The Book ‘Nudge’ and Its Lessons to Companies

Nudge

This post was written by intern Ashu Ukey.

By 10:00 am at our office, you can hear the satisfying “click-click-click” of several people’s intermittent typing. You may hear a short burst of laughter here or a low, disbelieving chuckle there concerning a tweet or a funny customer comment. Wafts of dark coffee, resounding hellos, and rhythmic instrumental beats in the background would also be in character for our office at 4Degrees.

Getting closer to noon, everyone is busily locked into their tasks for that day. Some might be out at meetings while others hack away in a corner on a comfy chair. With frequent pairings, group meetings, and check-ins with each other, we maintain a collaborative and fast-paced environment throughout our day, integrating the concept of sharing the load with everyone while also upholding each individual’s rigorous responsibilities and need to contribute. Nothing of the culture described so far seems to diverge from the basics of the ideal small-company environment, but there is one day of the week where we set aside an hour in the afternoon and come together as a team for something I found surprising at a tech startup: book club.

At a pace just beyond that of casual readers, the team explores books that plant seeds of new ways of thinking in our brains. As a new intern, it took a while to fully integrate this new flavor into my days, but I came to appreciate its value. Recently in our club meetings, we finished the book ‘Nudge’ (by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein).

A nudge, in the context of the book, is a subtle hint or subconscious message to audiences that still allows for free choice without any hard restrictions or explicit forcing; in other words, people are not blocked from making choices they want. Libertarian paternalism, the name given to this concept, is the idea of pushing users towards choices that we ourselves judge would make them better off (paternalism) while still maintaining their freedom to make the choice they want (libertarian).

The book, focused primarily on the ideas of libertarian paternalism, illustrates the many dimensions of nudges (i.e. how they work, the different ways we can nudge people, their effectiveness), as well as a general overview of good choice architecture. One of the first things the book mentions is when we build a product or play any role in any decision-making mechanism for other people, we are choice architects whether we realize it or not; being aware of the power we possess is an important step to realizing its potential.

Though some would consider any form of subtle hinting a waste of time because they believe audiences will make decisions through pure rational thinking, we know that’s not always the case. Some would ask, “why spend so much time framing how we present a decision when we could simply present our customers what we have and let them consider all the factors for themselves?” Well, as a quote that popped up frequently in our weekly meetings aptly summarized, “people are lazy, if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s people’s laziness.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with being lazy. It’s human nature; our laziness is what makes us so efficient and creative. People will try to find shortcuts. They will try to save time where they can, but it also means sometimes, they won’t be perfect thinkers. Sometimes, they’ll be absent-minded and have short attention spans. But, just like good code has error checking for when things don’t always go as planned, choice architecture acts as a sort of error checking for the brains of people who use our products (perhaps error checking is the wrong term, protection from brain short-circuiting might be a better way to put it).

We can’t expect people who are seeing our products for the first time to have as much knowledge and enthusiasm for what we are presenting as we ourselves would. A robust program is a good program; a product that can maintain its integrity in rough conditions is exactly the type that can solve problems and change the world. Choice architecture of a product should be given just as much importance as its functional stability.

Sometimes, companies forget that there is more to nudging and choice architecture than just the design and purely visual components. The way we influence people can go as deep as what functionalities we include in a product, so it is not just the designer’s job or advertiser’s jobs to have such thoughts in the back of their minds.

Choice architecture is not all about which colors are the flashiest and most attractive but is the extensive analysis of maintaining simplicity when we can, and keeping in mind how the number of choices (without actually changing the scope of the decision) can tip the scales. It is about understanding the ability of social pressures to overhaul distributions, and acknowledging that questioning and presenting information before a decision can change behavior. From how doctors present a prognosis, to the order of food in an elementary school’s menu, to maintaining a diverse investment portfolio, Nudge explores ideas applicable to fields bigger than the large scope it already covers, generating value to even those who might already be familiar with its studies by serving as an important reminder.

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