100 Things You Should Know About People: #36 — People are Inherently Lazy

Photo Credit: Mr. Thomas

Ok, I’ll admit it, I am exaggerating a little bit when I say people are inherently lazy. What I really mean is that people will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done.

Is lazy another word for efficient? — Over eons of evolution humans have learned that they will survive longer and better if they conserve their energy. We’ve learned that we want to spend enough energy to have enough resources (food, water, sex, shelter), but beyond that we are wasting our energy if we spend too much time running around getting stuff.

How much is enough? — Of course questions about how much is enough, and do we have enough stuff yet, and how long should the stuff last (and on and on), still vex us, but putting the philosophical questions aside, for most activities most of the time humans work on a principle that is called “satisficing”.

Satisfy plus suffice = Satisfice — According to Wikipedia, Herbert Simon was the person who coined the term satisfice. It was originally used to describe a decision-making strategy whereby the person decides to pick the option that is adequate rather than optimal. The idea is that the cost of making a complete analysis of all the options is not only not worth it, but may be impossible. According to Simon we often don’t have the cognitive faculties to weigh all the options. So it makes more sense to make a decision based on “what will do” or what is “good enough” rather than trying to find the optimal or perfect solution.

Designing with satisficing in mind — So if people “satisfice” rather than “optimize”, what are the implications for those of us who design web sites, software, products, or even design surveys? Satisficing leads to some interesting design guidelines which I’ve listed below.

Design web sites for scanning, not reading — In his excellent book Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug applies the idea of satisficing to the behavior you can observe when someone comes to your web site. You are hoping the visitor will read the whole page, but we know that “What they actually do most of the time (if we’re lucky) is glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. There are usually large parts of the page that they don’t even look at.”

Assume that people will look for shortcuts — People will look for ways to do something faster and with less steps. This is especially true if it is a task they are doing over and over.

But if the shortcut is too hard to find — Then people will keep doing it the old way. This seems paradoxical, but it’s all about the amount of perceived work. If it seems like too much work to find a shortcut then people will stay with their old habits (they are even satisficing about satisficing).

Provide defaults — Defaults  reduce the amount of work. When you provide defaults on a web form, for example, the person’s name and address is already filled in, this means there is less that people have to do. The downside of this is that people often don’t notice defaults, and so may end up accepting a default without knowing. Here again, the answer lies in the amount of effort. If it takes a lot of work to change the result of accepting a “wrong” default, then think twice about using them.

Take care with the order and wording of your survey questions — Satisficing is particular difficult for surveys. People will get into a “groove” of answering all the questions the same way because it’s easier and they don’t have to think. If your survey is more than a few questions long you will have to mix it up, and provide different options and formats for the questions or you will find that a given individual has chosen twenty-five “6’s” in a row on your scale.

What are your experiences, either as a user or a designer, with the concept of satisficing?

Photo credit by Mr. Thomas

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