Designing Digital Nudges

Allison Pauley
December 10, 2020

Digital nudges are all around us, often hidden in subconscious decisions we make throughout our day. A “suggested friend” on Facebook, a reminder to breathe on your an apple watch, progress bars that fill up during the checkout process, even push notifications on your phone. We of course see them outside of the digital realm too. A toilet paper roll by Shigeru Ban was designed as a square tube to provide friction when turning, the resistance subtly “nudging” the user to take less paper. While there are many different kinds of nudges, it is our ethical obligation as designers to assist users in making decisions they are already motivated to make, not persuade them otherwise. By understanding the end-user, and how they make decisions, we are able to design interfaces that best guide users towards their desired goal.

What is a nudge?

Nudge Theory is a concept rooted in the behavioral sciences, wherein understanding how people think and behave, we can improve their decision making effectiveness. This theory is mainly concerned with the design of choice (how people instinctively make decisions), which influences the decisions we make. Nudge theory emerged in the early 2000s and was initially developed as an ethical concept for the improvement of society. The term was coined by Richard Thaler, who built on theories developed by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”). Thaler was later granted the Nobel prize ins 2017.

“We define “digital nudging” as the use of user-interface design elements to guide people’s behavior in digital choice environments.” – Weinmann, Schneider

Behavioral sciences + Design process = Behavioral design

Behavioral design makes products more intuitive, effective, and easy to use. In taking an empathetic approach to what the user goals are, what their decision-making process is, and what heuristics might influence their decision-making process, we can make design decisions that lead the user seamlessly on their journey.

“Technology, especially digital technology is enabling us to move beyond the conventional roles of the user, as a passive consumer of a particular experience, and into spaces where the newly available flexibility empowers active, creative roles to emerge.” – David Perrott, Independent Consultant & Applied Behavioral Scientist

Motivation, Ability, and Prompt

FOGG’s Behavioral Model (FBM), is a powerful framework that consists of three main elements that need to converge for behavior to occur: motivation, ability, and prompt. Motivation (low or high), ability (hard to do or easy to do), and prompt (failure or success). When a behavior does not occur, one or more of these elements are missing. In short, when motivation is high and ability is easy to do, there is an increasing likelihood that the prompt will be a success.

BJ Fogg, a behavior scientist and founder of Standford’s Behavior Design Lab, is a prominent influencer of modern user experience design. By showing what causes behavior, UX designers can make better design decisions around automating behavior.

When motivation is low, users see nudges like notifications as frustrating. Therefore, it’s important to understand when the user’s motivation is high so that well-timed nudges are seen as useful to their journey. BJ Fogg believed that hope and fear are the biggest influencers of motivation. We see hope designed with meaningful gamification techniques, like progress bars to give a sense of achievement. Conversely, an example of fear can be seen with scarcity in an e-commerce product (“8 tickets left”).

A Note on Ethics

“The last decade has shown us the tremendous power of applied behavioral science to do good: from saving people time to saving their lives. It’s also shown us the downsides… behavioral design is being used to trick people into buying our products, and into giving up their personal data. It’s being used to push Gig economy workers into punishing and unsafe schedules, without breaks.” – Stephen Wendel, Head of Behavioral Science at Morningstar

Unfortunately, we fall victim to dark nudges (appropriately deemed sludges), dark patterns, and other behavior change techniques more and more. It’s increasingly important to our design team at fjorge to advocate for the end-user, understand what is motivating them to make decisions, and implement behavioral design techniques that guide them through their experience, not persuade them otherwise.

Applying Nudges

Our team will start with empathy mapping and journey mapping to begin to understand the user’s goals and the path they’re taking to get there. We can then more clearly define what potential roadblocks/pain points the user is experiencing in order to find opportunities to apply behavioral nudges. If Google Analytics, heat maps, or other data is available, we can more precisely validate behavioral flows. By the time the discovery phase is complete, the designer will be able to understand the motivations and the abilities various users have, enabling successful prompts to aid the user in achieving their goal.

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