The psychology of user decisions

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How can designers support the actual decision-making process of users?

by Jordan Bowman

We like to apply labels to users: they’re irrational, lazy, unpredictable, rushed, and so on.

To some extent that may be true — we aren’t machines.

But research shows that users actually make decisions based on a set of predictable subconscious patterns.

To create satisfying digital experiences, UX designers should be aware of — and support — these cognitive habits.


Human beings use psychological tactics and biases to get to decisions quickly. These mental shortcuts are called heuristics. We use heuristics in everyday life, but we especially like using them with software.

We don’t follow these patterns out of laziness or because we’re scatter-brained. It’s quite rational to take advantage of heuristics as a user because…

  • In the digital world, there’s very little penalty for being wrong. The cost of most errors is close to zero. Guessing wrong on a link and hitting the back button is still more efficient than reading the whole page to find an exact match.
  • Carelessly clicking around is more fun because we get a small dopamine rush from each click.
  • Web pages can be complicated. We’d rather make a decision and get on with our lives. It’s a matter of trade-offs — a balancing act.
  • The web enables us to move quickly from one decision to the next, at a much faster pace than the physical world. So that’s what we do.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common heuristics that users employ.


A combination of the words “satisfy” and “suffice.” It means to settle for the first reasonable option you find, without considering the whole set of possibilities. We don’t look for the right answer — we look for whatever is good enough.

Users make quick and dirty scans. When they come across something that refers even a little to what they’ve come for, they in

Loss Aversion

Losses loom larger than gains in our minds. It is thought that the pain of losing is about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. We put in more work and take more risks to avoid losses than we do to make gains. Part of Prospect Theory.

Users will go to great lengths to avoid something that’s potentially negative, or that could cause them to lose what they alr


People draw conclusions based on what comes to mind immediately. We give a lot of importance to things that we recall quickly and things we can already see right in front of us.

If a user needs to make a decision on a page, what’s right in front of them? What can they recall quickly from other pages? W

Decision Fatigue

Making a lot of decisions lowers a person’s ability to make rational ones. It’s also exhausting.

If a user is forced to make decision after decision after decision, they’ll eventually start making sub-optimal choices… or

Reference Dependence

Human beings do not have an innate way to determine absolute value. So we assign value by comparing one thing to another. We make judgments in relative rather than absolute terms.

In a set of choices in an interface, how the options relate to each other will determine what the user will do.

Status Quo Bias

Unless there’s a compelling incentive, people are more likely to stick to the default. In other words, we tend not to change the established situation.

This explains, for example, why users rarely utilize fancy customization features or change default settings.

Hick’s Law

The number of stimuli present influences the time and effort required to make a decision.

When users come across a situation with too many options, sometimes they’ll try to bypass the unpleasantness of Hick’s Law by

So what?

As designers, what do we do about all this?

Here are a few ways we can tailor our digital experiences to these heuristics.

Decrease your DPP

One helpful exercise is to look at what we can call our DPP: Decisions Per Page.

Take an important page from your interface and count the number of possible decisions a user could make on that page. This includes actions (which always require a decision) or information that leads to a decision.

I’m willing to bet the number is higher than you would have guessed…


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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