The Six Principles of Good Choice Architecture

“If anything you do influences the way people choose, then you are a choice architect”.

These are the words of Richard Thaler, a behavioural economist who is one of the authors of Nudge, a book about choice architecture and the role it can play in improving how people make choices.

Choice architecture applies to all aspects of life but combines particularly well with marketing. Websites enjoy a unique position within marketing and form the centrepiece for many brands’ communication efforts.

By applying the core principles of choice architecture you can improve the effectiveness of your website in simple but powerful ways.

There are six core principles of choice architecture that I outline below. Each one is accompanied by some real life examples, some from the web and some from other walks of life, to give you a feel for each principle.

Understanding these principles can make you look at communication in a new way and help you to improve overall user experience online; something that Google is increasingly keen on!


1. Incentives

The first principle of effective choice architecture is concerned with answering the question, “what’s in it for me?”

When someone is presented with a choice they will need some form of incentive to encourage them to make the correct / desired choice.

This is easier to explain by using some examples.

Selling your car

Before the days of the internet, selling your car used to come down to two options: sell it privately or part-exchange.

Both options were accompanied with a heavy cost in terms of hassle, so not much incentive there.

We Buy Any Car has used the internet to make the incentive to sell your car to them much more enticing.

We Buy Any Car

The We Buy Any Car website does a fantastic job of giving the customer an incentive to try their service.

The personal cost of finding out how much they will pay for your car is very low – there is little hassle involved in entering your registration number.

The website also does a good job of communicating the advantage of selling with them; 80% of customers say they get a better deal than part exchange.

This is clearly a good example of where the incentive of removing hassle has resulted in a behaviour change for people selling their car.

Washing your hands

Rory Sutherland (of Ogilvy Change) has a novel way of changing behaviour with a simple nudge. The video below describes how using a simple system can show people that making a small change at low cost can come together to make a big impact.

The incentive: save the environment, the cost: change your behaviour in a very small way.


2. Mappings

Effective mapping is all about making it easy for your customer to understand what they are going to experience when they purchase your product or service.

Mapping is a particularly important principle for websites because a website does not enjoy the luxury of being able to hold a face-to-face conversation with a customer. Instead, the experience of purchasing your product or service needs to be communicated through content.

Below are examples of where I think two websites could make improvements in this area.


When buying a new camera, one of the most prominent features advertised is the number of megapixels the camera uses.

Here is a screenshot of how the Jessops website sells cameras:


Notice the navigation on the left, which allows the customer to filter search results by the number of megapixels the camera has.

The problem is that megapixels as a measurement is a pretty useless number; not many customers truly understand what it means when purchasing and using a camera.

Customers don’t really need to know how many megapixels they get, instead they need to know what size photos they can print.

Jessops could improve the choice architecture on their website by allowing customers to filter results by photo print size instead of megapixels, as shown in the table below:


Mobile data contracts

Another confusing choice that consumers face is how much mobile data they will need with a new phone contract.


The screenshot above is taken from the website displaying three mobile phone options including data.

Notice how the data is sold in gigabyte (GB) units.

All very well except what on earth is a GB?

All a consumer wants to do is check their emails, login to Facebook, send a tweet, check the news and find a restaurant.

How many GBs would that require?

I work with websites every day and I have never taken the time to truly understand how much data I use on a daily basis.

Perhaps a better way to sell mobile data could be to sell it in units of time; 5 hours of data, 10 hours of data and so on.

Time is something everybody understands and as a result will be able to ‘map’ what they are purchasing to the experience they will have after making the purchase.

This is a simple change that phone providers could make to their websites that would remove an unnecessary layer of confusion from the customer journey.


3. Defaults

The simple truth that makes the defaults principle work is that people take the action that requires the least amount of effort.

Based on this understanding, a good piece of choice architecture will set the correct default options from the start in order to guide the consumer in the correct direction with the least amount of action.

Take note of this principle when building a form on your website, or putting together a product offering that requires making lots of decisions in terms of specific features.

Saving for retirement

The UK government recently made use of the defaults principle when coming up with a new approach to pension choices.

Before 2012, pensions were something that workers were required to opt-into. The default position was that workers were not enrolled into a pension scheme unless they specifically chose to do so.

Following the introduction of auto-enrolment, where employers are required to automatically opt staff into a pension scheme, being a member of a pension scheme is now the default choice.

The result is that a lot more workers will be opted-into a pension scheme and will be saving for retirement.

Software updates

In 2013 Apple launched iOS7 for its mobile phones and tablets.

With it came automatic app updates; the default position was that apps would now automatically update themselves unless the user actively asked them not to.

The result is that fewer Apple device users are using apps that are out of date and at risk of being hacked, attacked by malicious software, or failing.

A simple change that shows how a default position can be used for the good of your customers.

By setting the correct defaults you can prompt your customers to make the correct choices and ensure that they end up with the experience that they are looking for, without having to jump through hoops to get it.


4. Give Feedback

The best way to improve your performance at something is to receive feedback. This is what the feedback principle is all about.

When you throw a ball at a target and miss you get immediate feedback (via your eyes) that can help you to improve your next throw.

Imagine if you could not see the result of your throw. Chances are you would never improve because the lack of feedback would hinder your ability to learn and make adjustments.

A good piece of choice architecture should work in exactly the same way.

A website that does not provide feedback when an action is taken can lead to a negative user experience; I know a panda who is very keen on user experience by the way…

Form validation

An example of good feedback is seen when using Google’s insurance comparison tool.


Whenever you reach a new field in the form and then move on without completing it, the page immediately tells you that you have missed a required field (as shown above).

This is in contrast to websites that wait for you to complete the entire page before telling you that something is wrong (or even worse, not telling you at all).

Google does a good job of providing immediate feedback allowing you to move through the fields quickly, completing them correctly straight away. No wasted time and no frustration.

E.on energy comparison

E.on has come up with a clever way to use the feedback principle to help its customers to change how they use energy.

The service allows customers to compare their energy use with similar customers who live nearby, using the company website.

Customers can tell if they are using too much energy and find out ways to reduce their energy costs based on the information they receive.

The feedback this piece of content marketing provides is that it allows customers to make choices based on information they had previously not had access to.


5. Expect Error

All websites should expect their users to make mistakes. Whether it is clicking on the wrong link, using an out of date web browser, or misunderstanding a complicated idea.

Working on solutions for websites, I often come across situations where we must change a feature to cater for all types of mistake.

How customers use the website

A recent example was seen when implementing a new method of conversion tracking on an ecommerce website. The method required the customer to return to the client’s website from PayPal (where the transaction was completed) and this process would register as a sale.

Although the path back to the website from PayPal was the obvious route, the problem was that there was a chance some users might not follow the conventional path to the website and, as such, a more robust system had to be developed in order to avoid an error.

The error in this example would have been rare, but the ‘expecting error’ principle meant that we looked at all angles and created a solution that avoided the potential for the customer to get lost between PayPal and the website.

Forgotten attachment

A clever way email clients expect error is when you forget to add an attachment to your email:

Email reminder

Microsoft Outlook (pictured above) and Gmail both have a feature which looks for words like ‘attached’ or ‘attachment’ within emails.

If the word is found, the email client will then check to see if a file has been attached to the email. If not, a reminder pops up to ask if you intended to add an attachment before you send it.

This simple piece of choice architecture has saved more than a few blushes; it is one my personal favourite features of Gmail and Outlook.


6. Structure Complex Ideas

When faced with a small number of choices, consumers are pretty good at reviewing each option and then making a choice based on their own preferences.

However, the comparison process is not as easy when there are lots of complex options.

Amos Tversky, a cognitive psychologist, described the process of dealing with a complex set of choices as ‘elimination by aspects’.

The process Tversky described involves a person deciding on the most important features of the available options and then setting a minimum requirement to make a decision.

The example used in Nudge is when you are searching for a new flat to rent. Because it would not be realistic to go and view all of the flats in the city, you are forced to make some cut-off points:

  • Flat is no more than 30 minutes from work
  • Flat has no fewer than two double bedrooms
  • Flat costs no more than £X per month

Although this approach greatly reduces the number of flats you must consider, it can prove costly if the perfect flat to rent happens to be 31 minutes away from work.

The principle of structuring complex ideas is all about reducing the opportunity to miss out on the correct choice because of complexity.

Finding a new car

Finding a new car to buy can be a pretty complex process. does a good job of offering its customers choices based on real-life scenarios, in order to filter down to suitable cars: Smart Search

The smart search feature lets the customer rank different features in order of importance to make the process of purchasing a car less reliant on budget only.

Finding a film to watch

One of the appeals of Netflix is that it includes a lot of films. So many that finding one to watch can be a bit of a nightmare.

To make this complex process simple, Netflix has made use of ‘collaborative filtering’; a process where your previous behaviour matches up with that of similar people, which in turn allows the service to recommend what to watch next.

Netflix Recommendations

Please ignore the fact that I have been watching Jonathan Creek, but above is a screenshot from my Netflix account.

Netflix uses a feature that monitors what I have watched and rated highly, and then recommends new films and programmes to watch based on what it knows about me.

Ok, so it doesn’t always get it right, I can’t say that Stargate SG-1 is my cup of tea, but Utopia is right up my street, so well done Netflix!



There you have it, the six principles of good choice architecture.

If you think about these principles when working on your website you can make the user experience a thing of beauty.

For me, choice architecture boils down to one key element: simplicity. If your website and associated services are easy to use and easy to understand, then you should have no issues.

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