What are your defaults, product builders?


A new study concerning food delivery apps came out in the latest Science Magazine issue. It is actually a study about environmental issues, but to me, it is a perfect guide to choice architecture for product builders (not just food delivery products by the way).

The study proves that when you present users with a default choice plus a small incentive for sticking with that choice, they tend to go with it. As simple-stupid as it seems, this pattern is often not taken into account in the product design stage. Well, now we have the science behind it.

The research is based on a huge sample of data from Alibaba Group’s food delivery platform Ele.me. The scholars received access to three (!) years of order history data from 200,000 consumers across 10 Chinese cities. Most of the research I run into is based on a sample of ~1,000 people, so thanks to the scholars, we have a chance to see the impact of small (and seemingly unimportant changes) at scale.

Here is the story

In China, the popularity of food delivery apps led to a drastic increase in cutlery consumption and waste. In 2019-2020, three Chinese cities introduced policies forbidding delivery companies from including cutlery in orders if users did not ask for it.

Ele.me decided to “seduce” users into a more environmentally friendly choice of not requesting cutlery by implementing “green nudges” – small design tweaks that influence the choice

What they did was the following:

– Added an automatically appearing popup asking to indicate how many cutlery sets were required
– In that popup, the default choice was already made for non-cutlery order
– A small non-monetary incentive was added to that default choice

(In the old interface, the default cutlery option at the check-out page was preset as “with cutlery.” Users had to click on the pop-up window and scroll to the bottom to choose the no-cutlery option).

The result is this: compared to the baseline group, the three cities saw a 648% increase in the number of non-cutlery orders. The researchers highlighted that initially, they thought that some users may not like the new default choice and would be using the platform less because of it, but it was not confirmed. So this result was achieved without any harm to the business.

I’m leaving the tremendous environmental impact aside here (if you are interested, see the links to the research itself and an article about it in the Wall Street Journal in the comments).
I just think it is important to take a moment and acknowledge how much can be done without large budgets. I already wrote before that in the new economic reality, money is expensive and you can no longer use it to impact user behavior. So the pressure is now on the product to really perform. In this study we see a great example of how small low or no-cost changes can make users do what we want.

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