Decision Fatigue is Why Designers Need to Respect Consumers

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It was not very long ago that the world was filled with objects like the dreaded VCR. That piece of crap was supposed to make our lives better by recording our favorite TV shows so that we could do more important stuff like going for dinner.

It was however so difficult to use, that most people, I bet, just bought a long play VCR tape and started recording the moment the left the house. They would then fast-forward to the exciting bits when they got home. We accepted it because we did not know better or that there were so many better things to do, like take a walk in the park, then to worry about it.

Fast-forward to today.

With the help of the Internet, information now travels 10 times (or more) faster then before. Unfortunately our mental capacity has not increased at the same rate and as a result we can’t handle this information overload. According to John Tierney for the New York Times, we suffer from Decision Fatigue.

    “The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.

The Deliberatism blog likens consumer’s decision making activity as a form of “currency”. Makes a lot of sense. We don’t have an unlimited supply of it, and it is therefore very precious.

I believe this probably explains the whole popularity explosion with the “cult of simplicity”. However my point here is not that to design good products, services or environments we need to focus on creating simpler user experiences. Actually it is. But a better approach would be for, as the Deliberatism blog pointed out, designers and design thinkers to consider the choices our customers make as a form of currency.

This means giving a high level of respect to our customer’s decisions, realize that it comes in a limited supply, and that we have to compete for their attention with other things they face in their daily environments. This is a subtle but very powerful difference in approach to designing for simplicity.

(Please note that I use the terms consumers, customers and users interchangeably as, in my mind, they are one and the same.)


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