Friday, November 13, 2015

Marking a Trail Across the Digital Wilderness

Shlomo Benartzi with Jonah Lehrer, The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior

If you’ve ever felt adrift in today’s technological world, helpless amid infinite options, unable to make meaningful decisions in buying or reading or even just watching five hundred TV channels, you’re not alone. UCLA behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi has reliable scientific evidence demonstrating what perceptive people already know, that today’s online environment creates a panicked, lost-in-the-woods feeling in most people. Fortunately, wise engineering can reverse this paralyzing trend.

From its earliest origins, pro-Web enthusiasm has gushed over the Internet’s capacity to provide users more information, more choices, and more autonomy. It’s been the classic capitalist assertion, that simply having more options available flushes bad choices away and consolidates good choices. But anyone who’s shopped for consumer electronics online recently knows that simply having more choices isn’t good enough. Without guidance, increased options generate snap judgments, haste, and paralysis.

Benartzi himself has participated in new research demonstrating how screen users handle information overload. His conclusion, based on his own research and the published discoveries of his peers: human attention isn’t adapted for broad, undifferentiated knowledge dumps. (Anyone who’s read government reports recently knows this.) Wise information merchants going forward will need to make the digital screen conform to what Benartzi calls “the mental screen”—our attention capacity.

“It's not that screens are making us more superficial,” Benartzi writes. “Rather, the world of screens merely makes it easier for us to act on those superficial first impressions.” We gravitate toward first options, self-indulgence, and whatever’s placed in the center of the screen. When people order food digitally, Benartzi says (with generous scholarly evidence), we’re more likely to pick unhealthy options. When we get doused with a firehose of buying options, we pick familiar images, not good choices.

Shlomo Benartzi
Too often, Benartzi and his sources claim, humans rely upon facile heuristics to comprehend digital resources. (Anyone who’s read Daniel Kahneman already knows this, but Benartzi proves how this applies specifically to screens.) We think better when we enjoy instant feedback… until we become overwhelmed. We think in purely present-tense terms, unless prompted. Simple design tweaks can transform not only our experiences, but our thinking about those experiences.

Similar tweaks have the potential for abuse. Benartzi describes circumstances where unscrupulous operators have manipulated screen options to maximize unfair trades, and places where even worse abuse is possible. Some online vendors, for instance, have gotten caught spotlighting more expensive options on mobile devices than on computers, because apparently the smaller the screen, the smaller our attention to detail. Crooked vendors manipulate our impatience and forgetfulness for venal ends.

This tendency has remarkable ramifications. As America enters an election season, unprecedented numbers of voters will garner political opinions from articles read online. This seems innocent, except we don’t read well off screens. Benartzi writes: “screens allow us to read more than ever before, but they also encourage us to read poorly, and to remember less of what we read.” Screens encourage casual, unengaged, incomplete reading… and thinking.

Every fault Benartzi describes, though, has easy fixes. Some involve top-end design improvements. Counterintuitive as it seems, evidence demonstrates that we read better when confronted with clunky, inelegant typefaces. When confronted by endless buying choices (Amazon sells over 100,000 breakfast cereal varieties), categories help us prevent getting overwhelmed and numb. The disastrous rollout could’ve been salvaged with March Madness-style brackets.

Benartzi also suggests end-user improvements, though these are less numerous. In giving feedback, for instance, actually sign your name; this prevents the Disinhibition Effect. Seek carefully for resources which encourage without criticizing and which have meaningful action plans. Allocate attention carefully: it’s impossible to actually read those bottomless “terms and conditions” we all click on, but when somebody asks you a real question, read the whole thing before answering.

The answers aren’t always easy, and seldom one-size-fits-all. The problem with digital reading, for instance, has different solutions for different audiences. Younger readers will probably finish reading this review better on Amazon’s brightly colored, graphics-heavy layout, while my blog’s muted colors and text-driven format will attract older readers. Other problems have similarly nuanced solutions. My final takeaway from Benartzi’s explanation: effective design is more art than science.

Late in this book, Benartzi states what could arguably be his thesis: “We don't want endless possibility. What we really crave is effective curation.” The Internet has become a vast repository of information, much of it exciting, some terrifying; and new information gets created or repackaged daily. Top-level providers who follow Benartzi’s guidelines will more likely earn users’ attention, today’s real economic prize.

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