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Designing For Explicit Choice

If you’re a UX designer, you’ve probably designed a lot of forms and web (or app) pages in which the user needs to choose between options. And as a designer, you’re likely familiar with best practices for designing forms. Certainly, much has been written and discussed about this topic. So, you probably know all about how best to label and position form fields and so on for optimal usability.

But have you thought about how the design of a form affects the user’s decision-making? Have you ever considered to what extent the design itself affects the choices people make? As always in design, there are a variety of ways to design a form or web page.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

For example, let’s say you’re designing a system in which the user needs to indicate whether they would like to sign up for a particular preventive medical procedure, like a flu shot. You could design the form in a number of ways. For example, you could provide a checkbox where the user either opts in or out. Alternatively, you could design it so that the user is required to explicitly choose between two options (via radio buttons).

Examples of these two approaches are shown below:


Would it matter which way you design it? Would the user make the same choice regardless of which design they encounter? Or could the user potentially be led to make a different choice merely as a result of how the choice is presented or designed?

The Power Of Defaults Link

One key difference between these two designs is that the checkbox requires a default state. That is, upon display, the checkbox will appear either checked or unchecked, as opposed to the radio buttons, which do not require a default selection. In the second example, even if the user does nothing, a “choice” has already been made, via the default.

A robust body of research5 has shown that when a default choice is offered, most people do not deviate from it. For example, if the box is checked by default, many don’t uncheck it (and vice versa). Making an explicit decision requires effort, after all. Time, thought and consideration are often required to determine the best choice. It turns out that people are remarkably sensitive (and averse) to the amount of effort that making a choice demands.

People are also remarkably sensitive to any possibility of incurring a “loss” that might then subsequently trigger feelings of regret. Especially when one is unsure how to choose, not making a choice (by simply accepting the default) feels better than actively making a choice that might end up being the “wrong” choice. Because people often have an unrealistic expectation that they will have more time in the future to make a more informed decision, procrastination also works in favor of acceptance of the default. Deviating from the default requires an explicit action, which people delay in taking. In many ways, defaults make decisions feel easier and less risky.

Designing For An Explicit Choice Link

The judicious use of defaults, then, has proven to be a key driver in the choices that people ultimately end up with, in large part because many people simply go with the default option. But one problem with passive decision-making6 is that it’s less likely to engender the kind of committed follow-up that is often essential to implementation of the decision, such as in the earlier example of the flu shot. Wouldn’t those who actively decide to opt for a flu shot be more apt to actually get one than those who passively accept the default?

Might there be a way to design for explicit decision-making that encourages people to feel better about actively making a choice? With this question in mind, researchers conducted a study to test how the design for an explicit choice might affect decision outcomes. Specifically, they were interested in comparing the outcomes of two approaches to obtaining an explicit choice from users regarding enrollment in a 401(k) plan (an employer-sponsored retirement plan), as shown below.

Example 1 provides two options:

  • “I want to enroll in a 401(k) plan.”
  • “I don’t want to enroll in a 401(k) plan.”

Example 2 also provides two options:

  • “I want to enroll in a 401(k) plan and take advantage of the employer match.”
  • “I don’t want to enroll in a 401(k) plan and don’t want to take advantage of the employer match.”

Would actual choice outcomes be influenced by which design users interacted with? In example 1, the two choices are weighted equally. That is, if the user doesn’t have a specific or compelling reason to choose one over the other, chances are that they may feel conflicted about which one to choose. Neither necessarily feels better or worse than the other. Example 2, on the other hand, is explicit about what the user will potentially gain or give up as a result of choosing an option.

Results of the research study7 show that enrollment in a program increased when options were “enhanced” with explicit mention of the implications of each choice, and levels of commitment and participation in the program also increased. But why would the wording of example 2 make such a difference in people’s choice? From a design perspective, stating what seems obvious about the implications of each option might seem unnecessary.

But it turns out that, because people are generally unlikely to seek out information to inform their decision, the additional wording makes a difference. Proactively seeking out information is work, after all, and research consistently reveals people’s considerable sensitivity to and avoidance of almost any amount of effort. Because of this, providing information within the options themselves can have a powerful impact on decision outcomes.

Aversion To Potential Loss Link

For many people who are not enrolled in a 401(k) plan, maintaining the status quo of being unenrolled doesn’t seem to incur any negative emotion, risk or “loss.” Life seems to roll on normally when one is not enrolled. Most people are aware, however, that participation in a 401(k) plan involves regular contributions to the plan — money that is no longer available for daily household expenses or other regular uses. And inherent to the act of investing is the potential for market downturns and losses incurred over the course of an investment. For these reasons, taking the step of enrolling in the plan (and potentially losing one’s investment) might feel a lot riskier than maintaining the status quo by not enrolling.

But when the costs associated with maintaining the status quo (for example, by remaining unenrolled in the plan) are made apparent and are framed as a loss (for example, loss of the employer match), then the decision to enroll in the plan feels more compelling and motivating. People are much more motivated by ways to avoid loss than to realize gains.

Consider what might happen if example 2 were framed differently:

  • “I want to enroll in a 401(k) plan.”
  • “I don’t want to enroll in a 401(k) plan and don’t want to take advantage of the employer match.”

Framing the options in this way does not remind users that they have something to gain by enrolling, only that they have something to lose by not enrolling. I suspect that users would still feel strongly motivated to enroll, simply because people give disproportionately greater weight to loss than to gain.

Real-World Examples Link

Research has demonstrated the power of design in enhancing explicit choices, but what about examples from the real world? One example we can look to is the US pharmaceutical company CVS/caremark8, which enjoyed greater rates of enrollment for its automatic prescription-refilling program when users were required to choose between two options:

  • “I prefer to order my own refills.”
  • “I want to enroll in the ReadyFill@Mail (automatic prescription refill program).”

The first option reminds users that not enrolling for the auto-refill program incurs a cost — the cost of having to do the work of ordering one’s own refills. It turns out that 21.9% of users decided to enroll in the program with this design of explicit choices, compared to only 12.3% of those who encountered an opt-in design. And customers who encountered the explicit choice also ended up filling more prescriptions than those in the opt-in design. It seems that preference for the program was actually enhanced once people made a commitment to joining.

Examples From The Retail World Link

Enhanced explicit choice is effective because it reminds people what they will gain or lose as a result of making a certain choice. Some online shopping websites are leveraging the power of such “reminders.”

Moissanite9 is one such example. After a short time on its website, the user is presented with a modal requesting their email address in exchange for a 10% discount on their next purchase. Providing one’s email address, of course, incurs the “cost” of potentially getting unwanted email, etc. But at the bottom of the modal is a reminder of the cost of not signing up: “No thanks, I prefer paying full price.” Paying full price, of course, implies loss because the user could instead be enjoying a discounted price.


Consider another example, Bauble Box11, which takes this concept a step further. After a short time on the website, the user is presented with the following modal, offering a 15% discount on one’s first purchase in exchange for an email address.


Noteworthy is the fact that there is no obvious way to close this box — for example, no “X” or “Close” (which would normally be located in the upper-right corner). To dismiss the box, the user must click the “Continue as guest” link towards the bottom of the box. And it might not be immediately apparent that this is a link.

The design seems to leverage these usability issues by forcing the user to hunt around for a way to dismiss the box, until they finally discover the “Continue as guest” link. Although this design risks user frustration, it nevertheless forces more time and attention towards the content of the box than users would ordinarily spend, increasing the likelihood that they will also notice the parenthetical text under the link, “(Without my 15% off coupon!)”

This design raises some interesting questions about how users perceive the experience and, consequently, whether this is a website they want to give their business to. To what extent might user frustration with the (intentional) usability issues adversely affect their perception of the company and the brand? At what point does the design cross the line to the dark side? These are important considerations, especially for companies that want to establish long-term relationships with their customers built on trust and delight.

Final Thoughts Link

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. We’ve seen that defaults are powerful because they provide a way for users to passively decide, thereby easing the difficulty and effort associated with decision-making. But we also know that, for a variety of reasons, providing a default option is not always appropriate. Sometimes, it’s better for users to make an explicit choice — especially when they are more likely to follow through with a decision and be more committed to taking action on it.

A primary lesson from this article is that merely reminding people what they stand to gain or lose as a result of making a particular choice can have a powerful impact on how they choose. And depending on the type of decision, how they choose can have significant implications for their lives. We’ve seen, too, that designing for explicit choice can manifest itself in different ways, depending on the subject matter and context of the experience.

It’s imperative to understand that the design matters. UX design professionals have a responsibility to understand how design itself influences — and sometimes even drives — user perception and behavior and, therefore, decision outcomes. To this end, the decisions we make as designers matter.

(cc, al, il)

Front page image credits: Innovative Techniques To Simplify Sign-Ups and Log-Ins13.

Footnotes Link

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Colleen Roller has many years of experience in digital design and UX research. One of her primary interests is in designing for decision making. She is a published writer on this topic, with articles appearing in Smashing Magazine, UXmatters, UX Magazine, the Digital Telepathy Blog, and the Loop11 Blog. She is forever fascinated with the workings of the human mind, and with the art and science of designing for it.

  1. 1

    I find this article very interesting as there is another choice the you don’t explicitly mention. I find that having been made aware of the costs of choices eg, spam or no discount, I often fins myself thinking that the purchase that I was planning is now more costly than I had anticipated in either case. This has often resulted in me deciding not to buy the end product at all as I have now lost the “good feeling” associated with purchasing the item.

    • 2

      Ivan Boothe

      May 26, 2015 12:00 am

      Great point Martin. Dark Patterns like these do have real costs associated with them.

    • 3

      This brings up another concern.. placement! You probably don’t want to display a registration popup during a checkout process, would you? How about prompting the user on the main visiting page. If they choose to not signup and still make a purchase, the customer has more than likely forgotten about the discount anyway (profit!)

  2. 4

    Colleen, the article was quiet insight full , will take more care more while designing the banner & opt-in next time. Thanks for every thing

  3. 5

    Ivan Boothe

    May 25, 2015 11:57 pm

    The retail examples are great examples of Dark Patterns, and one I hope ethical designers/UX folks wouldn’t engage in. They’re very useful to study as manipulative/deceptive patterns, of course.

    The prior examples, of reframing the choices, seem like legitimate and worthy discussions to have with clients or on a team. Just hope the latter examples don’t get used as something worth emulating.

    • 6

      I totally agree, Ivan. If you’re asking, “at what point does the design cross the line to the dark side?” you’ve already crossed the line :)

    • 7

      Pants Briskley

      June 2, 2015 5:03 pm

      I agree with this for most cases but I’m currently working on a design that falls into this gray area.

      The difference for my design is that it is a form overlay for a user who clicks a “Quote” button. I want to change the design from an overlay to a page as to remove the option to “close” the window. I think having the “x” in the top corner encourages users to leave more quickly than if they did not have that option.

      Although, I don’t know if this would fall into the area of “Dark Patterns” since the user already made a choice to click “Quote” but I’m interested to see if it would improve engagement.

  4. 8

    Adam Nemeth

    May 26, 2015 12:16 am

    While the article is great, I can’t seem to find a mention of why some ux professionals, knowing all these, deliberately design for defaults.

    The reason is, to simply put it, each decision a user has to make reduces their mental energy.

    It takes mental energy from their work and family and all the other things they have to make decisions about.

    It takes mental energy from their social behaviour: each bit of energy they can either use to be nice to someone, having self control, or make a decision.

    An article amongst the many on the topic is this:

    Good UX designers know that their app is never in the center of the user’s universe: it is there to help users achieve their goals, help their well-being.

    Therefore, most of the time, I try to let the user focus on the m

    • 9

      Adam Nemeth

      May 26, 2015 12:17 am

      ore important things in their life, whatever they decide (sic) those more important things to be.

  5. 10

    This is really nice article, in here I found more information and inspiration to make my own web to be better than before. I will try some of your advice here to my project, thank you very much for your sharing.

  6. 11

    I love how you apply people’s aversion to choice to designing forms.

    A comment on using these retail strategies: usually it just annoys me when I have to click buttons like “No, I want to pay full price.” It forces me to make a choice that makes me sound like a stubborn child. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather just leave the site.

    Thanks for the great article!

  7. 12

    Great article Colleen!
    I have a couple of concerns at the first example. You mentioned that the one key difference between the two designs is that the checkbox requires a default state. On Nielsen Norman Group there is an article about the radio buttons and regarding the selection of one or leave all unselected. Long story short it suggest that it’s best to have a radio button selected as default for several reasons: good usability, expedite tasks, the power of suggestion, user expectations…

  8. 13

    Andrej Galuf

    May 26, 2015 11:53 am

    Consider this: when faced with a situation as described in the Bauble Box, I won’t hunt down a close link – I’ll simply close the whole site (or browser if necessary) and never return. Sacrificing user’s experience for (slight) potential gains rarely generates a positive net result.

    • 14

      @Andrej Amen to that. They aggravate the mistake by showing the modal almost immediately. I usually arrived via search engine – I don’t really even know what site I’m on yet. I’m never going to give them an email

      • 15

        It is annoying. Technically why shouldn’t all customers get a 15% discount on their first purchase? They’re trying to use it as bait for the undecided. I suspect what they should do is show the modal when a user returns for a second visit, when their first visit was very short (a long first visit would show they were engaged – not so much time but pages viewed, etc.).

        Sure they may lose a conversion of a few undecideds, but they won’t annoy legitimate buyers and will tempt the actual undecideds.

    • 16

      That’s your opinion, and also mine. But our opinion has not to be the same as the majority of visitors of a determined site. So in this type of risky choices I think it’s primordial create statistics of the user decisions.

      Another example is that the phrase “I prefer to order my own refills” encourages me to choice this option, because my experience made me distrustful as a consumer, and I’m a very motivated person to do things by myself. But can I extrapolate this to all the visitors of a determined site? Only some statistics created through the user choices can answer this question.

  9. 17

    Jack Talbot

    May 26, 2015 3:06 pm

    An interesting article, thank you. I, like others who have commented, am usually put off a retailer entirely when they use this tactic encourage me to give them my email address.

    I would be interested in seeing studies relating to the use of these techniques in retail rather than in health care where the cost is much more obvious. Specifically I’d like to see the likelihood of someone who chooses the negative option in an active explicit question continuing on to make a purchase vs. someone not opting in for a more standard opt-in method for collecting an email address.

  10. 18

    “And customers who encountered the explicit choice also ended up filling more prescriptions than those in the opt-in design. It seems that preference for the program was actually enhanced once people made a commitment to joining.”

    I think one neglected conclusion from this behavior could be that customers who frequently fill prescriptions see more value in an auto-refill program than customers who seldom fill prescriptions. I find this to be a much more likely conclusion than people deciding to use more prescription medications.

  11. 19

    Interesting take on Modal popups. Personally I ignore any content in the box because I’m so frustrated that I was interrupted so rudely and completely. Also if there is no obvious close button I leave the site, normally I can find the same content elsewhere.

    I’m surprised at how much these are used, I would think most people would react similarly and they would not be very effective.

    Good article.

  12. 20

    Great article

  13. 21

    Yoganshi Shah

    June 1, 2015 10:47 pm

    Insightful article.
    I just wanted to add that defaults are powerful and hence should be used wisely.
    I am a UX designer at a Networking organization and time and again I have seen the defaults selected to be the opposite of what most customers would want. When these go unnoticed customers end up with a broken network, something they just cannot afford.
    I truly feel it is not the customer’s fault, it is purely a bad design.

  14. 22

    Real nice article, thanks.

  15. 23

    Great article. It’s so important to pay attention to these important details.

  16. 24

    Interesting observations. I like the checkbox comparison, but the modal on the ecommerce sites drives me nuts. Dot&Bo does this (forces you to sign up actually) and I actually got pissed at them for it and left the site. It took me 3 or 4 separate visits to their site before I finally broke down and entered my email. And I only did so because I was so passionate about the glimpse of product I saw.

    A lot of sites are doing these modals for feedback as well. Horrible design and a great way to piss of users. Making me look stupid by saying “No, I’ll pay full price” would push me away completely.

  17. 25

    Interesting article. I have thought a lot about the default option, mostly to guide the user to the “best” option (or most common). However, I hadn’t thought much about “enhanced” explicit choices, other than maybe adding guidance / instruction to help inform the user’s decisions. One of the problems with this though is the potential for too much text / clutter. I am currently designing a set of forms that is very complex. There are cases where the default option works, but there are several places where it is not appropriate, and where the decision might be complex. How do you give the user guidance to make a complex decision without adding too much clutter and text to the page?

  18. 26

    I have left websites that have a modal dialog that forces me to make a choice. I never even got to see the home page. Since I just happen to find them in a search, if they put up a wall then I move on. Why work hard to get yourself on the first page of a Google search only to turn potential customers away?
    If I can’t freely look around their site then I can easily find another one that will. It’s as simple as that.
    I hope their metrics show the number of people leaving their site after the first modal encounter.

  19. 27

    “…as opposed to the radio buttons, which do not require a default selection.” I thought radio buttons needed a default state. Is that why they are called radio buttons?

  20. 28

    Abu Dhabi Web Design

    September 21, 2015 3:43 am

    What an informative article. you have really good knowledge about designing. Thanks…
    i have also a Abu Dhabi Web Design pleas visit this and give your good opinion about this/.


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