Decision Architecture in the Wild: A Real-Life Example

Decision Architecture

Designing for decision making

A column by Colleen Roller
September 19, 2011

Although I’ve written a number of columns now on the topic of decision architecture, I never fail to be amazed at the examples of decision architecture I encounter in the real world and to witness just how effective they can be.

Last month, my family did what many people do every so often—we had family portraits taken. With a $9.99 coupon in hand, we set out for the portrait studio—dressed in color-coordinated outfits and ready with our best smiles—to get the deed done. And although I hadn’t anticipated it, I quickly realized that we had become players in an experience the portrait studio had orchestrated around some of the key principles I’ve outlined in my columns on decision architecture.

I’ll begin this column by describing what happened during our appointment, then talk in detail about the decision architecture concepts and principles that made the sales experience so effective for the portrait studio.

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About the Session

The entire portrait-taking session lasted about one and a half hours and consisted of two parts—20 minutes of picture taking, then 70 minutes of determining which pictures to keep or discard to arrive at our final package.

During the picture-taking part, the photographer coached us into a variety of poses and positions—each one warranting three consecutive clicks of the camera, which yielded a total of three shots of each pose. The number of poses—and pictures—quickly mounted because several shots included different numbers and combinations of family members, as well as a variety of different backdrops.

Once the picture taking was complete, they beckoned to us to gather around a large monitor, seating us in chairs so all of us could view the digital representations of all of the shots they had taken. This is where the 70-minute decision-making part of the session would take place.

To Start, Many Easy Decisions

The studio had architected the decision-making process so we would move from making many easy decisions in the beginning, to making progressively more difficult decisions later on. The salesman began the process by showing us each set of three shots that the photographer had taken of each pose. Our task was to choose the best shot from each set.

Now, this was an interesting process because there were four of us who needed to come to a mutual decision about which was best. (Thankfully, there weren’t more of us. I could empathize with the group of 15 who had gathered around the monitor adjacent to us!) Plus, each of the three shots looked remarkably similar to the others. The process of whittling down this superset of about 48 photos to a third of its original size was time consuming.

It occurred to me that the process would have been much easier if the number of photos we had to choose among had been more limited. But in hindsight, I’ve realized that the process of viewing and selecting photos from such a large set served the purpose of building our investment of time. This was important. As UX designers, we know that, as people invest more time in something, they become more committed to it and less willing to walk away.

Anchoring and Loss Aversion

There were two other very important decision architecture concepts that came into play during this whittling down process: loss aversion and anchoring. As you know from my previous columns, people have a hard time with loss. They have difficulty giving up something—especially something that is deeply personal and meaningful to them, as in the case of their having to reduce a collection of personal photos that they already, by virtue of the very nature of the items, envision collectively as theirs.

Certainly, this concept was not lost on the salesman who, once we had finished the process of sorting through all of the photos and selecting the best one of each pose, told us that we could have the entire collection of photos we had chosen for a price of about $300. This package included a collection of all of our pictures on a CD-ROM—and, as an added benefit, we would be eligible to receive some of the photos in the collection at no charge.

From a decision architecture perspective, there are a number of reasons why this type of presentation was effective. First, the strategy leveraged the fact that, as an outcome of the picture-selection process, we already thought of the entire collection as a package, and we already saw it as being ours because we had created it ourselves.

The CD-ROM and the freebie photos were frosting on the cake, but they also served an important purpose. To customers, the CD-ROM represented a safety net—a means of minimizing any potential feeling of loss due to poor choices that might later lead to regret.

Nevertheless, in our case, since we had walked in with our $9.99 coupon, the thought of parting with $300 seemed a bit much. I believe the salesman realized this. In making his initial offering of the total package costing $300, he had laid the groundwork—though subconscious for customers—for a couple of important things.

First, we now had the $300 price tag in our heads as the anchor, or reference point, against which we could compare all other potential package deals. And second, he had established a starting point for a further whittling down process, thereby setting into motion another series of decisions involving loss—requiring us to select which additional pictures we would remove from the collection to lower the cost.

At this point, the decisions to remove pictures became more difficult because we had to choose between different types of poses and backdrops, as well as which individuals were in each picture. As I’ve explained in previous columns, decision making becomes more difficult when it involves difficult tradeoffs—and especially when the options are difficult to compare because they lack some common attribute—for example, comparing three shots of the same people in the same pose versus comparing photos of different combinations of people in different poses against different backdrops.

The Software

It was intriguing to see how the software they used to present the photos coincided with and supported the overall sales process. For example, I noticed that, as we selected which pictures we didn’t want to keep, the software did not simply delete or hide them from view, but rather, merely grayed them out, so they were still visible. This was an effective technique because it was a constant reminder of just how much we were giving up. And, it made it easy to retrieve those pictures if at any point we determined that we had made a wrong choice or just changed our minds.

As we continued selecting pictures we didn’t want, the software also kept track of the overall state of the package, reflecting the associated reductions in price and the number of freebies we’d get, according to the size of the overall package. This meant that there were actually two streams of loss we incurred during the decision-making process—one involving the taking away of photos from the overall collection as we reduced the size of the package; the other, reducing the number of freebies they offered to us. Also, when the size of the package reached a certain threshold, the software showed that we were no longer eligible to receive the CD-ROM containing all of the pictures. Rather than associating the CD-ROM with a price tag, it was simply not available once we reached a certain reduced package size.

For many people, the inability to obtain the CD-ROM with all of the photos would be the determining factor in how much they would be willing to cut from the collection to arrive at an acceptable price point. By owning the CD-ROM containing all of the photos, many people would feel comfortable that, even if they’ve made a mistake by discarding the wrong photos, they would still have the CD-ROM as a safety net and could thereby prevent potential regret. In short, the CD-ROM would be the stopping point where customers would be able to legitimately justify the decision to buy a package deal that was, perhaps, more than they had originally planned to spend.

The salesman made a point of letting us know that, since the studio did not store any of the photos, the CD-ROM was the only way we could have access to the photos going forward. Conveying this piece of information to us was a brilliant stratagem, of course, because with this statement, he instantly raised the desirability of the CD-ROM by making it scarce. I talked about the power of scarcity in a previous column, in which I said that people have a gut-level, knee-jerk attraction to things becoming scarce.

The Power of Decision Architecture

The portrait studio did a masterful job of architecting a decision-making experience that would achieve their business objectives. They combined the power of loss aversion—on multiple levels—and scarcity, structuring the experience so customers would make a significant investment of both time and energy. They planned the decision-making process so there would be many decisions to make, but also ordered the decisions in a way that placed the easier decisions first—the groupings of three shots of the same pose—before moving on to decisions that would involve more difficult tradeoffs—deciding between photos of different people, with different backdrops and poses.

The ordering, timing, and types of decision making were important to their attaining their overall sales objectives. By asking us to make the easiest decisions first, they were able to accomplish two things. First, the process of making selections among three almost identical photos of each single pose afforded little chance that the decision makers would make a wrong choice. Second, it built up our confidence that we had selected the very best photos to include in the overall package.

It was only after we had made the easiest decisions that they offered us their initial package deal. As I mentioned earlier in this column, this was an effective approach because making those decisions required an investment of time that served to build our commitment to the process, as well as motivated us to envision the package as ours. But also, whittling down the package to obtain a better price would involve a price of its own: a series of more difficult decisions that would require challenging tradeoffs.

We know that people assign value through a process of comparison. The first set of decisions felt easy because we could compare similar photos. The second set of decisions, involving tradeoffs, felt more difficult—and this contrast in the difficulty of making decisions was to the studio’s advantage. It would be easier for some customers to simply purchase the entire package than to have to endure making a second round of tougher decisions to further whittle down the package.

I can personally attest to the power of this process—by the end of which we had parted with significantly more money than we had originally intended. (Remember our $9.99 coupon?) But we really wanted the CD-ROM with all of the photos.

In previous columns, I’ve talked about how people are largely averse to the work of decision making. When someone architects decision making to be a laborious process—by offering lots of choices and requiring people to make difficult tradeoffs, discarding or removing valuable or personally relevant options from a collection—people eventually become fatigued.

When people become fatigued, they often go with a default option or become vulnerable to sales tactics. In short, they lose the willpower to resist making less than optimal choices that don’t accord with their own best interests. (For more on decision fatigue, see the article “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?)

There are good lessons for us to learn here, as both designers and consumers. The principles of decision architecture, although often subtle, are also very powerful. This is why decision architecture is such an important discipline to include within the practice of UX design. 

Note—I’d like to acknowledge the help I received from Emily Roller as I was writing this column. Her insights and perspective were invaluable.

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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