Tales of choice architecture: The good (-intentioned), the bad, and the ugly

By Linnea Gandhi (TGG Group)

As a practitioner of behavioral science, I get pretty passionate – even emotional – about everyday choice architecture. In fact, more than once a week I encounter something that prompts me to say to my husband, “argh, this is terrible choice architecture,” to which he now invariably rolls his eyes. Which is why today I’m turning to you, clearly a far more appreciative audience, to share three tales of my recent run-ins with choice architecture: the Good (-intentioned), the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good (-Intentioned)

We begin with United Airlines. After a 30-day countdown of (duly ignored) reminders, the airline’s platform finally would not let me book a flight until I updated my account security settings. This meant picking and answering five rather atypical security questions, such as naming my “favorite sea animal” or “favorite cold-weather activity”. Check out more gems below:

Two sets of United's latest security questions

Two sets of United's latest security questions

At first blush, the creativity and variety seems pretty clever, in the sense that United might reduce the likelihood of a user repeating a question-answer pair used on other, less secure sites.

Yet United didn’t stop there. For each question, it provided not the standard free-text response box, but rather drop-downs with a panoply of potential answers. I could choose from 44 ice cream flavors, 38 sea creatures, and 91 things my younger self wanted to be when I grew up.

Clockwise from top left, answers to United security questions: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? What is your favorite cold-weather activity? What is your favorite breed of dog? What is your favorite sea animal?

Clockwise from top left, answers to United security questions: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? What is your favorite cold-weather activity? What is your favorite breed of dog? What is your favorite sea animal?

Clearly this choice architecture was intentional in its blatant deviation from the norm. But what could United be getting out of it? My guess is the pre-defined answers may be easier to store and that United may even have tried to make life easier for users by suggesting answers.

Despite supposed good intentions, United’s choice architecture backfired. I can guarantee that I, at least, won’t easily remember what I chose. Some questions required me to remember preferences or fuzzy facts from years ago and hope that my memory remained stable whenever I needed to re-enter answers. (I sort of remember liking raspberries, bananas, and broccoli, so which one should I pick as my “favorite fruit or vegetable as a child”?) Other questions required I pick a favorite where I have none and, moreover, keep that preference stable over time. (Seriously, how can I be expected to remain faithful to one favorite flavor of ice cream?) Others purely overwhelmed me with the amount of choice I never knew I had. (Can you believe there are 15 types of dog breeds beginning with the letter “A” out there?)

United must have meant well, but if I can’t pick meaningful and memorable answers to security questions, then as novel as its choice architecture may be, it’s only good-intentioned and not quite good.

The Bad

Now there are other companies out there whose choice architecture is pretty darn good…but whose not-so-clearly-good intentions can lead to bad outcomes for users. My love-hate relationship with Uber is a perfect case in point. On days when I’m running late, I am a big fan of UberX. What hooked me was the convenience. Every interaction – requesting a ride, communicating my destination, paying and even tipping – felt quick and seamless...

…until a month or so ago when Uber tried to trick me into using UberPool. That’s right, it tricked me. Moreover, it made me go through twice as many screens as usual before I could request any ride at all. First I had to put in my destination – something I used to be able to do as late as entering the car. Then I had to say how many seats I needed. And then I had to actively click out of using the default option of UberPool, highlighted in bright blue. (This last step was where I tripped up and accidentally requested the carpool, angrily canceling once I noticed a minute later.) 

The five forced steps to make my request for UberX

The five forced steps to make my request for UberX

And the weird thing – the truly bad thing – is that Uber hasn’t learned. Even after weeks now of my actively opting out of UberPool, it continues to default me into it. Why would Uber – once, for me, an exemplar of convenience – repeatedly create this painful user experience? Maybe the technology can’t track my preferences and change my default. (Doubtful.) Maybe Uber really thinks UberPool is better for me. Or maybe…it’s better for Uber. Some digging online reveals that Uber may make more money from an UberPool ride than an UberX ride of the same distance. Reportedly, it earns the same percentage commission, but at least double the flat fees, by taking a $1 safety fee per rider rather than ride. What is bad for me may be good, on net, for Uber.*

The Ugly

We come now to my final story, a tale of choice architecture that is just plain ugly.   

Last year I tried out a month of LinkedIn Premium for free but didn’t deem the value worth paid renewal. Then, a few weeks ago, when I clicked on the alluring “X people viewed your profile in the past 3 days”, LinkedIn invited me to do another free trial. Neat-o! I clicked through to sign up again, because who can resist the power of free?

But only a few screens later, all excitement faded away. Turns out I couldn’t get a free trial because I had already used mine! Wait, what?!?

LinkedIn, toying with my heart.

LinkedIn, toying with my heart.

LinkedIn, why would you play with my heart like that? Why would you get me excited about another month of competitive rankings and spying on profiles for free when you know it will only end in disappointment?

Turns out this wasn’t just a one-time glitch. Every time I go to the ranking page, I get the same offer to try LinkedIn Premium for free. Either someone is seriously inept at programming, or this is one sneaky trick to repeatedly remind me about Premium in the (clearly vain) hope that I finally buy-up. At least in Uber’s case, by falling prey to its UberPool nudge I’ll pay less (though likely ride for longer), and I only lose a few seconds in the app; LinkedIn has no such excuse as I’ll pay more and already know I won’t get benefits that are worth it. It’s ugly through and through.


The saddest part of these three tales of choice architecture is that as much as I complain, I remain a customer. All three companies have enough of a lock on my business that, beyond the words on this page, there is little I can do to motivate change. They will likely live happily ever after with imperfect choice architecture. I, meanwhile, will keep complaining to my husband—and now you!

* I have since learned that Chicago is a ‘testing’ city for both UberPool auto-defaults – which yes, are better for Uber – and having users type in destinations early.