Free Your Users

The Role of Autonomy in System Design

Sean Flaherty
Apr 27, 2016 · 6 min read
Autonomy at Manoa University

It’s human nature to want to be free, to seek autonomous choice and to want to feel in control. We all naturally shut down when we feel like we are being forced or manipulated. We do much lower quality work when we it is something we have to do vs. something we choose to do. No one is immune to it. We simply don’t always realize it. In the work environment, you may see it manifest as resistance, malaise or worse sabotage when the people around you are operating from orders vs. operating toward a vision that they are signed up for. If your customers are not excited about their relationships with you, you can’t deny that you are doing something wrong. Look at either the motivation of your employees and the way they are interacting with your customers or the way in which you are interacting with your customers. The impact of autonomy on intrinsic motivation and human performance becomes intuitive to us once we are aware of it.

When we operate from a “father knows best” perspective and are ignorant of our language and our directive nature, we fail to optimize human performance. To reach peak performance, humans and teams of humans need to be operating autonomously. The more they feel they are controlling their own destiny, the more likely we are to connect with them and move the needle on our own performance in the context of our business with them. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s seminal works on Self Determination Theory demonstrate the importance of autonomy, along with relatedness and competence in moving the needle on human performance.

Autonomy Supportive Systems

When people are allowed to operate with autonomy, in a safe environment, it naturally leads to more authenticity. Authenticity then leads to less politics, less effort and less waste in every transaction. When we are able to operate authentically, we trust others more and we build better relationships with customers, peers and between employees and supervisors. All people are different, and will respond to autonomy in different ways, but there is no denying that the lack of autonomy crushes creativity. When you see workers that lack vitality and creativity, you see the impact of control, prescription and poorly designed incentives. You can see this lack of vital energy in our schools and in in our governmental organizations. You can sometimes hear it in the monotonic voice on the other end of the drive-thru window asking you for your order. Autonomy-supportive organizations, on the other hand, are those that generate passionate and inspired employees and customers. You can see the difference in how you are greeted or served when the employees have some creative leverage in how they communicate and operate in their roles.

Naturally, limits need to be set in order to operate a profitable business, but how those limits are set and communicated makes a difference. If we think about these limits as those that support good autonomous choices, we can make sure to consider the impact on autonomy.When we build user experiences for the technology systems that our businesses need, we should be applying some simple rules to ensure that we are maximizing our users sense of control. Systems that force us down a fixed and ugly path and talk to us like a number are autonomy crushing. We feel it when we use them and our customers feel it too. It has a negative impact on our brand relationship and it brings them down the loyalty ladder.

One of the key differences between systems that transact and systems that engage are those that leave us feeling in control. When we use systems that put us in control, and more importantly make us feel as though we are in control, systems that pull us in and engage us, we are much more likely to want to associate ourselves with them. We move up the loyalty ladder with the brands that are successful in supporting our autonomy while making us successful.

Here are some key tactics to experiment with to build autonomy support into our technology systems:

Watch Your Language. The language choices that you make in your software interfaces is critical. In fact, the language is as powerful as the design. Learn to use autonomy-supportive language, or the language of choice. It begins with simply recognizing that your users have a choice and respecting that fact. Here are two phrases that are trying to convey the same instructions. Consider how they each make you feel:


Autonomy crushing statements stated as orders, just make us want to shut down. It’s human nature. Autonomy supportive statements pull us in. The difference is subtle, but the impact can be profound. Instead of issuing orders and prescriptions, use each and every communication as an opportunity to install a small piece of competence or to relate to your consumer in a positive way. Pull, don’t push.

Be Human. The users on the other side of the screen are people who want to be respected and spoken to like people, not robots. Language that is impersonal and emotionless makes people feel like they are a number. When you feel like you are a cog in a bigger system, you are not special and you are not necessarily human, your sense of autonomy gets crushed. Simply ask yourself when you are designing a system: “Does this make me feel like I’m a real person?” and if it doesn’t, change it.

Be a Guide. When you are building your information architecture and your navigation system within your user experience, do it with the intent to guide your user toward making better, autonomous decisions. Recognize that they are in control by providing the right level of choice and by guiding them with predictive knowledge and the right tools. We are tempted to throw out too many options in an attempt to cast a wider net. Users, however, will be more successful if you help them prioritize and spend more of their time on the more important items.

Too many choices create the paradox of choice that may overwhelm your users and cause them to get frustrated and shut down. When this happens, it is generally a sign that you are not building enough competence in them to be autonomy supportive. Always be testing and tweaking your guided pathways for your users to maximize their success.

The more you know about how your user learns and makes decisions, the more successful you will be making recommendations. Study your choice architecture and experiment with it regularly to improve your users outcomes. Some ways to improve your user's ability to choose and more importantly, to feel as though they are in control:

  • Set intelligent and appropriate defaults
  • Segment options intelligently — provide appropriate choices and options
  • Avoid choice overload
  • Leverage progressive disclosure
  • Nudge where appropriate

Invest in Search. Search is often the catch all escape hatch for your users and it represents one of the easiest and most impactful ways to support autonomy in the systems that you build. It is often the first place they will go when they are frustrated and can’t find what they are looking for. Your search data is a critical tool in discovering where your users are getting frustrated.The world is rapidly moving in the direction of Siri-like search engines and your customers are going to expect you to provide similar solutions in order to compete. Investing in your search function, especially if you have a tremendous amount of content is one of the best ways to respect and invest in the autonomous use of your systems.

Allow Easy Egress. Acknowledge that your users journey is their journey and not yours. It is going to be unique and riddled with your users own personal challenges. Their context is important to them and they need to be able to use your software in the context of their real life challenges.

If you allow them to easily save where they are, or simply abandon the workflow at anytime without losing any of their work or information you are supporting their real-time need for egress.

Building autonomy supportive systems is hard work, but the more you invest in it, the more successful you will be moving the needle in your ecosystem.

Continuous Innovation

Creating software products that inspire people into action.

Sean Flaherty

Written by

Technologist. Philosopher. Inspirer.

Continuous Innovation

Creating software products that inspire people into action.

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