Insights surfaced through the study of behavioural economics have become invaluable over the past several years. Behavioural Design asks why we do the things that we do, and determines through research and testing how to activate changes in those behaviour patterns. We’ve put together some examples and resources to explore why behavioural insights are essential to good design.

Behavioural Economics and Design: The Overlap

To understand the field of behavioural economics, it’s helpful to first consider traditional economics. The fundamental assumption of traditional economics is that humans are rational, meaning that they will make self-serving decisions based on sound evaluation of all the information available, without letting their emotions sway them.

Does that sound like any human you know?

Behavioural economics, on the other hand, acknowledges that humans are biased in specific and predictable ways, and that the context of a decision has a huge influence on the choice someone makes. In short, humans are imperfect in their ability to weigh choices, have terrible statistical instincts, and are easily influenced by emotion, “irrelevant” information, and small differences in how choices are presented. But this isn’t actually bad news—accepting that humans are irrational means we can use what we know about how humans actually make decisions to help us make better decisions.

If you think about the kinds of problems we’re challenged with as designers, most—if not all—of them have the same underlying design challenge: how might we nudge our users’ decisions, and therefore their behaviour, in the direction we desire?

This is why behavioural insights from fields such as behavioural economics and psychology are invaluable for service designers, policy makers, and other kinds of decision makers. Of course, we’re not alone in this belief—some notable governments have been working to incorporate behavioural insights into policy design for several years now.

Using Behavioural Insights In Policy Design

In the UK, the Behavioural Insights Team (affectionately known as the Nudge Unit), established in 2010, works toward the following objectives:

  • making public services more cost-effective and easier for citizens to use;
  • improving outcomes by introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour to policy; and wherever possible,
  • enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves’.

Meanwhile in the US, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team works to apply what we know about human behaviour to achieve policy objectives that are better for the American people. The value of this team’s work was exemplified in September 2015, when Obama gave an executive order entitled, “Using Behavioral Insights to Better Serve the American People”. This order, “directs Federal Government agencies to apply behavioral science insights—research insights about how people make decisions and act on them—to the design of their policies and programs” (see the SBST’s 2016 Annual Report to learn more about the projects they’re working on).

Designing Defaults: An Example

There’s so much to dig into within behavioural economics and decision sciences that my intention here is just to plant the seed that you should probably look into it. While I won’t pretend that I’m in any way an expert, I also don’t think you need a PhD to start applying useful findings from these fields. Here’s one example to whet your appetite for how behavioural insights can and should influence the way we design just about anything. Consider how this might help you make thoughtful decisions about how you design services for the flawed humans that we are:

The impact of defaults: Whenever humans are confronted with a complex decision, they will often just choose the default option. This is described by what’s called the status quo bias, or more simply, inertia. What this implies is that whatever is set as the default option is more than likely going to be the option that people accept. Seems obvious, and yet we consistently overwhelm users with super complex and nuanced options when asking them to make decisions about their retirement savings, insurance plans, and what to do with their body after they die, for example. This means that setting a default option that aligns with the best interests of your users is extremely important (if you care about them, that is). In his book, Nudge, Richard Thaler tells us that, “setting default options, and other similar seemingly trivial menu-changing strategies, can have huge effects on outcomes, from increasing savings to improving health care to providing organs for lifesaving transplant operations” (p. 19).

We’re thrilled about the behavioural economics and behavioural psychology insights that are becoming increasingly available to the lay public through some recent bestsellers. If you’re interested in the subject, we invite you to dig into the following books: