Human psychology and the power of design

How Humans take decisions

Humans don’t always weigh the pros and cons in any given situation to come to a rational decision (i.e., they are not homo oeconomicus). Instead, decision-making is often intuitive, quick, and subject to limitations
(► image).

According to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, there are two systems of thinking: System 1, which operates automatically, quickly, and with little effort; and System 2, which performs tedious mental activities, and is both slow and deliberate.

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Economics think that people carefully weigh up different alternatives and make rational decisions to maximize their benefit.


In Practice, humans often take suboptimal, irrational decisions. 


How our Environment shapes Decision-Making

The design of the environment in which a decision is made (“choice environment”) is crucial, especially regarding decisions based on quick and automatic thinking. The way a designer of a choice environment selects and arranges choice options, frames information, and provides feedback will inevitably influence decision-making.

Connecting scientific knowledge about human decision-making processes and interface design is the core of nudging. Specifically, a (digital) nudge is a user interface design element which steers decision-making in a predictable way.

"Considering our communication activities, I’d say that more than half of them – maybe even 70% – have exactly this goal: we want to change behavior. The others are like, ‘Look how great we are.’ "


Theoretical Roots of nudging

In 2016, Weinmann and colleagues adapted the concept of nudging by Thaler and Sunstein (2008) to digital environments and coined the term digital nudging. Examples of digital environments include a corporate website, a brand channel on social media, an email program, an enterprise social network, an online shop, or a smartphone app. The design of these digital environments can influence the response of stakeholders and ultimately the effectiveness of communication initiatives.


Is nudging a form of manipulation?

“Where does manipulation start, where does it stop, and where does nudging start? Does this boundary even exist? “

One concern surrounding digital nudging is that it could be used to manipulate users. Individuals are often unaware of being influenced in the choice situation and feel betrayed or played once they realize that they weren’t the “authors” of their own decisions. However, digital nudging isn’t intended to merely serve the designer and play the individual.

The researchers and founder of the concept Thaler and Sunstein based nudging on the idea of libertarian paternalism, which emphasizes two ethical considerations for steering decision-making.

  1. A nudge should only steer individuals towards decisions which are in their own interest as judged by themselves.
  2. A nudge shouldn’t restrict autonomy and should preserve the decider’s full freedom of choice.

Otherwise, it is called Dark Pattern.

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Dark patterns describes design practices which deliberately mislead or trick users.


User interface design aims for good usability and seamless interaction.


Behavioral economics focuses on human decision-making processes.


Digital nudging focuses on predictably influencing human behavior in accordance with pro-self or pro-social goals.


More about Digital Nudging: 


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Key findings of the study

  • Potential: The study suggests that communication professionals see digital nudging as an interesting and promising method to increase the effectiveness of communication activities. Learning about digital nudging could be useful even if the method can’t be applied by communication professionals directly.
  • Application possibilities: Most interviewees hadn’t yet implemented digital nudging themselves. But the interviewees identified the following applications as particularly promising:
    • Supporting digital transformation
    • Encouraging learning and development as well as knowledge sharing
    • Increasing compliance behavior, especially regarding cybersecurity
    • Improving employees’ health and well-being

  • Challenges:  The applicability of digital nudging depends on whether the organization uses digital platforms that allow for customization, if there is leeway regarding corporate design, and whether ethical concerns can be sufficiently addressed.



The methodology of the research project involved two main parts:

1.) Literature Review of publications primarily from the fields of behavioral economics, information systems, and human computer interaction were reviewed. The review focused on the theoretical foundations of digital nudging, models for developing digital nudging, and empirical evaluations of digital nudging applications.

2.) Semi-structured interviews with 13 professionals in corporate communications and adjacent areas (e.g., marketing, human resources) from 11 different companies were conducted via Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Here are some companies, which participated in the interviews, e.g.: 

Research background

How can we make digital communication more effective?
This was a question in mind identifying digital nudging as a key trends of the Communications Trend Radar 2021, a research project conducted by the Academic Society for Management & Communication. The study describes five key trends from society, management and technology that will influence corporate communications in the near future.


Research team

The research was conducted by: 

  • Stefan Stieglitz is Professor and head of the research group for Digital Communication and Transformation at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
  • Sünje Clausen, M.Sc., is a research associate at the chair for Digital Communication and Transformation at the University of Duisburg-Essen.