Responsible Design: Approaches for Reducing Uncertainty and Anxiety

As the discipline evolves, experience design practitioners are increasingly skilled at leveraging cognitive biases and manipulating emotions to drive desired user behaviors. We play on loss aversion, for example, to drive transactions or gain attention: “Only five items left!” “This flash 30% off sale ends tonight!” “Five other people are currently viewing this item!” “Breaking news!” Designers are more sophisticated in their tactics and techniques, making it easier to target the emotional level where decisions are made.

Yet the practices we use to encourage certain behaviors serve—intentionally or unintentionally—to increase uncertainty and anxiety among our users. Consider, for example, the experience of purchasing an eagerly anticipated set of tickets to a play or concert. There is, of course, the anxiety of focusing undivided attention toward the purchase process when the on-sale time inevitably falls during working hours. But beyond that, there is also the sweaty palms, heart-racing feeling of pressure that comes from messaging like, “You have four minutes to complete this transaction before we release your tickets,” often accompanied by a giant red countdown timer.

This technique may drive the desired business outcome of encouraging the customer to complete the transaction. But does this business win come at the expense of customer comfort? Are we using our powers for evil instead of good?

In the future, ethics of design will be hotly debated. We increasingly call out bad actors in the space for the use of so-called “dark patterns” that trick users into performing desired actions. But along with this attention to outright tricks, we must also consider the choices we make as designers that, while not truly deceptive, nonetheless harm the user at a time when people are experiencing an extraordinary degree of uncertainty and anxiety in their daily lives. Considering the sources of this uncertainty and anxiety yields a set of opportunities designers can leverage to achieve the same outcomes while still caring for users’ well-being.

The United States of Xanax

We are living in a time when people are experiencing a heightened level of uncertainty and anxiety even before they ever make first contact with our products or services.

Across the media landscape, anxiety appears again and again as a topic of conversation. It’s the subject of bestselling memoirs, including Scott Stossel’s “My Age of Anxiety,” and Daniel Smith’s “Monkey Mind.” It’s a theme across popular podcasts such as WNYC’s “The United States of Anxiety,” American Public Media’s “The Hilarious World of Depression,” and the millennial-targeted “Generation Anxiety.” It’s also fueling a cottage industry of mobile applications focused on mental well-being; meditation topics in the popular app Headspace include “Flustered,” “Feeling Overwhelmed,” and “Panicking.”

Prevalence numbers mirror what we’re seeing in popular culture. In a typical 12-month period, 18% of the U.S. adult population experiences some form of anxiety disorder, and nearly a quarter of those cases qualify as severe, according to The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Furthermore, the NIMH notes nearly 30% of the U.S. adult population will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime.

In a June 10, 2017, New York Times article titled “Prozac Nation is Now the United States of Xanax,” Alex Williams wrote: “anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological condition…a shared cultural experience that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media.”

This shared cultural experience is the baseline. The choices we make as designers compound that anxiety the minute a user starts interacting with our product or service.

How We Contribute to Uncertainty and Anxiety

There is an identifiable set of environmental conditions that manifest in our experience designs that contribute to user discomfort, including:

  • Too much complexity
  • Overwhelming choices
  • Lack of information
  • Endless information
  • Artificial urgency

Awareness and consideration of these environmental conditions serves as an effective lens as we assess our design approaches with an eye toward balancing business desires against our responsibility to our users. We can mitigate uncertainty and anxiety by applying thoughtful design, effectively reducing—or even eliminating—each of these environmental conditions.

Too much complexity

In their 2012 book “Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity,” authors Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn deliver a manifesto for boiling down our increasingly complex world into something less overwhelming. The two summarized the book’s salient points in a March 29, 2013, essay in The Wall Street Journal, citing increasingly complex credit card contracts as an example, which grew from about 400 words in 1980 to upward of 20,000 words by 2013.

And it’s not just credit card contracts, of course. A typical set of terms and conditions or a privacy policy for today’s websites and applications is a sea of legalese that is long, complex, and poorly formatted. What’s more, it’s typically delivered at a time when the user is ready to just get on with it—to start using the service. The terms of use or privacy policy are barriers to entry. Yet they are barriers that hold increasingly important information for our customers in an era of data loss and outright data theft.

In the banking industry, Capital One has been a leader in reducing complexity, both in how their credit card contracts and other key documents are presented, and in how the value proposition is conveyed to customers. That mindset is reflected in products like the Quicksilver card, which seeks to simplify credit card cash-back rewards programs. While many cash-back cards require users to keep up with rotating bonus categories and effectively prey on customer inaction, the Quicksilver card’s message is clear: 1.5% cash back on all purchases, all the time.

As Siegel and Etzkorn write, “complexity is the coward’s way out,” noting that simplifying is hard. Really hard. To them, achieving simplicity requires adherence to principles, including: empathizing with the user, distilling your offering to its barest essentials, and clarifying how the product is used.

An army of lawyers and business stakeholders may stand in the way of simplicity. But for your customer, complexity creates uncertainty and anxiety that may well drive them to a competitor who has cracked the code ahead of you.

Key takeaways: Distill and simplify business language; ensure instructions to the user are understandable and actionable.

Overwhelming choices

While retailers are tempted by the so-called “endless aisle” that online sales platforms offer to customers and the long-term sales opportunities they create, there is a downside. As Barry Schwartz writes in his 2005 book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”

Consider the vast array of options offered by Total Wine & More, the largest independent retailer of beer, wine, and spirits in the U.S. Walk into any one of the company’s more than 150 big-box retail stores and you’ll find about 8,000 bottles of wine on the shelf. The typical reaction of a first-time customer is twofold: “Wow, this is awesome.” And “Wow, this is overwhelming.”

In the store, Total Wine’s front-end team members do an outstanding job of guiding customers through the often-overwhelming shopping process. But in the endless aisle of an online platform, it’s difficult to replicate that high-touch customer service experience. Much of my work with Total Wine was focused on leveraging personalization solutions, such as product recommendations and other guided-selling experiences to help reduce the friction inherent in too much choice.

In the user experiences we create, we can manage the anxiety and uncertainty of overwhelming choice in two ways: curation and consultation.

Of the two, curation is the more obvious and, in some ways, easier answer. Reducing the number of choices based on what we know of the customer’s potential interests by building a digital customer profile over time can be helpful. But how do we help the first-time shopper about whom we have little to no prior knowledge? At minimum, we must curate choices through context.

In our wine scenario, it makes good sense for merchandisers to promote rosé wines in the summer months when we know they tend to be a popular choice. But how might we go beyond providing context of use for the product and get to the heart of the particular user’s need?

Outdoor clothing and equipment retailer The North Face made promising strides here when it debuted a jacket finder tool powered by IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence platform. The company recognized that its deep—and highly complex—line of soft- and hard-shell jackets can be overwhelming for customers, so the jacket finder tool provides a conversational interface that guides the customer toward a smaller set of options based on that person’s unique needs (for example, location of use, time of year, and/or purpose). Similarly, 1800flowers.com saw promising results from its IBM Watson-powered concierge, Gwyn.

While working with an AI platform may be prohibitive for many retailers given the cost or technical expertise required to develop such a platform—not to mention the expense of content creation to address myriad possible user intents—early examples like these hold promise for guided digital shopping experiences that reduce the uncertainty and anxiety of overwhelming choice.

Key takeaways: Curate and personalize choices; provide guided discovery experiences to help users reach decisions.

Endless information

In many ways, the companion to overwhelming choice is overwhelming amounts of information. Given both the sheer number of sources of information online, and the amount of content each source contains, here too we can become paralyzed by choice.

Take, for example, The New York Timesnyt.com homepage: on any given visit, there are dozens and dozens of headlines from which to choose with comparatively little visual distinction to indicate precedence or priority. With the prevailing design approach for most media websites presenting the same dizzying array of content choices, is it any wonder that users are turning to social media platforms as a much more curated—and, in effect, personalized—source for news and information? In fact, the Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that about one-quarter of all U.S. adults get news from two or more social media sites. Indeed, half of Facebook’s news users get their news from that social site alone.

For all of the news business’ digital sins, there are lessons to be learned in how legacy media, such as print newspapers and broadcast news, is presented. Both provide a sense of achievability, accomplishment, and completion in their packaging.

The core value proposition of New York City radio station 1010 WINS sums it up best: “You give us 22 minutes, we give you the world.” In contrast to its overwhelming online presence, the print edition of The New York Times offers “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Or put another way, all the news that fit in the pages that they had available for that edition.

To the user, the value proposition is this: Listen to the 22 minutes of news or read the day’s paper and you know what you need to know about the world. Achievability, completion, and accomplishment delivered.

News on the web, meanwhile, not only fails to curate effectively in terms of the number of headlines, but also in how the news web fits into our lives. Radio news airs at the top of the hour. Broadcast television news airs at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. The paper arrives on the doorstep each morning. The news web, meanwhile, is a fire hose of information—it just keeps coming.

For those in the business of providing news and information, such design choices run the risk of creating paralysis by overwhelming the user on two vectors, both volume of information and the rhythm (or lack thereof) of when to consume it.

Key takeaways: Curate and personalize choices; provide context for when and how the user might get value from your experience.

Lack of information

The flipside of endless information is, of course, too little information. Here, leaders in the banking sector are among those making strides in reducing customer uncertainty and anxiety by providing education, creating understanding, and clarifying options for consumers.

Consider, for example Capital One’s “Creditwise” credit tracking product. A free feature built into Capital One’s digital banking platforms, Creditwise helps customers both maintain awareness of their credit report on a rolling basis, but also understand how the variables that affect credit reports function and what one can do to improve their score. Consumers who do not understand how credit ratings work are more likely to be fearful of using credit instruments or to get into debt troubles as a result of using them. Both of these outcomes are bad for the bank. So, an educated customer who has the information they need to be smarter about how to use credit responsibly means good outcomes for both sides of the relationship.

In addition, banks recognize that financial literacy is key to building deeper relationships with customers and, ultimately, upselling them into more lucrative financial products. In order to take advantage of a home or auto loan instrument or a personal investment solution, a prospective customer must have the financial literacy necessary to know when and how to buy one of these products, and how to select the right one for them. Banks like Capital One have built financial literacy programs with exactly these goals in mind.

Key takeaways: Educating your users can build their confidence, as well as guide them into higher-value experiences.

Artificial urgency

Lastly, let’s come back to the example that we began with—the tendency to play on loss aversion to drive desired customer actions. Online retailers and media properties alike are increasingly sophisticated in their use of urgency messaging to achieve sales conversions or ratings.

It’s a necessary evil in some cases. When purchasing event tickets, for example, it seems unfair to allow a user to hold a carted but un-purchased set of tickets for an unduly long period of time, preventing someone else from purchasing them.

The question lies in the tactics we use to drive desired behaviors. If the countdown timer model (“You have 8:00 minutes to complete this transaction”) seems excessively anxiety-producing, how might we approach this interaction differently?

  • Could we present the countdown timer in a manner that introduces a progressive sense of urgency?
  • Could we do a better job of helping the user prepare for the transaction by telling them what to expect during checkout and what they should have at the ready (their credit card details, for example)?
  • Could we introduce a new tier of ticket platform membership that might allow a user to hold tickets for a longer period? For a certain kind of user, this could be a meaningful exchange of value.
  • Could we introduce a new cost-splitting solution that allows multiple customers to contribute to a ticket-purchasing experience?

These are tough questions, particularly in a world where we already know that there are easier answers that are much more likely to drive conversions. It’s unrealistic to think that we can step away from artificial urgency entirely.

So, what then, does the question become?

  • Perhaps the conversation should turn on whether the urgency message offers legitimate customer benefit as a result. For example, completing purchase within a specific time period (or at a certain dollar amount) to get free shipping.
  • Or can retailers take a cue from Kickstarter and other “backer” sites and offer lower prices for those who move on a product sooner?
  • Or could we use cart abandonment-related post-interaction emails differently? Perhaps offer a discount in that abandoned-cart email? Or, trigger the abandonment email at a point when stock of the product in question is legitimately limited?

Again, tough questions. Looking at them in the aggregate, it becomes clear that the easy solutions in use today turn on the design of the interface, whereas the points raised here call into question the design of the overall experience—where the business model intersects with the customer interaction.

Key takeaways: The sense of urgency you’re introducing must be fair to the user; an urgency proposition should offer meaningful exchange of additional value.

What Does This All Mean?

When we consult a physician, we take comfort in knowing that they signed on to a professional code of ethics. But as experience designers, we have no such code of ethics (yet). If there were such a code, might it include the line often attributed to the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm”?

If our ethical code did prescribe that our design first and foremost must do no harm to the user, how might we achieve our business objectives (thus earning our paychecks) while still ensuring the welfare of our customer? Applying the lenses described here to prevent our work from creating unnecessary uncertainty or anxiety can do both.

Colenso, R. (2018). Responsible Design: Approaches for Reducing Uncertainty and Anxiety. User Experience Magazine, 18(3).
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