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Set to default

  • Linh Nguyen
  • January 27, 2016

There’s an insidious side as to why tools don’t work, and that is the default choice to which we and our tools are subjected. In psychology and behavioral economics this is also known as the default effect. An article from the NY Times explains it well in this paragraph:

“Defaults, according to economists and psychologists, frame how a person is presented with a choice. But they say there are other forces that make the default path hard to resist. One is natural human inertia, or laziness, that favors making the quick, easy choice instead of exerting the mental energy to make a different one. Another, they say, is that most people perceive a default as an authoritative recommendation.”

The default choice is the first choice. We make it because it’s obvious and accessible. To learn more requires time and energy, which most of us don’t have or desire to give up that easily.

When things don’t go our way, we are quick to blame our tools. But the problem isn’t that the tools don’t work - the problem is a shoddy default setting. Of course, we can argue that people shouldn’t be so lazy, that we should all try harder to learn, but what’s easier to change? The tools, obviously.

Tools shouldn’t make us think but help us to think. Tools should do a better job of making their default setting as easy to use as possible by creating a system that works in favor of what people want to achieve. Right now, I’m writing this on a tool called IA Writer, which allows me to write without distractions. My options are limited in terms of font and style but the end goal is that I get something done and it’s done well. I chose this tool precisely because the system is restrictive; as a result, it gets me from A-B seamlessly. This appears opinionated, but I find the best tools normally are: they makes life easier by removing the constraints of too many choices.

Most of us aren’t tech-savvy, so we don’t have the eye to see what goes on below the surface. We care about the experience. We care about the interface: how it looks and if it works, because that’s all we really want - for things to work. So we pick the first choice because we expect our tools to work in our favour, sometimes a bit too heedlessly.

Making the best default option requires not just an understanding of technology and design, but psychology and modern life: how do people think and how does the way they live affect that?

It’s not enough to show us the result of what a tool can do, we expect to be guided to achieve that result. People make amazing things with basic tools all the time, so why we are making digital tools harder to use? Digital tools should be like a hammer, where the function is clear from the get-go: “Do this, and you’ll get that.” That’s how instructions, by definition, work.

In order to avoid complex choices, we opt for the default. This is human nature and is hard to change. The tools that work from the get-go have a great default setting; they have instructions that are as clear and effortless as making the default choice itself.

Linh Nguyen

Linh Nguyen

Head of community at Swipe, a writer who loves talking to people.