Unlocking the Power of Design to Help Users Make Smart Decisions

Simon Sterne.
February 17, 2023

Users are faced with decision-making on websites every day. The decision-making process can be far more complex than it appears, and poor decision-making can lead to user dissatisfaction, decreased sales, and damage to brand value. For this reason, it’s imperative that designers focus on decision-making throughout the entire UX workflow.

Unlocking the Power of Design to Help Users Make Smart Decisions.

UX, from a decision-making perspective, means focusing on a user’s context and individual needs. How does the immediate decision fit into the user’s broader goals? What is influencing their decision? Do they have enough information to make an informed decision they won’t regret?

Decision-making can be complex, and it’s made all the more problematic when users don’t have enough information to make a decision. UX designers can address this by communicating all options and potential outcomes and providing visual cues to make decision-making more intuitive.

Tip 1: Structure Decisions Around The User’s Needs

A decision structure is a framework within which a user can make a choice. For example, should they keep exploring a site or abandon it? A good decision structure is transparent (meaning that the available options and the consequences of each option are clear) and consistent so that making one decision makes it easier to make the next.

The mistake that too many designers make is to create a decision structure around a company’s needs rather than the user’s.

Consider the issue of online flower sales. From a florist’s perspective, an order is received and then dispatched based on the customer’s preferred shipping options. From a company point of view, it makes sense to offer a range of bouquets, followed by the available delivery options. And that is how most e-commerce sites structure the decision-making process.

However, from the perspective of a person who has forgotten Valentine’s day, what matters most are the delivery options because day-late flowers are worse than gas station flowers. In that case, the shipping options — specifically confirmation that delivery in a specific time frame is possible — should precede product selection.

You’re more likely to deliver a positive user experience by designing decision structures around a customer's needs.

Tip 2: Make Decisions Clear

Data doesn’t affect human beings in the same way that it affects algorithms, but if designers can communicate data in a way that makes sense to the human brain, we’ll have more information, and we’ll be able to make decisions in a more logical, algorithmic fashion.

This is where UI design comes into its own. Effective UI design can make sense of complex data with color and hierarchy to highlight data that is critical to the customer’s current task. What designers need to do is constructively editorialize the data.

One important technique is to focus on context. Presenting data in context makes it easier for a person to comprehend the information being conveyed. For example, if you sell a product at a discount, always present the original price alongside the discounted price, and even better, highlight how much the user is saving.

Tip 3: Reward Decision-Making

Human beings are pretty easy to manipulate — hence the prevalence of black-hat UX techniques littering the web. Different chemicals are released into a user’s system when good things happen — which is why gambling machines light up when you put money into them. One of the simplest ways to encourage users to take action is to reward them with positive chemicals in their system each time they do so.

Because we’re not using black-hat techniques, we don’t want to reward a particular choice — that would be coercive — we want to reward the decision (any decision), no matter how small. Even something as simple as a pretty hover state on a link can reward a user for engaging with the UI and build positive feelings.

When users feel good about small decisions (like reading more details about a product), they’re more likely to make big decisions (like purchasing the product).

Tip 4: Repeat Critical Information

The human brain excels at fast decision-making. This is because it evolved that way as a defense mechanism — the faster you decide something is dangerous, the more likely you are to survive long enough to procreate.

Unfortunately, the human brain is also finite, and we somehow have to make up for this speed. And so the brain sacrifices memory recall in favor of speed. As a result, we tend to make decisions based on what is in front of us when we make the decision. That’s not to say we don’t rely on experience at all, but the human brain prefers current input over recalled input.

If you want a user to make an informed decision, make sure that all of the most critical information is in front of them all the time. For instance, if you want to reduce cart abandonment on an e-commerce site, ensure the product list is sufficiently detailed so that the user doesn’t need to rely on the memory of why they chose to add the item to their cart to complete the checkout.

Tip 5: Boost Confidence With Graceful Error Handling

Error handling is one of the most critical aspects of UI design because try, as you might, you will never be able to design an interface that a user can’t abuse, misuse, or break. Anyone who has conducted extensive user testing will tell you that users often break things simply to see if they can. They are like infants, testing boundaries to discover where their limits lie.

And so, if you design a website that handles errors gracefully, you enable users to explore without fear of doing irreparable damage, and they will be far more likely to make a decision.

It can be as simple as giving the user a way to undo a decision. A simple pop-up that asks, “Are you sure?” Is an excellent way of reassuring a user that their choices won’t have lasting consequences.

Helping Users Make Smart Decisions

Decision-making is a complex process — there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The key to making decision-making easier for your users is to remember that good UX isn’t about forcing decisions; it’s about giving the user the information they need to make an informed decision of their own.

By structuring decisions around user needs, presenting information clearly, rewarding decision-making, repeating critical information, and handling errors gracefully, you can help users make decisions that benefit both them and your client’s business goals. It all starts with understanding the decision-making process — then it’s a question of finding ways to work within those parameters.

Simon Sterne

Simon Sterne is a staff writer at WebdesignerDepot. He’s interested in technology, WordPress, and all things UX. In his spare time he enjoys photography.

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