Photo courtesy Thomas Lefebvre

Less Decisions, Better Products

Reducing Decision Fatigue in User Experience Design

Making decisions makes us dumber.

More precisely, our mental stamina & willpower decreases with the more decisions we make throughout the day.

Decision fatigue occurs when the quality of our decisions deteriorate after we’ve been mentally depleted from making choices. It can result in reduced ability to make trade-offs, increased decision avoidance, impulse purchasing & impaired self-regulation.

In 2012, Barack Obama told Vanity Fair why he only wears grey or blue suits.

“I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing… Because I have too many other decisions to make… You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

In one particularly unfortunate example of this phenomenon, an Israeli University study followed 1,100 court decisions over the course of a year. Prisoners who appeared early in the day received parole about 70% of the time, while those that came late in the evening had less than 10% chance at landing parole. Why? Judges, being human, were worn down by a day full of mental work.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, combats decision fatigue with dozens of the same blazer in different colors.

So what does this have to do with UX design?

The ever-increasing number of options made available by expanding technologies are impacting the important decisions we make. As UX designers, the products we design have the ability to either contribute to or relieve decision fatigue. Dieter Rams said, “Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.”

Of course, many of the products we work on must present the user with multiple options, which will naturally contribute to fatigue. But if we learn to anticipate user behavior and build on familiar systems, we can reduce the impact of our interfaces and save our users precious thought power.

Here are a few things UX designers can do to reduce decision fatigue for users:

Anticipate behavior. In his fantastic article on anticipatory design, Aaron Shapiro describes how products like Google Now and Nest use data gathered over time to predict user needs and preferences. Google Now, a personal digital assistant, uses prior search history to anticipate the user’s wants and needs. Nest’s home thermostat automatically adjusts room temperature based on prior choices. Shapiro notes:

The goal is not to help the user make a decision, but to create an ecosystem where a decision is never made — it happens automatically and without user input.

Build a system. As Stephen Hay said, “We’re not designing pages, we’re designing systems of components”. Designing systems of reusable components and patterns allow us to create a familiarity in our products for our customers that reduces mental friction and greases the wheels of usability.

Deep clean, constantly. Even if you’re building a new product from scratch, constantly be thinking about what can be removed. Removing is delicate, requiring strategy and deep thinking. It requires challenging the existing norms, and asking is this essential? There needs to be breathing room for this kind of work — looking at true necessity at a systemic level.

Resist novelty. Don’t change just to be different. As designers it’s easy to let our ego get in the way. You want to make your mark. Designing within a system might seem boring, or beneath you. Ask yourself, am I making the experience better? Is what I’m working on essential? What is the cost of creating a new standard?

Consider the whole. Simplifying one area or introducing a specialized concept can create complexity elsewhere. This is especially important when you’re working for a large, matrixed organization with autonomous teams that may not be talking to each other. Take the time to consider the impact on the whole ecosystem.

And guess what? Designers are human, and decision fatigue happens to us, too!

Designing user experiences requires intense decision making, and we get worn down the same way our users do. Here are a few ways to streamline our decision-making process as we design:

Reuse. Leverage existing solutions before creating new ones. There’s been a recent influx of scripts that automatically generate and publish pattern libraries from your source code. Use them! They’ll save you time and make your products faster, to boot.

Copy. We can learn from and be inspired by industry standards. If we are not dramatically improving an industry standard, it may be better to use what our customers are familiar with. It lessens cognitive load and lets folks get down to whatever they’re trying to do.

Use data. Sometimes we make decisions based solely on instinct. While this might actually seem like the easy way, it often leads to situations in which we can’t resolve our opinions and wind up shipping mixed or compromised models. Data helps us move from hunch to certainty, which helps us make more precise and lasting decisions.

There will always be problems to ponder, things to do and decisions to make. As makers of things we have the ability to reduce the friction created by those quandaries and make life easier for the people who use our stuff.

Let’s use our craft to make people smarter and happier! Go team!

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