Sep 23, 2014

Human self-control and its implications on product design

While reading Chapter 3 of the book "Thinking fast and slow" by Daniel Kahneman, there were multiple "aha" moments for me, when the author talks about how self-control is a tiring task for humans. Below are some of the key take-aways for me from this chapter (quoted directly from the book):

"People who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation"

"Cognitive load is one of the causes of weakened self-control"

"Self control requires attention and effort"

"All variants of voluntary effort - cognitive, emotional or physical - draw atleast partly on a shared pool of mental energy. This phenomenon is called ego depletion"

"An effort of will or self-control is tiring. Exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant"

"Effects of ego depletion could be undone by ingesting glucose"

These points give us some clarity on many areas of our life - such as
why we overeat mostly at dinner time,
why we grab a chocolate after heavy mental processing work,
why we are unable to give complete attention and concentration on multiple areas requiring mental energy throughout the day etc.

There are multiple learnings for product creators and designers based on how individual self-control operates:

For a health & wellness product/app that suggests people to make healthy choices in their diet, people are more likely to comply for breakfast and lunch, as the power to exert self-control is high. So the product can ensure the recommendations for breakfast and lunch are planned as a completely healthy meal whereas it can suggest partially healthy choices for dinner when people are resistant and reluctant to exert their self-control.

For e-commerce apps, flash sale can be scheduled in the morning hours since product selection requires significant cognitive effort, given the vast amount of choices the person gets exposed to. Similar argument holds good for weekends too.

On a related note, it will be interesting to see when mobile app users take "negative actions" such as giving a bad rating, disabling notifications and uninstalling the app itself. I presume users would take up such actions in the morning - afternoon hours, when their self-control is high and wouldn't mind spending some voluntary effort in voicing their opinion.

Personalization, reducing friction, being vigilant about the relevant choices displayed (preventing the user from getting into choice paralysis) and giving utmost importance to the ONE task the user intends to perform are all ways by which product designers can help reduce the attention and effort required by the users. These become even more important in the case of habit-forming products where the product expects "unprompted user engagement".


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