Friday 8 November 2013

Searching for Bad Choice Architecture

In Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein invent the concept of choice architecture. Choice architecture refers to how subtle aspects of design structure how people interact with content.

The thesis of the book is that good choice architecture will nudge people toward making good decisions without taking away their freedom of choice. Bad choice architecture nudges people toward bad decisions. Thaler gives the example of a door handle in a classroom he taught in. People are used to pushing doors when they exit a room, but this door’s handle was shaped as if it was meant to be pulled on. Throughout the semester he observed student after student either hesitating at the door or trying to pull it open. That door handle is a work of bad choice architecture because there is a direct connection between its design and its misuse.

Searching for examples of bad choice architecture can help undermine the status quo bias and jumpstart creative thinking. One example of bad choice architecture that I come across on a daily basis is the design of the public garbage bins on the streets of Toronto.

The circular black hole is for “litter,” while the two longer blue openings are for recycling. While the blue and black colour coding is effective signaling of which hole is for what, the shape of the holes is not. The black litter hole looks exactly like the hole in the machine people use to recycle their cans and bottles at the supermarket.

If people aren’t paying attention, the circularity of the litter hole might attract people to drop their cans and bottles with the garbage. I know I’ve almost done this many times.

Another example of a poorly designed object is the smoke detector. Everybody has a smoke detector, nobody enjoys dealing with smoke detectors, and yet there seems to be no pressure to design smoke detectors that are more user-friendly. In 2013, people shouldn’t have to stand under a smoke detector and flail for 10 panic-stricken seconds in order to shut off a painfully loud and high-pitched beeping. Considering that most people’s only experiences with smoke detectors are with false alarms, smoke detectors should be made in anticipation of people that are in no apparent danger wanting to shut them off as easily as possible.

Some alternate ideas:
  • We could have a remote control operated smoke detector.
  • We could have on/off switches in easily accessible places.
  • We could move smoke detectors from the ceiling to more accessible but still unobtrusive places.
  • We could have smoke detectors with better motion detectors so that they can immediately sense when someone’s beneath them.
  • We could have smoke detectors connected to sensors above bedroom doors so that the beeping shuts off whenever a bedroom door opens.
  • We could find a less painful sound for smoke detectors to make. There might even be a silent way of waking people up that isn’t as annoying when it goes off at the wrong time.

Looking for these sorts of examples will help distance ourselves from the elements of our environment that we take for granted. Eliminating cultural biases might lead to the revelation of what Nick Bostrom calls crucial considerations. Crucial considerations are pieces of information that call for a major course adjustment. Discovering such crucial considerations should be a major focus area of meta-effective altruism.

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