In The Smarter Screen, Shlomo Benartzi lays out a world where we are besieged by choices; choices that, far from helping us to make better decisions, confuse us into behaving in ways that are actually less informed.
Too much information it seems creates blind spots in our ability to assess and analyse what’s in front of us. Screens are speeding up the availability of information as well as the pace at which we look to process what we’re reading. We’re getting more, but we’re also more impatient to get through it … so, ironically, we pay it less attention.
Disciples of customer experience design and user interfaces may find much in the book that feels familiar, but Benartzi’s observations as a behavioural economist also have wider implications for how brands present themselves beyond the visual experience itself. In particular, his work speaks to how brands should frame what they do and offer in digital environments.
It’s safe to say that most of us who are not interface geeks have tended to view screens as just another viewing platform. And while our logical minds may continue to insist that is the case, the emotive manners in which we react to what is served up to us are a reminder of the conflicts that we face as consumers in digital environments. On the one hand, we long to be included, connected and aware. On the other, we are overwhelmed by what is possible.
Writing ourselves new rules
There are many learnings in Benartzi’s book – about how we write ‘rules’ for ourselves that govern our behaviours, about how we are drawn to the centre rather than the peripheral when we appraise situations, and about how some feedback actually worsens the very behaviours it is looking to amend – but three observations caught my eye:
Brands involved in industries with complex decision trees should look to gamify how that information is processed. We need to ration the choices that people get, so that they systematically eliminate what they don’t need or want rather than looking to sort everything presented to them. That’s because, according to psychologist George Miller, our brains can only process seven pieces of information (plus/minus 2) at any given time. (It’s also one of the reasons, according to Baba Shiv, why we struggle to change habits. Faced with so much to think about on a daily basis, our short term memory reverts to what we know, and we process information and make decisions on that basis even though they may conflict with our ‘rational’ preferences.)
Intermediaries add value not through the time they save but through the power of their filtration processes. While much has been made of the role of intermediaries as timesavers, according to Benartzi, online travel agents such as Booking.com, Kayak and Expedia, routinely charge commissions of between 20 and 30% not so much because of time but because of a huge shift in asymmetry. Once consumers struggled to source the information they wanted; now they struggle to filter through all the detail that’s available. And, as I alluded to earlier, screens amplify both the information we have access to and the lack of attention that we pay to it. Online travel agents sift, sort and deliver all of that for us, cutting down what we need to see and helping us arrive at a point where we feel we have made a good decision. For that it seems, they can charge hotels hefty commissions.
It’s not about what we’re told as consumers, it’s about what we learn. While the feedback we get from our technology is commonplace and presumed, the real challenge going forward lies in getting the technology to interact intelligently and individually, and to design and display what is happening in ways that intrigue the reader.
The simplicity challenge
Many of us are drawn to minimalism as an aesthetic but it can be much more difficult to convince product managers and innovators that less is more when it comes to marketing what they have helped develop. And yet, if Benzarti’s right, that is precisely how consumers want to evaluate options. They want to receive simpler, cleaner, faster, more singular information and then to process from there through feedback that speaks to them. The findings certainly seem to correlate with those of the Global Brand Simplicity Index which found that 63% of consumers are willing to pay more for simpler experiences and 69% are more likely to recommend a brand that is simple.
Simplicity is influenced by the environment in which it is encountered
But what the book’s thesis also suggests is that the environment in which we encounter brands has a strong influence on how simple they must seem. Simplicity in a supermarket, for example, may look and feel quite differently from even the online version of the same transaction because of the way we process the information itself. So, while we talk a lot about the need for brands to seamlessly straddle the physical and digital worlds, that may not mean that the two replicate one another. Brands may literally need to change what consumers receive on screen in order to align what they think they are ‘seeing’.
And, if you think about that in the context of the Internet of Things, then how we derive simplicity is only going to become more complex as the size, range and number of screens and devices we work with on any day increases. I’m left with these questions. If screens affect how we process information to the extent that Benartzi claims in the book, do different size screens or our use of clustered screens (for example, secondary viewing) also change what we see, process and react to? If so, by how much? The answers may add a whole new dimension, and meaning, to responsive design.