Book Review: The Smarter Screen

December 5, 2016

The Smarter Screen CoverShlomo Benartzi is a behavioral economist at UCLA who, with Richard Thaler, has created the Save More Tomorrow program, which encourages people to save a significant percentage of any future pay raises. The program has been very successful in helping people to save money—even people who had said they could not afford to save. The goal of this program differs quite a bit from the common admonition to spend less and start saving more now: it acknowledges the reality that things may be tight today, making it difficult to save money right now. By encouraging people to save their future pay raises, the Save More Tomorrow program makes saving more practical. It’s easy to plan to be better in the future—just look at all the great resolutions we make on New Year’s Day. But it’s all too easy to give into temptation and break our resolutions. Save More Tomorrow works because people commit to saving money before they have it.

In his book The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior, Shlomo explores the way people spend money on mobile apps because it’s easy, exciting, and gives them an immediate sense of satisfaction. Our mobile devices deliver a great deal of information to us and let us act on it very quickly—sometimes too quickly.

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Shlomo gives the example of the widely circulated story about Uber charging Jessica Seinfeld $415 for a crosstown New York City trip during a snowstorm—about eight times the normal charge. As UX designers, it is so important for us to explore and understand the consequences of users’ decisions. We are supposed to make technology easier to use. In this case, Uber’s designers have made it easy for the customer to book a ride. However, the unintended side-effect is that customers sometimes make decisions without realizing their full consequences—the high cost of a ride when surge pricing is in effect. In cases like this one, Shlomo suggests that UX designs call attention to the situation, making the user stop and think: Hey, wait a minute….

The Attention Economy

Today, we can get a great deal of information online—on almost any subject imaginable. Lots and lots of information. Too much information! Shlomo provides the example of planning a trip: Not so long ago, we would have called a travel agent or maybe requested a printed guide from a travel club. That travel agent would have made a commission of about 10% for booking our travel. Fast forward to today, someone gets an idea for a trip and can go straight to the Web and immediately obtain an overwhelming amount of information. In fact, I just received 49,300,000 results when I queried travel to a local destination. At least the search engine delivered the results in a speedy 0.60 seconds. But how useful is this wealth of information?

In the past, we had to work hard to get any information. Now, we just type a few words and get millions of search results in less than one second. However, the information is not always helpful. As Shlomo says, “The abundance becomes a curse.” Many people use online travel agents to narrow down the possibilities and see reviews and other relevant information. Even though computers are now doing much of the work, what percentage of the transactions are the online travel agents receiving in commissions? Much more than the 10% of traditional travel agents. In fact, they typically receive commissions of 20–30%. Wow! These online travel agents do none of the physical work, but receive about 25% of the revenue from these bookings. Why can they charge that much? Because in the overwhelming sea of information overload, the winners are those who keep the attention of customers.

In addition to helping us to handle the abundance of information, well-designed apps consider the fact that users can think about only so many things at once—the author refers to this as the mental screen. This discussion reminded me of a conversation we had in the Ask UXmatters column “User Experience and Accessibility.” As UX designers, we should be committed to helping all users, including those with disabilities. We also need to remember that people don’t use our products just within the confines of an office—like the ones in which products get designed and built. People use mobile apps in messy, real-life situations that are sometimes noisy, distracting, and time pressured.

Since we can think about only so much information at once, the size of our mental screen is limited—sometimes more than we would like to admit. Thus, Shlomo believes that one responsibility of a good mobile app is to narrow down the multitude of choices to a few good ones and offer a reasonable default selection. He recommends using a tournament-style design, in which users repeatedly pick their favorite among four possibilities. Not only are users empowered to pick their favorites, the app also helps them to narrow down the information into reasonably sized chunks. The number of options we give to users should match their mental and emotional capacity to evaluate them. So, as UX designers, we empower users by going beyond showing them every available option to giving them a set of useful options.

Basics of Good Design

Despite increasing levels of technological innovation, many products still fail to achieve basic levels of good UX design. Users evaluate the quality of a Web site in less than a second and, knowing how they judge sites, we can use that knowledge to design better products.

We know there are some common ways in which users hold mobile devices—and design for those behaviors. Steven Hoober—author of the popular UXmatters column “How Do Users Really Hold Mobile Devices?”—tells us:

“People prefer to look at the center of the screen and have a higher chance of noticing the content which you place in the center [half to two-thirds] of the screen. Also, people are more accurate at touching the center of the screen and are less accurate along the edges—especially along the top and bottom. They are—maybe subconsciously?—aware of this, so they slow down at the edges, but are not especially … reluctant to tap in these areas; a bad design will simply encourage them to have more missed taps here.”

For more on this topic, see Steven’s articles:

Do not expect users to spend a lot of time interacting with other parts of the screen. Some old sayings tell us: “If you can’t beat them, join them.” “The trend is your friend.” Of course, be creative, but work within the fundamentals of known human capabilities and behaviors.

Mobile Apps as Motivators

In The Smarter Screen, Shlomo talks about our opportunity, as UX designers, to help people have better lives. One way in which we can do this is to provide good feedback. However, the trick is that, not only do we need to give the correct feedback, we also need to give it at the right time. For example, Shlomo discusses a study that showed basic financial education was ineffective in the long term. People know they need to be smart about their money and have some idea how to do this, but they’re not always able to apply that knowledge when they’re actually making important financial decisions. So Shlomo suggests that we remind people of that knowledge when they need it.

Giving another good example, Shlomo describes the limited impact of providing nutritional information about unhealthy foods. Even though Chili’s Awesome Blossom fried onion appetizer is very unhealthy and the nutrition information is readily available, the dish is still very popular. It makes people feel happy when they see it arrive at their table. So Shlomo suggests that, if a diner’s mobile device reminded him that it would take nine hours of walking to burn off those calories, he would perhaps choose a better option. He also notes that, even though people have goals, in the heat of the moment, they’ll choose what feels good in that moment. By designing personalized apps that help people to make an emotional connection with their own future, we give them the emotional strength to make better decisions. But we need to be helpful, not preachy or annoying.

Combining Behavioral Economics with UX Design

As UX designers, we can create designs that truly help people. In my Ask UXmatters column “Making the World a Better Place Through User Experience,” our panel of experts discussed their motivation to improve the lives of the many people who use the products they design. Shlomo says he is glad to have helped so many people through the Save More Tomorrow program, but he realizes that there are many others that the program has not reached. He really wants to help everyone and hopes that, by helping designers to create better mobile apps, he can help billions of people to make more empowering decisions.


Not only is Shlomo’s book an interesting read with lots of examples, it is a good resource and reference. I really like the questions section at the end of each chapter, as well as the summary of tools at the end of the book.

Shlomo has crafted an accessible bridge between the solid works of academia and the messy realities of commercial software applications. He challenges designers not to blindly follow his advice, but to thoroughly test their designs, then update them based on what they’ve learned.

Shlomo says, “All it takes is a few behavioral insights and a good programmer. If you’re not able to help your customers make better decisions, then someone else will.” Of course, things are a little more complicated than that, but the guiding principal is right. When creating designs, we must be mindful of both humans’ well-known behaviors and the benefits of the powerful technologies that are available to them. 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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