Human-Centric Thinking: Why Behavioral Science is Not an Alternative

The fundamental premise of The Design of Everyday Things, first published in 1988, is that physical objects have “affordances.” Wheels are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into. If a door has a horizontal metal bar, we know to push.

Human failures, therefore, are usually design failures. Even though the shutdown button is next to the volume-up button on my MacBook Pro, I’ve never accidentally turned my laptop off. The shutdown button only works when I hold it down for a few seconds. As author Don Norman wrote, “The designer must assume that all possible errors will occur and design so as to minimize the chance of error in the first place.”

The wisdom of The Design of Everyday Things is no longer controversial. Of the 500 million iPhones sold since 2007, none came with an instruction manual, a testament to Apple’s unwavering dedication to the idea that the design of a product should afford how users will use it—an iPhone perfectly fits the palm of a hand for a reason. Phrases such as “User Experience,” “Design Thinking,” and “Human-Centric Design” have not just entered the business lexicon. They’ve become cringe worthy clichés, ripe for satire on HBO’s hit sitcom “Silicon Valley.”

However, if design principles have sprinted into business culture, behavioral science insights have crawled. Although it’s true that governments are beginning to incorporate behavioral science, popular psychology books consistently fill bestseller lists, and people like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and Dan Ariely have become minor celebrities, we’re still living in a world where many products and services ignore the basic principles of human cognition, much like pre-Apple mobile phones—flip phones—ignored the basic principles of good design. Even when we think about how we think, we use outdated notions of human judgment and jargon such as “Human-Centric Thinking” to talk about how real humans behave in real environments.


Unfortunately the standard economic model, in which people are rational optimizers with infinite willpower and stable preferences, is still the default. When we design things like restaurant menus or the interface for health care exchanges, we assume users will objectively calculate each variable. As a result, we tend to treat behavioral science as an alternative and nudges and choice architecture interventions as deviations. In this view, a cognitive bias is an error or lapse in judgment, when in fact it more likely reflects a problem with the environment and our assumptions about human nature.

If we’re willing to accept what decades of psychological research reveal about how we actually decide, we’ll better appreciate the fact that Human-Centric Thinking is not a deviation but the norm. Just as smart designers have accounted for accidentally deleted word documents by incorporating an undo option instead of blaming the user, smart choice architects should account for our natural cognitive preferences, such as our hatred of uncertainty, by catering to them instead of labeling them as biased or irrational. Uber has made a fortune not by reinventing the concept of a taxi but eliminating the psychological pain associated with not knowing if a cab is available or when it will arrive.

Another reason relates to visibility. According to Norman, a good design should visibly convey the correct message. If a door is meant to be pushed, the designer must provide signals that show users where to push. It’s much harder to incorporate smart psychological improvements, such as mirrors in an elevator to reduce boredom and therefore make the ride seem faster, because the fast and automatic mind (what Kahneman refers to as “System 1”) does a pitiful job of explaining itself. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to consciously detect how mirrors change the perceived duration of an elevator ride, which is why we must not only study the nuances of human cognition but also test them.

Take the experience of waiting, for example. When I renewed my license last week at the DMV in Manhattan, I was delighted to watch a big screen scroll through the numbers ahead of me. It was reassuring to know my place in the line and the fact that I was actually moving through it. Those with a traditional background in business would fix a problem like long lines by focusing on reducing the wait time instead of improving the experience of waiting—waiting 30 minutes isn’t that bad when you know that you’re going to wait for 30 minutes, even in the soul-crushing halls of a DMV. Certainty might not be visible, but it is comfortable.

The good news is waiting is one corner of behavioral science that some businesses and organizations have mastered. Writing for The Times, Alex Stone reports that when the Houston airport reduced average wait time at the baggage claim to eight minutes (which was “well within industry benchmarks”) complaints persisted. So airport executives decided to move the arrival gates further away from baggage claim and reroute bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers had to walk six times longer, and complaints virtually disappeared.

If one area has done an especially dreadful job of using psychology to change behavior, dieting would be a good candidate. Nearly 80 percent of diet resolutions end in failure because they rely on human willpower, a notoriously feeble device. Dieting is of course so difficult because dieters have to resist temptation throughout the day—whereas waiting at baggage claim happens once and is mostly automatic—yet there are still much better commitment methods.

Consider Ramadan. It is incredibly effective not only because it relies on a simple rule—don’t eat or drink during the day—but also because it’s social. Millions of Muslims fast because the social norm polices itself; the crowd supports the individual. Why not make dieting social?

But perhaps the most psychologically unfriendly aspects of modern life are environments with too much information. Last week, when I traveled from New York City to Minneapolis, a TSA officer listed items I needed to remove before entering the full-body scanner. I diligently padded my pants, knowing that I’d probably miss a flattened receipt in my back pocket. On the return trip, a TSA officer in Minneapolis simply asked everyone to pretend that they were about to put their clothes in the wash. It was a great heuristic because it was simple and relatable; it elicited an image that was easy to mimic. Why not replace complex directions with pithy rules-of-thumb?

When you think about the baggage claim at Houston’s airport, it’s worth wondering if the mind affords to be nudged just as physical objects afford to be pushed or pulled. In this view, frustration at the baggage claim may not be a sign of impatience and vice but poor choice architecture. The problem with neoclassical economics is therefore not only conceptual. It has caused us to push and pull the mind in the wrong directions. Once we design around human cognition instead of listing its foibles, we can begin to live in a world that’s more mindful of the mind.

Sam McNerney