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Running on Default - Harmless or Risky?

Nyla Smith | Tuesday, August 16, 2016

It’s a wonderful thing to have choices. The reality, however, is that we often rely on the default instead of making conscious decisions to the contrary. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but this tendency does affect all areas of our lives, including our business marketing.

Running on default

In every area of life, most of us rely on default settings, and generally, don’t even realize we’re doing it. A recent Digg article pointed out some very telling examples.

Opt-in vs. opt-out. Did you know that 40 percent of U.S. citizens are registered as organ donors…compared to some other countries, where that number is closer to 99%? It’s not that Spaniards or Austrians are more altruistic. The difference is in the defaults. The U.S. requires us to actively opt in to be an organ donor. Many other countries do the opposite, with an opt-out system instead. As a result, more lives are saved when people have to consiously opt out of the system instead of opting in to it.

The humdrum of daily life. Organ donation is a pretty big deal, but the consequences of default settings infiltrate even the mundane decisions of our day-to-day decisions. I was thinking about this recently as I was transferring CDs to digital to cut down on my clutter. When I inserted a CD into my computer, I was presented with a wide range of options for importing. So there I was with a choice. I could either a) assume that the default settings that were showing were the best options to use, or b) I could select from the plethora of options and customize the import process. Because I didn’t have time or motivation to research the pros and cons of every option, I blindly trusted in the default and simply left them as they were. How many of us do the same thing, particularly when it comes to technology and software? We are certain that the super-smart computer developers know what’s best for us, but that's actually impossible for them to know. By the way, how did Internet Explorer become the most prominent internet browser? Because it was installed by default by Microsoft on all of the computers they sold, and most computer users didn’t even know they could get a faster, more secure browser by simply downloading a different one for free.

Financial decisions. Probably the biggest long-term personal impact of defaults has to do with our finances. I remember when I got my first job and looked at my first paycheck. Hold the phone, I thought, this isn’t what my salary is supposed to be. What’s up with this FICA nonsense and tax withholdings? Yet, if it were up to me, I might spend my whole paycheck before I got around to contributing to retirement or paying taxes… and the government realized this a long time ago. So the default in our country is that the government takes their cut first. This is also the premise behind auto-paying bills or automatic transfers. If we don’t actively do it, we don’t consciously have to think about it, and we’re able to get on with the rest of life. Even though financial decisions are really important, many of us neglect them, so defaults in this case can make a big difference in our financial health.

The Psychology of Running on Default

It’s not rocket science, it’s a common sense theory — we choose the path of least resistance. In the daily ongoing battle between actively doing vs passively accepting, we can only devote so much of our energy to actively doing something other than the default.

So even when we are making a conscious choice (“What should I have for a snack?”), we base our decision on what’s easiest. This is why when people are trying to become healthier, nutritionists say changing eating habits is not a matter of willpower so much as convenience. They advise to simply stock up on healthier food items and get rid of the unhealthy ones in your proximity. If you’re hungry and you don’t have any potato chips in the house, but you do have an apple, which one are you going to eat?

What does all this have to do with marketing and design?

It impacts the way you present information and the choices that you give people. This manifests in two ways: you can change defaults to make your own brand stand out and reset defaults to improve your users’ experiences. Here are a few examples.

Your Brand: Change the Defaults

  • Do you have an iPhone? Does everybody know that because it says so at the end of all of your email messages? If you use your mobile device to respond to business emails, is this an opportunity to change the default “Sent from my iPhone” to something that reflects positively on your brand (instead of Apple’s)?
  • Do you have a cookie-cutter website? Did you install a WordPress theme and not change anything except your logo, relying on the defaults for everything else? Is there anything about your cookie-cutter website that makes it stand out from other cookie-cutter websites?

Your Website: Reset your Defaults

Speaking of websites, do you have any web forms on your site? Web forms are possibly one of the most overlooked aspects when it comes to changing defaults… which is a shame, because forms are where leads come from and how users interact with your site! By changing the defaults of your web forms, you can improve user experience and increase conversions.

  • A common scenario is to have a checkbox before the submit button asking if users want to to sign up for your mailing list. You, the website owner, have a choice — do you have the box checked or unchecked by default? If the default is that the box is already checked, you will likely get more people signing up. If the default is that the box is unchecked and people have to consciously make the decision to check it, you will usually have less signups.
  • If most of your users are in a single geographic area, perhaps you preselect the country or state, saving the user time from having to scroll through a long dropdown list.
  • Decrease user frustration by making sure your forms are mobile-friendly – which they usually aren’t by default. For example, if you are asking for a zip code, change the default keyboard that appears when the field is tapped to the numeric keyboard instead of making the user switch manually. And when a user is inputtting a username or password, you don’t want it to automatically capitalize the first letter — change that default behavior, and you’ll have happier users!

Can defaults be dangerous?

In the wrong hands, default settings can be irresponsible. This is because the people who set the defaults often operate on the assumptions that people are either 1) lazy, 2) inattentive, or 3) too busy to care, and therefore won’t change the defaults. Even if this is true, I ask you as a business owner to instead set your defaults 1) based on what is best for the majority of your users, and 2) not as a ploy to take advantage of someone who is pressed for time or not paying attention.

Default settings, as we see in the opt-out policy for organ donation, can absolutely contribute to the greater good. Knowing this, and understanding that people are placing a level of trust in you when they interact with you, do your best to set your own defaults for the betterment of user experience as a whole.

On a business level, take the opportunity to change the defaults where it makes sense to enhance your brand and make yourself stand out from other businesses who don’t bother to make the effort. On a personal level, become more aware of the default settings in your life. Maybe it’s time some of them are shaken up!

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, and Front-End Web Developer with over 11 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support to small- and medium-sized businesses that need creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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