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Who’s in control? Designing the future with humans in mind

By EY

It’s 8:55 a.m. on Monday morning, and you’re running late for work. You get on the elevator, punch the close button a few times, and slowly the doors glide together as you catch your breath. But here’s the truth: The door-close button doesn’t do anything. At least nothing pertaining to doors.

What it does do is give you the sense that you have a direct impact on the rate they shut, that you’re controlling the situation. The world is full of these so-called “placebo buttons.” In the US, elevators have been required by law to stay open at least three full seconds ever since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, and many other countries, including Britain, have adopted this regulation. Add to that fun facts like: Anywhere from 20%–40% of crosswalk buttons across the UK are fake, with green pedestrian lights triggered automatically based on how many vehicles are on the road. And you can raise the temperature all you want, but since 72% of employers admit to installing fake thermostats in the office, bring another jacket because it’s staying 17°C.

How to design for humans

Manufacturers don’t build these fake switches by mistake. Placebo buttons fall under what psychologists term the “illusion of control.” And it’s a critical part of behavioral design. 

Behavioral design is informed by how the human psyche works, how we form habits and biases. And by designing with these in mind, you increase consumer trust in products and experiences. 

Why we crave control

“New technologies can also bring new risks—in this case, the prospect of consumer backlash and resistance.” – Amy Brachio, EY Global and EY Americas Advisory Risk Leader

The world is filled with useless buttons because humans have an innate desire to influence our surroundings. Our brains are built for it. When we make choices that trigger actions, a reward signal goes off in our brain, like eating a piece of chocolate. This spurt of happiness reinforces the behavior, so we’re inclined to keep making decisions to affect our environment. This is true even if those choices don’t actually do anything. Repeatedly poking the door-close button alleviates anxiety or the notion we’re powerless against the elevator’s programming. This is designing with human bias in mind. 

Of course, design and behavior have always been linked, but new technologies are making the connection more critical now than ever. Now that we have cars driving themselves, algorithms deciding our dating pool, and robots taking up residence in the uncanny valley, it’s a key focus for business leaders and not just those in the creative department. 

What we should do about it

“Companies have to understand the psychological underpinnings of consumer anxieties and use design to address them.”

From the boardroom down, companies have to understand the psychological underpinnings of consumer anxieties and use design to address them from the ground up. 

Failure to understand and account for these anxieties could mean failure for new initiatives. For example, autonomous vehicles will have a big hurdle to jump, according to a 2018 study by the American Automobile Association, which found most consumers don’t trust self-driving vehicles.  

EYQ is the EY global think-tank that tackles “what’s after what’s next?” Their research, from which this article is based, lays out key questions C-suite execs should consider when appraising their own consumer offerings, including: 

  • What decisions is AI making on behalf of consumers?
  • Where are consumers the most anxious about losing control, and where do they welcome it? 
  • How should we incorporate consent to give consumers a greater sense of control over their data and how it’s used? 
  • Can we demonstrate what consumers gain in exchange for relinquishing control, and do we understand how they feel about the trade-offs? 

Many people feel like they’re losing control: of their data, of their feeds, and of the world as they know it. So, if you want products and services that capture—and are worthy of—your customers’ trust, you must design for human psychology. 

Read more in the EY Megatrends report on behavioral design.

This article was adapted from content authored by EY teams, specifically the EY Megatrends report and accompanying online article. This adaptation was produced by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff. Sources are provided for informational and reference purposes only. They are not an endorsement of the EY organization or EY products. © 2019 EYGM Limited. All rights reserved.