I like Barack Obama, but that is not why I have put his face on my blog. I have been playing around with Hunch.com the last few days, both answering and creating questions. I have discovered that Obama is my 2008 US presidential candidate, that I should live in Portland, Oregon (partly because I like big cities, a warm climate and the ocean), and that I should switch to a Mac (could have told you that). Hunch is meant to help you decide, by breaking large and small questions down into series of smaller decisions. Every path down the decision tree brings you to a result, which is the recommended (and most probable) answer for you. All topics, questions and results are user generated. If you feel a topic needs another question, add one. If you feel there’s something wrong about a result, change it.
I’m no expert on politics, but I believe that Hunch works much like libertarian paternalism, an “experts rule” where decision are engineered by those who know better. In this case, the wise guys are the authors of the Hunch topics, questions and results, rightfully (or not) posing as domain experts and advisers. Their knowledge is meant to be my guide. Hunch gives me a feeling of controlled and rational decision-making, while the real control is exercised by those who frame the questions. Of course, no one forces me to accept anything suggested by Hunch, so ultimately I’m still in control. Some healthy scepticism is always in order, but disregarding every suggestion sort of defies the purpose.
Libertarian paternalism (a.k.a. politics for dummies) builds upon behavioral economics, a field of study with fancy theories about the irrationality of human decision-making. Habits, emotions and circumstances influence our decisions more than we’d like to admit, even when these decisions are non-trivial and potentially life-altering. I also believe The Power of Defaults play an important role. When forced to decide between choices that have unknown or unpredictable effects, we tend to choose the default option. It’s easy to go with a recommendation, especially when it’s framed in a convincing manner. Like when your bank’s financial advisor recommends you an annuity loan, when a serial loan with lower total interest costs may actually be better for you.
What has politics got to do with search user experience? Libertarian paternalism is a progressive political philosophy, “designed to help irrational people who are not advancing their own interests while not interfering with the autonomy of those who are making rational, deliberate, decisions.” In other words, protecting the idiots from themselves, while leaving the sensible people alone. I personally believe we’re all functional idiots to some extent, so this kind of choice architecture makes a lot of sense to me. Search (and recommender systems) are also decision-making tools, and I have a hunch that some of these concepts (libertarian paternalism, behavioral economics, power of defaults) may be used to increase the decision-making effectiveness of both search and recommendations, enabling a better user experience. I also believe the question of choice effectiveness and overall satisfaction is connected with the problem with recommender systems and The Paradox of Choice.
On a final note – Hunch gave me a very pleasant experience today. Last night I started on a new topic which I named “Am I a Maximizer or A Satisficer?” I was quite tired by then, so I didn’t add any questions or results. But when I checked back today, I discovered that someone else had continued my work, adding four questions and two results. It was reassuring to see the crowd-sourcing at work.