Decision Architecture: Helping Users Make Better Decisions

Decision Architecture

Designing for decision making

A column by Colleen Roller
November 8, 2010

Right now, your Web site is affecting users’ decisions.

  • What influences your users’ decisions?
  • What decision-making strategies do they use?
  • How does your design affect decision outcomes?

Many UX professionals are passionate about creating great Web sites. But what is it that makes a Web site great? In answering this question, it’s sometimes valuable to take a step back and consider anew why we create Web sites. What is it that we’re trying to achieve?

For the most part, we create Web sites to get users to do something—for example, to make a purchase, donate to a cause, or sign up for our service. It is our expectation that users will make decisions about how to proceed. But are we designing for optimal decision making by users?

In my column, Decision Architecture, I’ll discuss how people make decisions and how we can design Web sites to make decision making easier for them and get the decision outcomes we need.

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What Research Tells Us About Decision Making

Recently, scientists have greatly advanced our understanding of how human decision making actually works. In addition to advances in technology—such as brain imaging, which enables us to see the brain at work as people make decisions—research abounds from fields like behavioral economics, behavioral finance, behavioral decision theory, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and social psychology.

This research has revealed that the way people actually decide is very different from our common assumptions about how we decide. Some UX professionals say that, because people are largely goal oriented and have very specific preferences, all we need to do is remove the barriers between users and what they want. But research on decision making shows that people often do not have well-formed objectives, and their preferences are actually quite malleable.

Decision outcomes are dependent upon the contexts within which people make decisions. Context includes factors like the complexity of a decision, how expert a decision-maker is, how many options there are, how the options compare or relate to one another, the ordering of options, the wording that expresses the options, and many others.

Why Decision Architecture?

In Web site design, UX professionals are largely responsible for creating the context within which users’ decision making occurs. Thus, if a design itself significantly impacts decision outcomes and decision outcomes directly affect an organization’s bottom line, our work as UX designers takes on a whole new dimension of business criticality.

Designing an effective context for decision making requires that we understand how the process of decision making actually works and what affects it. Just as we take an educated approach to making Web sites user friendly, we need to take a well-informed approach to designing for decision making.

Decision architecture is the art and science of designing Web sites for good decision making by users. Just as we have Information Architects who devise a Web site’s optimal organization of information, we need Decision Architects who know how to architect a Web site for optimal decision making.

Two Methods of Mental Processing

Decision making is a complex process. How humans process information drives decision making. People process information primarily through two mental modes, or channels, that operate in parallel. The first mode of information processing occurs primarily on the subconscious level; the second, at the conscious level. Daniel Gardner, in his book The Science of Fear, refers to these two modes as Gut and Head, respectively.

Gut processing is sophisticated, intuitive, and quick. Head processing, on the other hand, is analytical, slow, and rational. Each mode of mental processing has strengths and weaknesses, and each plays a distinct role in decision making.

Gut makes decisions quickly. But Head can monitor Gut’s decisions and overrule them when necessary. According to Gardner, “Gut decides, Head reviews: This process is how most of our thoughts and decisions are made.” Essentially, we are of two minds, each of which works semi-independently of the other.

There are two aspects of Gut processing that primarily impact decision making:

  • emotion and affect—a feeling that something is good or bad
  • reliance on mental shortcuts

Research consistently confirms the important role emotion plays in decision making. Researchers have done many studies with people who have incurred damage to the parts of the brain that process emotion. These studies show that decision making is impossible without the influence of emotion. Emotions are often the way in which the subconscious mind communicates with the conscious mind.

As we go through life, our subconscious brain encodes our experiences in images, metaphors, and narratives and attaches emotions to them—thereby, associating meaning with them as well. Each representation of an object or experience in a person’s mind is essentially tagged with an emotion. Each time we make a new decision, we subconsciously compare the available options to the objects or experiences we’ve previously encountered in life, along with the emotions that we’ve attached to them.

When making a decision, these emotions give meaning to the various options under consideration and play the critical role of tipping the scale favorably toward one option or another. Our ability to rely on the good or bad feelings we have about something enables an efficiency in decision making that negates any need for us to identify and analyze every single available option.

Mental shortcuts are another important aspect of Gut-level processing. They are exactly what you’d think: a means of managing the complexity of the world through the use of certain rules that generally allow us to come up with reliable snap judgments. One example of a mental shortcut is the availability rule: Gut assumes things that come easily to mind are most common in our everyday world. For instance, when researchers ask what most people in the U.S. die from, many people cite whatever cause of death they’ve heard people talking about most often in the news and media, because this is what springs most readily to mind.

The Interaction Between Head and Gut

Gut processing always precedes Head processing. Gut always beats Head to the punch. And even if Head steps in and overrules Gut, this does not negate the impact of Gut on a decision. It is our initial impressions, our initial reactions to things, that shape and color the thoughts and judgments that follow.

What makes the interaction between Gut and Head so interesting is that, sometimes, Head doesn’t bother to monitor Gut. Sometimes, Head doesn’t step in at all. When this happens, decision making occurs automatically, under the radar of our conscious attention.

So, although Gut enables an efficient way of navigating a complex world, it can also lead us astray. Gut can sometimes apply mental shortcuts that really aren’t appropriate to the situation at hand or are simply incorrect. Here’s an example of a misleading mental shortcut: People often make snap judgments about other people based on their physical appearance. Perhaps they might think attractive people are smarter or tall men make better leaders.

The challenge is that Head can’t look inside Gut to figure out how or why Gut operates the way it does. Our subconscious is much like a black box with no access doors. It’s strictly off limits to the conscious mind. All Head can do is monitor and override Gut; it can’t change or negate the influence of Gut.

The Work of Decision Making

While Gut processing is fast and effortless, Head processing is slow and effortful. One reason Head may fail to actively take part in the process of decision making is because conscious thought takes effort. People are remarkably sensitive to the effort of conscious decision making—the mental processing that occurs primarily within the prefrontal cortex.

In a 1999 experiment, Shiv and Fedorikhin tested the effect of cognitive load on decision making by asking participants to remember either a 2-digit or a 7-digit number—that is, a low cognitive load versus a high cognitive load, respectively. They then asked participants to walk to another room and report the number to a different researcher. However, on the way to the other room, they offered the participants refreshments, giving them a choice between chocolate cake or fruit salad. It turned out that participants selected cake 63% of the time when the cognitive, or memory, load was high and only 41% of the time when the cognitive load was low.

The purpose of this experiment was to test the effect of cognitive load on Head’s ability to override Gut—specifically, to test people’s ability to resist temptation when their brains were operating under various levels of cognitive loading. Distracting Head with a memory task made people more susceptible to temptation. The effort to remember the number drew cognitive resources away from the prefrontal cortex, which also controls emotional impulses, or Gut. This experiment, among many others, has demonstrated that it doesn’t take much to exceed the capacity of the prefrontal cortex.

The Goal of Decision Making

In addition to being sensitive to the work of decision making because of the limitations of the prefrontal cortex, people are also sensitive to the work of decision making because… well, just because it’s work. In general, people tend to be rather lazy when it comes to expending effort to make decisions. Unless people have a particular incentive or a compelling reason for expending effort on a decision, they are just as likely not to decide.

For the most part, a person’s objective in decision making is to arrive at the best possible decision outcome with the least possible effort. Of course, these two variables—effort versus optimal outcome—are usually at odds with one another. Better decision outcomes typically require more effort. So, decision makers must make tradeoffs between the two, adjusting their strategy according to the importance of the decision they’re making.

Implications for UX Design

Human decision making is an intricate dance between Head and Gut. What makes the dance so intricate?

  • Head and Gut operate in very different ways.
  • Head is sometimes an active participant; sometimes not.
  • Decision outcomes depend substantially on the contexts in which people make decisions.

How can we use this knowledge to inform user experience design?

First, because context is so important to decision outcomes, it’s essential to clarify and affirm that there is no such thing as a neutral design. Every design affects both usability and decision making. When nobody proactively takes responsibility for designing for optimal usability, poor usability is the likely result. It’s the same with decision architecture. Every Web site’s design affects users’ decision making. To get good decision outcomes, we must design for them. In subsequent columns, I’ll discuss, in detail, how specific aspects of design affect decision making.

Second, successful decision architecture requires that we consider both Head and Gut—their respective differences and how they interact with each other.

Designing for Gut

Good decision architecture requires that we design for two critical aspects of Gut processing:

  1. emotionEmotion is a key driver for Gut-level decision making. The topic of emotion and design is popular these days. There are many aspects of design that speak to emotion—from a Web page’s graphic design, use of color, and layout to the words we choose to use. Designing for emotion takes on even more importance when we appreciate its crucial role in decision making.
  2. mental shortcuts—Gut uses many different types of shortcuts, but it’s interesting to note that most people commonly use the same mental shortcuts and strategies. This is great news from a design perspective, because it means we can take an educated approach to designing with those shortcuts in mind. I’ll discuss mental shortcuts in greater depth in future columns.

Designing for Head

We also need to consider and respect a couple of key characteristics of Head:

  1. cognitive loading—Head has a limited ability to process information on a conscious level.
  2. sensitivity to effort—Even though Head has the ability and authority to monitor and overrule Gut, there is a likelihood that, sometimes, it might not exercise that prerogative, because Head is incredibly sensitive to the work of decision making.

Usability can go a long way toward making things easier for people, but the traditional approach to usability often falls short of recognizing and addressing the wealth of subtleties and nuances that affect decision making. Even the smallest aspect of a design can have an adverse effect on decision making. People have a very low threshold of tolerance for the work of decision making. As designers, we need to attune ourselves to the many factors that influence the work of decision making. I’ll discuss some of these factors in depth in future columns.

Designing for Head and Gut

Effective decision architecture recognizes that human beings are of two minds. It’s the interplay between Head and Gut that’s at the very core of decision making. When people view Web sites, they make very quick, subconscious judgments about them. Studies have shown that people can make judgments about Web sites in as little as 50 milliseconds and that their initial judgments persist. People do not make such judgments on a conscious level, but by Gut. And once Gut makes a judgment, Head may or may not step in to monitor or overrule Gut’s decision.

Even if Head does step in, this does not negate Gut judgments. These initial judgments still carry substantial weight, because they color and bias any cognitive processing that follows. For example, a 2002 study by Lindgaard and Dudek showed that, once people have developed a favorable initial, or Gut-level, impression of a Web site, they are much more forgiving of usability flaws.

Understanding the interplay between Head and Gut is key to designing effective Web sites that support optimal decision making on the part of users. In the past, UX designers have designed sites largely for rational decision making. Financial Web sites provide a good example. Their designers assume that, when people are making financial decisions, what they most desire is data—and lots of it. This is why there are lots of charts and numbers on financial Web sites.

Users do love these types of data, because they perceive themselves as making decisions on a purely rational level. Indeed, who would think of making financial decisions from an emotional perspective? But the truth is that Head and Gut both play a role. Yes, the availability of such data affects decision outcomes, but not necessarily in the way you might assume. For example, many people need rational justifications for their decisions—even though they may not consciously recognize this need. Having lots of charts and other data lets them justify their decisions—both to themselves and to those around them.

It may be that Gut has already decided, while Head is busy reviewing the data to justify Gut’s decision. From a design perspective, it’s essential to know how people are using the data—both psychologically and in the decision-making process.

The Goal of Decision Architecture

The goal of decision makers is to get the best possible outcome with the least possible effort. Our goal for decision architecture should be to create contexts for decision making in which users perceive that they’ve achieved the best possible outcome with the least amount of effort possible. As Decision Architects, this should be the gauge of our success.

Looking Ahead

The purpose of this first column was to lay the groundwork for more in-depth discussion of design for decision making in future Decision Architecture columns. In my next column, I’ll be discussing a very important aspect of good decision architecture: how the number of options under consideration can impact both users’ decision process and decision outcomes. I’ll explore what the research says and, specifically, why the number of options has the effect it does. 


Garner, Daniel. The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. New York: Plume, 2009.

Lindgaard, Gitte, and Cathy Dudek. “High Appeal Versus High Usability: Implications for User Satisfaction. HF2002, Human Factors Conference, Melbourne, Australia, November 25–27, 2002.

Lindgaard, Gitte, Gary Fernandes, Cathy Dudek, and J. Brown. “Attention Web Designers: You Have 50 Milliseconds to Make a Good First Impression!PDF Behavior & Information Technology, March–April 2006. Retrieved October 24, 2010.

Shiv, Baba, and Alexander Fedorikhin. “Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making.” Journal of Consumer Research, December 26, 1999.

Independent Consultant

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Colleen RollerColleen is a skilled writer and an experienced UX researcher who has spent hours watching people use Web sites and other digital tools. She has a deep understanding of what works—and what doesn’t—from a design and content perspective. Whether it’s an online user interface or the written word, she collaborates with her clients and partners to craft solutions that communicate clearly and succinctly. Colleen always welcomes opportunities to use her writing and UX design and research skills.  Read More

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