Choice architecture: how to help people make the right decision

Choice architecture is key in influencing behaviour. How you present the different options has a huge impact on the choices people make. Do you want to encourage people to make the right choices? Then make sure you present the desirable options in the right way, in the right place and at the right time.

What is choice architecture?

Choice architecture is the design of the environment in which people make a decision. People make decisions based on the different options that are presented to them. How the options are presented to you determine what choices you’ll make. The style, form and sequence in which the different options are presented all influence your behaviour. This means that you can help people make the right choices by designing the environment in which they make their decision. You present the options in such a way that people are more likely to choose the right option. This may sound more complicated than it is. Let’s look at an example:

Making healthy snacks the obvious choice

A good example of choice architecture is the placement of healthy snacks at eye level on the shelves, while you place unhealthy items in harder to reach places; close to the ground or high up on the shelves. Arranging the items in this way makes it more likely that someone makes the healthy choice.

Of course the same applies to the way different dishes are presented in a canteen. Imagine you wish to help employees make healthier choices. You’d be right to place the healthy salads close to the entrance of the canteen. When hungry employees enter the room, they will immediately see the delicious salads. They’ll be tempted to grab a salad bowl. Once they get to the more unhealthy options, it’s less likely they will also grab an unhealthy burger, as their plate is already full. Of course this also works the other way around: if you see unhealthy (but delicious) snacks FIRST upon entering the canteen, you’ll be tempted to go for it. When you get to the healthy salads, you won’t easily abandon your burger and fries.

The arrangement of items to choose from influences behaviour. Keep this in mind whenever you are responsible for the way options are presented. This may be more often than you realise.

We’re all choice architects

When you talk to your children about the various studies and colleges they could apply to, you are a choice architect. When you create a form to fill in, you’re a choice architect. When you design the menu in a lunchroom… you are a choice architect.

You can influence behaviour by presenting the desired choices in a more attractive way, in a simpler way (we’re hard-wired to prefer simpler options) or as the first option in a list (preferably the default choice). Our brains are lazy and we’re usually making choices on auto-pilot. When the healthy choice is the easy option, this is often enough to tempt us to make the right choice.

We’re also influenced by how different options look. Sometimes you can make the desired option look more attractive. Just look at buttons on websites. Have you ever noticed how on some websites the “YES” button is big and colourful, while the ‘no thanks’ button is small, grey and unassuming? This is because the designer of the website wants you to click ‘yes’. If healthy salads are presented in a colourful and tasteful décor, while the junk food is presented on a grey, poorly lit and generally unattractive display, this might nudge some people towards the healthier choice.

Time your triggers well

Triggers are essential to get people to act. You have to remind them to take action. When you remind them is very important. A trigger has to be timely. If you time your trigger too early (and the person has to remind herself to act later) it’s unlikely to work. If you time it too late, the moment has passed. You have to present your nudge at the exact moment when the person makes the decision.

However, timing isn’t the only factor. It’s equally important where you trigger people.

Location, location, location

Choice architecture is all about location. Where people encounter a trigger determines how they act. Take the following example I read in the book ‘Atomic Habits’, by James Clear. Clear describes how some employees of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston wanted to nudge hospital staff and visitors towards more healthy choices in the hospital cafeteria. Originally, the refrigerators next to the cash registers were filled with only soft drinks. The choice architects added water to each of the refrigerators. But they didn’t stop there. They also placed baskets with bottled water at strategic places throughout the room. Sales of soft drinks dropped by 11,4 per cent. At the same time, sales of bottled water increased by 25,8 per cent. Similar adjustments were made with the food in the cafeteria, and here too the adjustments led to healthier choices. Nobody had said anything to the people eating in the cafeteria. Choice architecture was all they needed to get people to make the right decisions.

You too are a choice architect

Would you like people around you to make better choices? Then consider how you might present the different options in a way that encourages the right behaviour. Can you make the desired option the default? Could you make this option stand out? Are there ways to make it more appealing? Whatever you do, make sure the triggers you use appear at the right time and in the right place.

Want to learn more about nudging and choice architecture?

Then I highly recommend you to read the book ‘Nudge’ by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

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