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By Cynthia Scott | Monday, March 22, 2010

Dan Ariely’s SXSW® talk and the responsibility of form design

I’m just back from the whirlwind that is the Interactive Media track at the SXSW® (South by Southwest) conference, and I’ve got a lot on my mind. One special highlight for me was the opportunity to hear Duke University professor Dan Ariely speak. I am so intrigued by his work. He wrote the book Predictably Irrational, which takes a look at non-rational forces at work on decision-making.

What really got to me was his illustration of the important role of designers. His main point was that defaults matter because when faced with complex decisions, people do nothing. Even when it comes to decisions that will have significant impact, people tend to decide based on how the choice is presented rather than the consequences of the choice.

The result is that whoever designs the interface, in effect, makes the choice for a large number of people. That’s a lot of power.

This is a re-creation of the chart Dan Ariely showed at SXSW to demonstrate the power of default form design. Click on the image to see it full size.

For example, Ariely showed a bar chart comparing organ donation across several counties. On the left was a series of countries with donation rates from 0 to 28 percent. On the right was a series of countries with near 100 percent donation rates. One assumption might be to explain this by looking at cultural differences. However, it was easy to see pairs of culturally-similar countries (such as the Netherlands and Belgium) with opposite donation styles.

It turned out that the driving difference was the default form design. For the countries with low donation rates, the donation form asked them to opt-in. For the countries with high donation rates, the donation form asked them to opt-out. That’s it. That default design difference has been steering people to make a choice that has had a huge impact on their loved ones, their country’s medical system, on other people’s survival rate, and on other people’s families and futures.

It is surprising to think that something so personal, and with so much impact, could be driven by form design. Ariely pointed out that people like to think that they have agency over their lives, especially regarding deep issues that matter a lot. But his research shows that, at even a low threshold of complexity, people tend to go with the default option. He backed up his assertion with multiple examples from the seemingly insignificant, such as what kind of jam to buy, to the hugely significant, such as whether and how to participate in a 401 (k) plan.

For me, the value of Ariely’s discoveries is to 1) be more aware of my own decisions and how they are shaped by default options, and 2) to realize and embrace the responsibility that designers have in creating the future.

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