Low information experiences

“Low information rationality is a social theory that states that people are information consumers with limited benefits and time for processing and understanding information. … Simply put, it does not make sense for the average individual to develop in depth understandings of most issues.”

Low information rationality started as an idea to explain how people behave when voting in elections but we can borrow it to help understand, and design experiences for, our customers.

Low information customers are people who don’t have the full understanding of what they are buying. This is probably most of us for most of our purchases. Does anyone have full understanding of the differences between different brands of washing powder? I don’t and I don’t really want to either. Instead we use shortcuts to decide what to buy; we choose based on brand, price, ease of access and assumptions that they all probably work the same anyway. Low information customers don’t have enough understanding, or patience to shop around and are much more likely to satisfice so are very valuable for ecommerce sites.

(I should emphasise that I don’t think that the term “low information customer” is in any way derogatory but is a useful way to understand behaviour – perhaps it’s best read as “people who aren’t geeks about [this product].)

Types of low information experiences

There are probably a few different situations where customers are acting with low information rationality:

1) The can’t be bothered. Here the customer has more important things in their life than understanding the minutiae of what they are buying. They have decided that this purchase doesn’t merit a lot of their attention or time. They will probably have a set of simple requirements (heuristics) and will buy the first product that meets all their requirements. We don’t want to turn them into high information customers – give them enough information to feel in control but not so much that they start asking questions; questions mean Googling, price comparison sites, being introduced to competitors and ultimately abandoned baskets.

2) The trusting. If a customer has had a good experience with a company on a previous occasion they might opt-in to being a low information customer the next time they want something similar: “I thought about it a lot last time and the conclusions are probably still the same”. This is an ideal situation for a company and probably the main aim of a lot of retention features and marketing. Make it easy to repeat what they did the last time.

3) The I just need it now. Sometimes the customer’s current situation might impose a low information rational on their behaviour. A client I worked for was a travel company which sold a lot of hotels to people wanting to stay in them that night – often the situation was that a business meeting (or the pub afterwards) had over-run and they’d missed their train. For these people the limitations of time and location, compressed the information needed to book a hotel to: Is it available, Is it close? & is it affordable? The same customer when looking to book a hotel for a holiday would need much richer information to make a decision. The tricky part is recognising “I just need it now” customers but if you can, optimising their purchasing path can bring big benefits.

4) The low information luxury. As we have become more and more overwhelmed with choice and information not have to understand or make a decision can be luxury. There are many services that have turned this into a business. I like mubi.com because it limits my choice of films to watch – the hardest part of services like Netflix or Lovefilm is deciding what to watch – I’m happy to pay a bit to have fewer but better quality options. Mens clothes delivery services such as trunkclub.com or recipe box delivery like hellofresh.co.uk are similar – customers are giving up some control for the convenience of not having to understand as much or take as many decisions. The quality of curation is key to the experience.

Wrapping up 

As UX designers we want to think of our users highly. Natural biases can lead us to think this means that they are, or want to be well informed and make rational decisions. However most people for most products probably don’t care enough about the product to be well informed or simply don’t have time.

Introducing the term in The Reasoning Voter Samuel Popkin describes it as “gut reasoning”

“The term low information rationality – popularly known as ‘gut’ reasoning  – best describes the kind of practical thinking … in which  people actually engage. … People use shortcuts which incorporate much political information; they triangulate and validate their opinions with conversations with other people. … ”

Designing experiences to allow our users to make gut – or low information – decisions should provide a shorter and smoother journey to getting what they want. We should understand the shortcuts they make to and the touch points that allow them to “triangulate and validate” their choices and provide just enough information to help.

A lot of this probably comes down to the standard design cry for simplification but perhaps low information rationality gives us a start of framework to think about and structure that simplification.

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