Our days are filled with decisions. From when to get up to what to wear to how to respond to the latest email in our inboxes, we are making thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of decisions per day. Wouldn’t it be nice to take some of these decisions off of the table?

This is where “design nudges” come in. A “nudge” is a gentle push, and, when used to steer us in a beneficial direction, a nudge can encourage a desired behavior by making it the easiest, most attractive choice – one that is almost automatic. In design, a nudge can encourage people to use a prominent, beautiful staircase instead of searching out a tucked-away elevator, or it can make it easy for young students to navigate hallways with bright, easy-to-follow flooring patterns.

Nudges are rooted in the concept of behavioral economics, a field which studies why people make the choices we make. We are free to make conscious decisions at all times, and yet we are often guided by subtle environmental cues. Designers can take advantage of behavioral economics to create positive reinforcement within the built environment, potentially helping individuals and groups interact with spaces in a healthy, enjoyable, efficient way.  An effective design nudge has three rules: it should be easy to implement, lead to helpful benefits while minimizing harm, and must be freely chosen by a building user.

In the example of the attractive, prominent staircase, for example, the staircase is easy to implement and use, encourages healthy activity, and does not prevent an employee from choosing the elevator. Traveling a light-filled central staircase may be more straightforward, more enticing, and healthier than walking around a corner to find an enclosed elevator, but the elevator is still available, and the choice is still the building user’s to make. Another example might be recycling bins at each work station, and trash bins labeled as “landfill” at a central location. Recycling becomes the default option, and people have to think twice about using something that goes to the landfill, and work harder to make that choice.

Design nudges can influence an array of choices. Wellness nudges can encourage people to incorporate activity or make better food choices through attractive circulation or accessible healthy snacks. Economic nudges can promote wise financial choices by making automated savings a default choice, while sustainable nudges might encourage people to use less water or energy or make it easy to recycle. WELL certified buildings often incorporate design nudges, catering to specified standards such as “encourage intermittent bouts of physical activity and reduce sedentary behavior through accessible, safe, and visually appealing stairs, entryways, and corridors.”

We all alternate between active choice and automatic/subconscious decisions over the course of the day; otherwise, the sheer volume of decisions would be overwhelming. By reorganizing spaces to prioritize beneficial choices, designers can help streamline the automatic/subconscious decisions to benefit the user, reduce “decision fatigue,” and reduce the friction required to do the right thing. Done well, integrating design nudges is a non-invasive strategy to encourage positive behaviors without people feeling constricted or bossed around.

It’s important to note that a nudge can be misused, particularly in marketing and advertising in which profit, not the wellness of the end user, is the primary goal. A prime example is a fundraising email with an automatic opt-in for recurring donations requiring donors to read the fine print and un-check a box to avoid repeat charges. Such unwanted nudges are referred to as “sludges” – designs that add extra steps or clicks to rid us of something we’d prefer to avoid. Sometimes sludges are unintentional, such as poorly designed websites that require laborious navigation to retrieve information, leading site visitors to give up. A good design nudge would eliminate that problem.

In design at all scales – city planning, architecture, interiors, even products and services – designers can harness the power of the nudge in ways that will benefit the individual and our wider communities. When they are subtle, low-cost, designed for positive impacts, and easy to decline, design nudges make it easier to make good choices – and make these choices enjoyable.

About Chelsea

Senior Associate Chelsea Harrell, NCIDQ, LEED ID+C, IIDA, brings more than six years of interior design experience in LS3P’s Charlotte office.  With a passion for creative, professional, and environmentally responsible design solutions, she is involved in all phases of project execution. Chelsea works closely with the architecture team to develop and detail design concepts through renderings, 3-D models, and concept plans to communicate design intent to the client; her recent experience has focused on K-12 school design.

A graduate of Mississippi State University with a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design, Chelsea is actively involved in professional and community service. She is currently serving as IIDA Carolinas President Elect, highlighting the ongoing work of the organization and its importance in the industry. She continuously seeks to understanding diverse project stakeholders so that she can best serve the community them through excellence in design.