4 April 2007

More and less: Designing for high-stakes decisions

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More and less
We all want options, but when does having choices prevent us from finding solutions? Dmitri Siegel looks at how people make important decisions and how design can help.

“Freedom of choice is such an unassailable value in America that it is considered a solution in and of itself to social ills, from failing schools to the insolvency of social security. As a society, we view choice as the manifestation of our most exalted ideal: freedom. The value we place on decisiveness was reflected in President Bush’s assertion, “I’m the decider. I make the decisions. The proliferation of choice can have unexpectedly negative consequences. Expanding the number of options often comes at the cost of finding solutions. Nowhere is this trend more evident than online—and the stakes have never been higher. Increasingly, our most significant decisions—such as whether or not to have a medical procedure or how to best to plan for retirement—are being made using web-based applications. As it turns out, many are poorly suited to helping us sort through the ever-growing range of possibilities. So why do these interfaces so often fail us when we need them most? And what unique challenges are there in designing systems that help us make high-stakes decisions?”

Siegel then goes on to describe that there are two types of decision-makers — maximizers and satisficers — and how one of the two types are generally happier. He also illustrates how human beings are not wired to make rational decisions.

So what does that mean for designers?

“The striking thing about most research being done on how design can help enable meaningful decision-making is that it often requires stepping back from specific design problems in order to focus on the question of what to design rather than how to design. Refocusing the mission of design can bring valuable insights into how to make information more useful, and useful information more accessible.”

The article ends with a discussion of recent books by John Maeda and Peter Morville and current research at Philips Design.

Dmitri Siegel is the Art Director for urbanoutfitters.com. He is also creative director of Ante and Anathema magazines. He teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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