We don’t always have the mental bandwidth to weigh every possible outcome of our decisions or collect every piece of information available. Luckily, our brains have a fantastic way of processing data in less-than-optimal conditions: heuristics.
Heuristics are rules we subconsciously use to form judgments and make decisions. These mental shortcuts often involve focusing on 1 piece of a problem while ignoring others, usually due to the problem’s complexity. In the absence of hard data, we also make design decisions this way—to help users with exactly these issues—creating the easiest, simplest flow through the product based on our assumptions about our target users’ behavior.
You apply heuristics every day, but you do it unconsciously. By building your conscious understanding of heuristics, you can become more aware of your own thought patterns, make better assumptions about other people’s decision making, and maybe catch yourself in a false pattern of thought.
Let’s discuss 3 heuristics that can help when you’re designing products.
The anchoring heuristic says that people rely heavily on the first piece of information given when making future judgements. Just like in boating, where you anchor determines what you see.
Design implications of anchoring
The anchoring heuristic is very important in ecommerce design. Why? Because visitors anchor their pricing expectations on the first price they see. So don’t immediately filter search results from cheapest to most expensive. If you instead show visitors a higher-priced option first, everything else will seem like a bargain. (Of course, you may have to deal with sticker-shock-induced bounces.) Also, try including a higher-priced item in your design. Even though that item may not sell as well, visitors will use it to anchor their overall pricing structure. Done right, you could see an increase in your overall purchase price.
Watch the power of anchoring in action in this video of Steve Jobs announcing the iPad’s launch price:
The familiarity heuristic says that people tend to revert to previous behaviors rather than learning new ones, especially when they’re busy. Ever go grocery shopping in a foreign country? It’s startling how much brainpower—and time—it takes to figure out where the bread aisle is in such a different environment. Familiar things are just plain easier to work with.
Design implications of familiarity
We’re going to remind you of that terrible law of high school: following trends makes you more popular. We know: this goes against every creative instinct you have. But you can’t count on people taking the time to learn a new interface or what your new icon means. (Hence the durability of the floppy disk save icon.) And if you must change some things? Try changing them gradually.
3. Naive diversification
The naive diversification heuristic says that when you ask someone to make a choice for the upcoming few weeks (let’s say, about what kind of cookies they’ll want), they will most likely give you a diversified response. So they might say, “I want chocolate chip on Monday, peanut butter on Tuesday…”
But if you change the frequency and ask them what they’d like every day, they’ll most likely give you the same answer as the day before.
People think they prefer variety when considering a longer period of time. But when push comes to shove, their preference for familiarity kicks in, and they’ll revert back to what they know they like.
Design implications of naive diversification
When designing user-controlled preferences, pay attention to how frequency will affect choice.
Let’s say you’re designing for a company that sells food samples on a monthly subscription model. Do you want users to pick all the foods they’ll get over the year all at once? Or should they have the chance to pick monthly? How many options are you providing and how diverse are those decisions? Your users may easily over-anticipate their desire for diversity and would be more delighted to get their favorites again and again. Consider asking this question each time they get a box, rather just once.
The fine print
Humans are unique creatures. Because of that, these heuristics won’t work 100% of the time. However, keeping these heuristics in mind while designing can give you a little insight into human behavior, increasing your ability to create human-centered products.
Avoiding Decision Traps
An Anchoring and Adjustment Model of Purchase Quantity Decisions (PDF)
Margaret Kelsey leads content marketing at Appcues. Before Appcues, she built content programs for InVision’s design community for 3.5 years and has roots in painting and PR. She’s a big fan of puns, Blackbird Donuts, and Oxford commas—probably in that order.