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Design Creates The Decisions You Want

by David Papa, Design Goat Contributer

90% of purchasing decisions are made subconsciously. - Martin Lindstrom, Buyology

What made you sign up to the last email list you signed up for? 

What made you willing to put your credit card into an online purchase form for the most recent item you bought online? 

What made you believe one company's message over another's? 

As Lindstrom points out in his interesting book, Buyology, the part of us motivating our purchasing decisions is actually operating below our conscious awareness. It is the deep recesses of our brains, the part that is always on, working away, whether we are aware of it or not, that decides if we click "buy": our subconscious.

Most purchasing decisions are made within 2.5 seconds of encountering an item to purchase, according to Lindstrom. The sheer speed of that calculation is clearly outside our level of awareness. It has to be our subconscious. 

Any of us who have deliberated back and forth about whether we should buy something or not has had the experience of a lengthy decision time. But that's just the experience we are consciously aware of. Underneath that experience our subconscious has already decided in less than 3 seconds whether we are going to buy something. Then, 9 times out of 10, we do exactly what our subconscious decides.

Humans have free will, it's just that most of it happens with us having to think about it.

So how is our subconscious making decisions? This is more of a mystery than the buying behaviors we can observe. Some think our subconscious is constantly taking in sensory data, comparing it to virtually infinite stores of our memories, and calculating the best route to take like a super computer. Some believe our subconscious is connected to our instinct, and our internal emotional network, and is simply translating how we actually feel into an action that our rational brain can get behind. The latter explanation is what I personally believe, but that doesn't matter. 

What matters is how we can talk to the subconscious so that the subconscious of our customers makes favorable decisions for our business. 

Marketers have experimented with this for years, things like subliminal messages, which I believe are completely manipulative. 

So let's be 100% clear, I am not advocating any manipulation whatsoever. I am not suggesting we try to trick customers, using their subconscious to take actions that support our own self interests. This is what much of marketing tries to do and I think it is actually deplorable. 

What I am talking about is providing an experience that supports the customer, that takes care of them, and shows them how helpful and useful their interaction with our company can really be. And the only way to do this is with design. 

The subconscious does not have a capacity for language. The language faculty falls in the realm of the rational, conscious brain. 

The subconscious deals in images, emotions, visions, and big picture perceptions. That is the realm of design. 

This brings us back to the questions in the beginning of this post, what influenced you to make buying decisions online? It was the overall design of your experience. It was an experience you enjoyed or and experience you trusted or an experience that matched exactly what you needed. It ticked all the boxes for your subconscious and you found that your finger was clicking "buy" and "confirm". 

The images, layout, color scheme, customer pathway, and any other designed characteristic provides the subconscious with a big picture experience that the subconscious is constantly evaluating and deciding whether it's good or bad. Design speaks the language of the subconscious. 

So if you want your digital materials and digital tools to actually create the decisions you want for your company, design needs to be your top priority. Whether you are creating customer facing web experiences or internal employee training programs the entire scope of your people's interaction will be filtered through their subconscious interacting with the design.

Designing for Decisions

Here are some handy questions you can use in your next design project to help speak the language of the subconscious.

  1. What is the ultimate decision we want from this experience, how do we streamline the path to that decision?
  2. How do we create an experience that invites trust, reduces stress, and makes the customer feel comfortable to act? 
  3. What is the big picture message we want to give to the customer's subconscious, and how to the images, layout and sequence of the experience create that big picture? 
  4. What is present in our design that does not fit with our big picture, that is muddling the message the subconscious receives? 

Let us know what other questions you use to speak the language of the subconscious, or what you think of these ideas.

If you're an organization that has not asked these questions and you aren't sure how your designs are matching the decisions you want, give us a ring, that's why we're here.