Meaningful Choices

An ex girlfriend of mine once told me a story of how her father used to take her family out to eat at a fancy restaurant. The menu of course offered numerous choices of dishes and drinks. When it was time for the kids to pick their beverages he would let them pick anything they wanted… as long as it was one of the two choices he gave them:

– Do you want milk or water?

By giving the kids an option and not forcing them he didn’t completely take away their rights to decide. But on the other hand he drastically limited their choices (The menu offered a wide range of soft drinks): Which option would I prefer over the other? Sometimes a binary choice is enough. It’s not dictatorship to give the people of a country two parties to vote for. But if you hand picked both of them… That’s at it’s best corruption. And asking for a Coke in that situation we would be kinda like starting a revolution.

But if you are a free spirit like me you would go bananas and demand anything BUT the given options. Hell, I would rather have a Dr Pepper than a glass of milk in that situation, even though I hate it intensely!

To a child these choices could make sense the first time, maybe even the second or third. But after a time even the most innocent of kids will inevitably start thinking there must be more to life than H2O and butterfat globules within a water-based fluid. What about that colorful sparkling sugar heavy liquid?

Now fancy her dad having his kids choosing between milk and, let’s say… phosphoric acid. That would have been more creative but also a bit belittling but most of all: even more limiting. At least if the kids knew what they where choosing between. Some would even call that a fake choice. You may laugh at this outrageous example and call it unrealistic, but as a matter of fact some poor interaction designs that I’ve come across are not that far off…

I would argue that this is either laziness or bad design. Either way it doesn’t spark creativity on the user side. At it’s best it sparks rebellion. At it’s worst boredom.

Limited choices (or ”token choices” as we call the equivalent Gamification Mechanic) is a known technique to let kids grow in their decision by making safe, relevant and meaningful choices.

Being guided by a grown up gives us just enough slack to explore the consequences of our choices in a secure environment and could even – in some situations- make us feel comforted. Too many choices could even confuse us and make us feel insecure.

Now imagine yourself doing a compliance test at work. Let’s say it is about corporate ethics. Let us also assume the test is a series of short videos with white collar characters acting out situations that could possibly occur in a working context similar to yours. The video clips you watch are quite amusing and thought worthy (although a bit obvious and exaggerated). In the end of each video there is an interactive part where you are supposed to choose the accurate way of acting in the visualised situation by picking a predefined answer.

I guess this could very well be a cultural thing, but in my opinion it is a bit belittling to let you choose from 2-4 disparate answers. For example: ”Should Joe let the platform vendor (who is interested in partnership) buy him a fancy trip to Hawaii for himself and his family?” A) Yes B) No C) Maybe

I don’t know about you, but these choices feel anything but valuable or meaningful. If anything it wakes suspicion to whether this is really about education and compliance or rather about monitoring and filtering out morons from the company. No one could miss out on what the company wants you to answer. Even a monkey could figure out the expected answer…

I understand why one would be tempted to choose to go for a simple radio button choice-kinda-answer, to get simple statistics for the HR to overview. But really… This is crap. It would be much more interesting and meaningful to have more diffused and not so obvious situations and to have group discussions and offer open answer options.

Another game mechanic to be considered in these kind of designs is ”branching choices” to create more intricate storylines to be explored and investigated. Much like in old fashioned Solo RPGs. But these should be designed in a more blurred – and not so black and white -manner. And they should focus around self assessment and reflection rather than streamlined tests that feels like big brother’s monitoring your level of compliance. The focus should be on me exploring the culture instead of management testing me.

And then we have the blue pill/red pill choices. Would you want to know what happens at any cost? Would you choose the red pill even if it is not among the proposed choices? What would happen if you made choices outside the box? Would there be punishment. Does it matter how I choose? Compliance tests ARE belittling and stupefying by nature! They are there because there are cultural problems in the first place.
But they are not the right way to fix that problem. They imply that you are not supposed to think outside the box or worse questioning the boxes. But you should. In my opinion you should try to disrupt and ”game” these tests and question them since they offend your intelligence by offering no meaningful choices.

What meaningful choices really add to a design is a sense of autonomy. The freedom to choose and the understanding that my choices really matters and makes a difference is immensely motivating and inspiring. And thrilling.

To discuss choices and dilemmas with others and having to make complex group decisions could be even more creative and developing.

Back to the kids and the dad in the restaurant. What do you think? Was he lazy not have the discussion on the drinks once again, when he knew they would make bad choices on their own or did he just help his kids by making good decisions for them?

Please let me know what you would do in a similar situation or when designing a multiple choice system.

”I choose you Pika-chu!” – Ash, Pokémon trainer


2 thoughts on “Meaningful Choices

  1. dorjem skriver:

    Great post Jan,
    I was talking with a financial services employee about intranet compliance questionnaires they have to complete every three months. Unless you get 100% you have to resit the test with the questions in a different order. To his mind the questions and content held no relevance to his position in the business, yet took up several hours ever three months.
    In an organisation of tens of thousands these few hours stacked up to a lot of time.
    For his section of only a few tens of staff it had a big impact on his team’s ability to be productive.
    The solution they came up with was that a different member of the team would do the questionnaire every three months. Screen shot every question and the correct answer. Then distribute the answers to the rest of the team on paper (no digital audit trail). Thus saving the entire team one person week every month or so.

    As you point out discussing answers and working as a team would likely ensure a better outcome for the organisation, that using a poorly thought out compliance questionnaire.

    Design requires an understanding of the audience and their drivers and constraints. For get this at the peril of good intentions.

    Liked by 1 person


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