and placement of products are also some other tools that are designed by businesses around us.

Organisations’ design nudges to influence behaviour of their employees. Many organisations do not give a choice of accessing social media platforms on employees’ laptops, thus restricting the choice architecture by default.

I do not work with any organisation that restricts the usage of sites and apps on my devices. I am sure one day I will join these platforms and behave like a fly on the wall, the way I do on other platforms. Somewhere on the back of my mind, I am mapping the effort needed to curate my own timeline for these platforms. The choice I have made to be on social media is to learn, to pick up trends, to have fun in my way, which means I curate my timeline, I am conscious of whom to follow.

Being a choice architect takes effort and failures. But, it is better to be a failure in your own choice architecture than to be a loser who has been influenced by others.

So, are you a choice architect?

(Vishakha Singh, author of a forward-thinking course SHIFT, is a business strategist & a design thinking practitioner. She writes at www.habitsforthinking.in, offering insights into the ever-changing business environment.) 
Vishakha SIngh
first published: Feb 20, 2021 09:02 am

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