A Design Perspective on Nudging

Although design thinking has become a buzzword in business and although human-centered design approaches are being explored in a range of public innovation labs concerned with developing and delivering citizen-centric policies and public services, nudging is rarely discussed for its design implications. What would such a discussion contribute and how may it help us focus on the potential benefits of a nudging approach? It would begin by questioning how nudging enhances or diminishes people’s abilities to take deliberate action or to make informed decisions.

Every outcome of design, whatever final form it takes (i.e., an object, a service, a structure, or procedure, etc.) encourages us to do certain things and discourages us from doing others. A button invites us to push, a handle to pull. A chair invites us to sit down in a waiting room just as it does in a lounge or bar. We tend to dress up, lower our voices and sit more upright in restaurants where tables are covered in elegant linens and show off fine wineglasses. Designing for people concerns issues of human experience. Generally, this experience is more positive when clear designs indicate what needs to be done when and why.

Lawmakers and policy makers, too, are engaged in designing for people. Their laws and policies give shape to the everyday life of citizens. Consequently, they also run into issues of human experience. And yet, the current debate around nudging reveals that human experience is not yet taken into full account in their designing. So far, nudging simply denotes a particular approach to address a design problem, though the controversies arise from disagreement over what that problem is. Depending on what one views the problem to be, nudging takes the form of “nonintrusive intervention” or becomes part of the nanny state that plays “psycho tricks” on its citizens in order to manipulate them ...

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