Designing Choices, Part 2: Framing the Choice

Designing Choices Part 2

Framing the Choice

In the last installment of Designing Choices, we covered how choices can be simplified by reducing the mental effort we require from customers to compare their options. But even if the least informed customers can easily do this, they may still struggle with making a decision if they don’t have clear preferences or sufficient prior knowledge. For example, I recently replaced windows on my enclosed front porch. Even though my selection was fairly limited, it was still difficult because I didn’t know which ones would look and work better for my home.

Choosing windows for your home, like other choices, illustrate that limited choice doesn’t automatically lead to an easy decision.

When it comes to financial and health decisions, it’s easy for people to feel this way. Most consumers haven’t made too many of these types of decisions before, which creates uncertainty about how their choices will play out. To make these decisions easier, we need to develop content that helps people confidently recognize which options are best for their needs. We can do this by making important concepts easy to understand, providing people with simple rules of thumb, and making the consequences of their choices more obvious.

Make the Decision Understandable

The first step in helping people understand what’s at stake in a choice is to help them understand the fundamentals of the topic they’re making a decision on.

Eliminating the Jargon

Every business would agree that they shouldn’t create more work for customers to understand their products; but requiring them to understand outdated or confusing industry terminology is doing exactly that. Unfortunately, jargon is commonplace in the financial and healthcare industries, where terms like “Other Covered Perils Deductible”, “Co-insurance” and “Expense Ratios” are common place. This type of language can be disastrous for decision making, because rather than communicating useful nuances, these esoteric terms often wash right over consumers, or worse yet, exacerbate their feelings of uncertainty and being overwhelmed. When people don’t understand important things about their options, it’s impossible for them to make informed decisions.

Designers or Content Strategists will likely not have the final say in defining core product attributes, so it’s important to allocate time in your projects to collaborate with product and regulatory experts. You can do this by pinpointing the terms or concepts that are difficult for users, collecting inspiring industry examples, and defining an appropriate reading level to adhere to; always being prepared to tie your suggestions for improvements back to established experience and business goals.

Realistic Scenarios

Even if people have a basic understanding of different aspects of your products, they still may need help grasping how these aspects are relevant to their lives. This process of establishing relevance is precisely what many sales agents and customer service reps do on a daily basis as they work with customers. One of the most effective tools these professionals use to do this are examples and scenarios. Incorporating realistic and relatable scenarios into your design can help customers understand key parts of their options by making it clear how, why and when these products provide value to them.

Recently, my team was charged with designing a quote flow for Renters Insurance. Our initial research revealed that most prospective customers didn’t understand what liability coverage was (which was a key part of their policy). When we defined what “liability” meant in technical terms, many participants argued that they were “decent” people who would never do something that would warrant them getting sued. But on our second iteration of the design, we skipped right to explaining how the coverage would be invoked and what it would do for customers if something did happen. Then the value of liability coverage became much clearer to them.

Accident Protection

Offer Simple Rules of Thumb

It’s easy to forget that people don’t want to spend a lot of time or effort learning about products or analyzing options. In fact, most people (novices and experts alike) employ simple rules to find imperfect options that are merely good enough. This process is called “satisficing”. We need to design to this tendency by embedding quick guideposts and signals throughout the customer experience. Below are a few examples of these guideposts and signals to keep handy when designing with the tendency to “satisfice” in mind.

Social Proof

One of the primary heuristics that people use when making choice is to look at the decisions and advice of other people, known as social proof. For example, if you see a lot of a certain type of car in your area, you may assume it’s a reliable or otherwise high quality. For many years now, social proof has been similarly successful for Amazon and other online retailers. However, it still hasn’t been fully explored for the customer experience in the financial or healthcare sectors; and yet people are seeking this type of information when they make these types of decisions. This creates a big opportunity. During many water cooler conversations, friends and colleagues are asking each other about stocks and mutual funds they’re purchasing or whether to get a PPO, HMO, or open a health savings account. Imagine taking this social information a step further by leveraging anonymized data across your customer base to make more accurate and tailored recommendations.

GEICO shares how many customers chose optional collision coverage.

Ratings and Trust Seals

Another especially effective cue for customers is whether a third party has rated an option highly. Today customers are extremely skeptical of any claim a company makes about its own product. Having a trusted name that is perceived as objective can go a long way in creating a perception around an option. However, if third party endorsements aren’t available, internally formed recommendations can be used. Keep in mind, that customers will trust these more if you provide information about why an option is recommended for them. You may also need to leverage special visual treatment to attract a similar level of consideration as a trusted third party.

Simple Formulas

Both endorsements and social proof can provide information about what others might think is a good option, but in certain situations, simple formulas or calculations may be the most appropriate. Ask yourself this question: “Are there best practices or generally accepted advice in the industry that you can offer customers to help them make the best decision?” For example, if your customer is trying to figure out how much they should allocate to their 401k, you could offer them the simple rule of thumb that most advisors recommend saving between 10-15% of your total paycheck. You can consider providing more nuance if it’s important, but keep in mind that customers will likely need the calculations done for them if the guidance becomes more complicated.

Retirement Decsions
NerdWallet provides access to a simple calculator and set of assumptions to project retirement age. Advanced users can tweak these assumptions and receive a more tailored calculation.

Framing Choices as Consequences

At the heart of a choice is how a selection will impact a specific goal that a person may have. So it follows that one of the most important ways we can make sense of choices is to provide information on the future consequences of choosing one option over another.

Let’s revisit the example of choosing retirement funds. We can perfectly communicate the risk and return level of investment funds by labeling each option, but that still requires people to grasp when one level of risk is more appropriate than another. An even better approach would be to remove the need to understand the nuances of risk and return all together. Instead, to help our customers consider their retirement goals, we might simply ask them questions like: “When do you want to retire?” and “What type of lifestyle do you want when you do?”. You can use your customers’ answers to these questions to identify recommendations.

Comparison Chart
Dense comparison charts assume customers know how different parts of an option will impact their goals.
Target Date Fund Example
One of the reasons target date funds are so popular is that they hide the complexity of investment options from customers and focus on their goal (e.g. retiring by a certain age).


People want choices because it helps them feel in control and offers the promise that they’ll find exactly what they need. But research shows that after a certain point more options can lead to more mental work, anxiety, and even poor decisions. As Experience Designers and Strategists, we’re ideally situated to make choices simpler and help customers feel confident when they make them. For us, that absolutely means designing the comparison process to be clear, but it also means adequately framing the choice by taking into account people’s natural tendencies in the language and advice we provide them.

Sources and Further Reading

Appelt, K., Gao, J. et al. (2014) ,"Choosing How to Choose: Can People Choose the Best Choice Architecture?”. Advances in Consumer Research: Volume 42.

Fiske, Susan T.; Taylor, Shelley E. (1991) [1984]. Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0070211919.

Gigerenzer, G., & Goldstein, D. G. (1996). Reasoning the fast and frugal way: Models of bounded rationality. Psychological Review, 103(4), 650-669.

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995-1006.

Iyengar, S. (2011). The art of choosing. New York: Twelve.Johnson, E., & Shu, S.B., et al (2012). Beyond Nudges: Tools of a Choice Architect. Marketing Letters, Volume 23, p.487-504.

Miller, G. A. (1956). "The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information". Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97.

Simon, Herbert A. (1956). "Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment" (PDF). Psychological Review. 63(2): 129–138.

Schwartz, Barry, 1946-. (2004). The paradox of choice : why more is less. New York :Ecco,

Taylor, E.A., Carman, K.G., et al. (2016), “Consumer Decision-making in the Health Care Marketplace". RAND Corporation.

Contributed by
Rob Gifford
Job Title
Managing Director, Experience Design