I was so embarrassed.
I walked right into the door; not through an open door, but directly into a closed door, hard. My knee struck the bottom half of the door with a loud bang, my head nearly bouncing off the glass where the hand-written sign clearly read, “Pull to open door.” The whole store turned and looked when they heard the loud thud of my knee hitting the door that I had pushed hard against the jam. I could feel the color drain from my face as I slowly looked at the cashier, who smiled and said . . . . .
Choice architecture is the study, not of the decisions we make, but how those decisions are presented to us. Restaurants know that a line on a menu about cheesecake is worth much less money to a diner than having the cheesecake brought to the table side on a beautiful cart and showcased. Even if the cheesecake is exactly the same, as a rule we pay more for the presentation. In this example the restaurant has executed perfect choice architecture. They have built the presentation in such a way that we are more likely to choose what they want us to have.
And I think it’s fantastic.
Let me explain with another example plucked from the dining profession.
A sommelier is someone who tells you what your wine will taste like before you buy it. Then, when you pay much more for a fancy table, fancy bottle, and fancy description you can say, “oh the sommelier was right, this does have a nutty after-taste,” even though countless scientific studies have proven that a lot of the taste of wine is imaginary. The flavor of wine comes as much from our expectations as the grapes from which it was made. So the choice architecture plays a huge role in the entire experience.
Or think of it from a 21st century perspective.
The last bit of software you bought solved a problem yes, but you paid more for it than for the other option because you had heard of it before, the purchase process was simple and the website was beautiful. You didn’t even shop the competition. If you had, you probably wouldn’t have chosen them anyway because their website is clunky, no one you know uses them and it was a lot easier to go with something you are familiar with than to research another option. The choice architecture guided your decision. You went with the simple choice, which is what most of us do.
We hire people to make our decisions for us.
Mostly because they are better at it than we are.
Those people that we hire to make choices for us create great choice architecture around our decisions. They arrange and situate our choices to help us choose what they want us to have.
And it’s great.
On it’s face it sounds horrible. Someone who manipulates the system to get us to choose what they want us to use, buy or have seems shady at best. They are using the same process snake oil salesmen used 100 years ago, right? Well not really. The snake oil salesman tricked people into buying vegetable oil that didn’t do what he promised it would do.
But the cheesecake from the table side is delicious, and the software does work. We aren’t being sold, in most cases, a complete lie. We are getting something for the money we spend. The choice architects are not con-men. They are creating expectations for their own product when they dress it up. And unlike the snake oil salesman, they are still around hours, months even years after you buy. They field your comments or service their product for you after the purchase, which the snake oil salesman never did.
Good choice architects present their product as having a higher value than their competition because they know customers can be disagreeable at times. They add options, tweak the light and clean up the presentation to raise our expectations of their work. And often, they raise the price. Yes it makes them more money, but it also elevates what you expect from the product. This makes you more discerning, more demanding but also more appreciative. By presenting simple, beautiful, higher-priced options they are taking the guess work out of our decisions, and we pay more for that service.
We have hired them to make our decisions for us.
Plus you really do think the wine has a nutty aftertaste when the sommelier says it will. Your expectations guide your reality. When you expect the outcome your mind makes you think it’s true. In this article from Psychology Today, David DiSalvo explains this placebo effect. He explains that when a choice architect prices a bottle of wine at $50 and another at $10, we think the $50 bottle of wine tastes better, even if they are both the same wine. It’s a psychological nuance we all have. We anticipate value defined by, among other things, purchase price.
But wait, if we think the wine tastes better, doesn’t it actually taste better?
No one can take away the experience that the choice architect has given us of a better tasting wine, even if all she did was raise the price on the bottle. The wine does taste better, so she did us a favor. We hired her to make our choice for us, and in return she gave us better tasting wine.
It happens every day. We hire someone to help us make a better choice, and usually they do.
Unless you are waking out of the door in a specific store in my home town that has a round handle for pushing and a flat plate for pulling.
For over 40 years now I have hired people to train my brain that round handles on doors are for pulling and flat plates on the same doors are for pushing. They have done a fabulous job making the decision to push or pull a door a simple transaction for me. For the last four decades I have not stopped at every door I encountered, examined the jam, looked for instructions and then made my choice. It has always been a simple event.
The choice architects in the door opening business have been very proficient and consistent in my life. So proficient that any hand-written sign on the door goes completely unnoticed by me as I confidently stride through a skill I have mastered thanks to the universal standards set forth by our choice architect friends who engineer the door experience.
There could be a flashing neon sign, with elephants doing cartwheels and dollar signs saying “don’t push this door!!” It would be overshadowed by the years of Pavlovian training my brain has been through. It surprises me that anyone would think that writing “Pull to open door” on a piece of paper would fix the problem of the wrong handled door.
The Language of Choice
In fact I would guess that most people of every race, creed and denomination speak the same door opening language as I do. In fact I know they do. I know they do because psychology says they do. I know they do because marketing 101 explains they do. And I know they do because when I could feel the color drain from my face as I slowly looked at the cashier, he smiled and said . . . it happens all the time.
I fired my first choice architect today.
If we want to have any influence with the people around us, we have to understand choice architecture. We must have a sense of how people make decisions. Writing a sign and sticking it to the door was purely a waste of time, nothing more. It was an exercise in futility because the sign never intercepted my conscious during the transaction, and I’m not the only one.
It Happens All the Time
The cashier said, “it happens all the time.” If it happens all the time, that means the sign isn’t working! The sign isn’t working because no one looks for directions before opening a door. This is choice architecture at it’s purest. The choice to pull or push open a door comes solely from the shape of the handle on the door, nothing else.
So when no one buys your product, listens to your talk or reads what you wrote, it isn’t because they are screwed up. It probably isn’t because your product, speech or writing is bad either. Often we lose influence because we get the architecture of the choice wrong.
If what you are offering is of any value to others, you owe it to them to understand choice architecture, even if all your are doing is helping them open a door the right way.