Sunday May 14, 2017

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink: The science of behavioural design

Which door would you choose?

Which door would you choose?

Listen 12:07

Do you ever get the feeling that your technology is pushing you to do certain things? Like click a link or like a post?

Do you feel anxiety about your unread messages, because your phone has that little red circle on the app icon telling you how many there are?

You're being nudged, and the science behind it is based on a whole different model of human behaviour.

So says Natasha Dow Schüll, a cultural anthropologist and professor at New York University.

Of course, the term, "nudging" has been around forever. But in the last few years, it's emerged as a form of behavioural economics that uses a concept called "choice architecture," she says. 

Natasha Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll.

And that, in short, is because we're generally lousy at making smart decisions.

"It's a mode of governance that made room for human fallibilities and weaknesses, and the fact that we're not all rational actors," Natasha says.

And the thing is, that irrationality can be quantified, and used to nudge is in certain directions. "We're predictably irrational," she jokes.

And so-called choice architecture, such as how you set up a buffet, arrange the photos in a house listing, or even lists like "Top Ten Terrible Things that celebrities eat - you won't believe number 7!" are all examples of nudging.

"Even if you're aware that it's sort of silly and you're being taken down this rabbit hole, you can't help clicking into that," she says.

It can generally be a good thing, at least as apps are concerned.

"Increasingly we see these things being built into algorithms. These can be as simple as apps that urge us periodically to sit up straight, breathe deeply, or dink water," Natasha says. "Benign, helpful nudgers to get us to do things that will make us happier."

"We are already being nudged in a million and one ways as we move throughout our everyday lives. We are already surrounded by nudges." - Natasha Dow Schüll

But not always. There are myriad ways of nudging that get us to something for someone else's benefit, rather than ours. Think of advertising. The designs of shopping malls. Enticing website design.

"We are already being nudged in a million and one ways as we move throughout our everyday lives. We are already surrounded by nudges," Natasha says.

More worrisome, she adds, is how behavioural design is replacing user experience design as the driver for the way we interface with our devices.

"People are actively crafting their expertise as that of a behavioral designer, especially in Silicon Valley. That, even 10 years ago, would not have gone over well. You see that now being quite openly embraced," Natasha says.

"That is a little concerning."