Dealing with digital decision fatigue

Christian AlMurr
6 min readJan 19, 2016

Is the internet of things doing more harm than good?

What is Decision Fatigue?

Our brain is wonderful.

Recently, I was working on a mobile application that has to do with food and restoration in the Middle East. But what was supposed to be just another project on my schedule, turned out to be one very tough challenge that made me question the mission and ultimate goal of the internet of things.

Aren’t users just tired of this? Is my project going to make the user’s life easier or even more complicated? Why do people ask for that? And how can I make platforms that will make these people’s lives easier? And aren’t we creating so much new choices for ourselves?

This is when I decided to dive into a world where there was so many answers but very few questions. A world where people are afraid of finding out if these interfaces we create, and these platforms we spend months working on, tend to make the user’s life simpler, or much, much… much harder.

Decision Fatigue is based on the phenomena of Ego Depletion invented by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. A postdoctoral colleague Jean Twenge, also contributed in making this term clearer. She studied this phenomena right after finishing planning her wedding and being exposed to numerous questions and having to make a lot of decisions which exhausted her. It is the deterioration of the quality of decisions we make after making too many of them.

Surprisingly, we face a daily amount of 35 000 decisions to take which make decision fatigue a clear consequence. As a result, we tend to take more time to make regular decisions and we even sometimes chose the wrong ones.

Why should I care?

It would be near impossible to find out how our ancestors dealt with decision fatigue in the past, before having digital organizers and social psychologists, but it doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize that they were under less “ego-depleting” stress. There were fewer decisions to make so clearly less decision fatigue. As for today, we have so many choices around us. No matter how hard we train our bodies to adapt to our current lifestyles but our mind never seem to stick with these plans sometimes. A typical internet user looks at more than forty websites a day, which can get him easily fatigued by the continuous decision making of even the simplest things: Like the video to watch on YouTube, the post to share on Facebook, the joke to tweet about, or which news to read on 20 Minutes. Whether we are making small decisions like the ones we just mentioned, or big decisions, any decision counts

The digital revolution has caused a drastic change in how we live, think, and work everyday. Even though some tasks can be much easier now, but this revolution has had no good in attempting to reduce stress of the 35 000 decisions we make everyday. On the contrary, it made it worse.

After advancing in my research on this subject, I realized that this is a very important subject for anyone who is fascinated by the world of user experience and usability. By digging deeper in this problem we are actually seeking the core problem behind today’s digital world and the core reason for the creation of what is called UX — User Experience and future solutions.

This is why I allow myself to add to what Steve Krug said in his book “Don’t Make Me Think” when he was talking about the reason why we have to work hard on simplifying a user interface and make it as easy and simple as possible.

Much of our web use is motivated by the desire to save time. As a result, web users tend to act like sharks. They have to keep moving or they’ll die.”

Which is undoubtedly correct, but it is important to also add the willingness of the user to avoid using platforms that can make his decision-making process more exhausting and time consuming.

This is why: UX Matters.

With the rise of User Experience in the last decade, we can actually witness the raw shades of tentative solutions for this problem. People are starting to understand the importance of this matter in our everyday lives. And the fact that, even though the interfaces we create are simplifying our lives, but they are also adding much more options, decisions, complications, questions, answers…

This is why: Less is more.

Sheena S. Iyengar from Columbia University, and Mark R. Lepper from Stanford University did a study in a food shop by introducing customers to 24 types of jam on a Saturday afternoon and repeating the observation but with 6 types of jam the week after.

The result turned out to be very impressing. More customers approached the stall with 24 jams than the one with 6, and they seemed to like the idea more. But both tended to try only one or two of these products. So when these customers had more options they tended to have shut down and undergone what researchers call choice paralysis. What is more interesting is that only 3% of the customers with more choices bought jam, while 30% of the customers with less choice bought the products. From this study, researchers coined the theory “Choice Overload”.

We can imply the same theory for online and digital users, who open windows and tabs on their desktop, or a new application on their smartphones and face tens of decisions every second. The whole purpose of User Experience design is to find the proper way to avoid all of these — sometimes-useless — questions to answer and these decisions. So by simplifying the interface, and knowing what to keep and what to remove, we are automatically and unconsciously satisfying current users and generating much more.

Whenever an individual is decision-fatigued, he always looks for ways to avoid making any. We also tends be passive instead of active so we are more likely to accept things even if it was not right.


Where is this going? Less Choices.

Even though researchers are always looking into methods to optimize the user experience and making it easier, simpler and by that: less decision-fatigue. But new techniques are also emerging and seeing light that target this problem directly. New agencies and business that are appreciating the importance of reducing choice-fatigue are now designing products that are one step ahead. It is the creation of platforms and interfaces that can reduce the number of choices in our lives and make ones on our behalf: Anticipatory design.

These platforms that are already starting to appear in the market intend to make and execute decisions without the user’s intuitive or effort. Decisions that are based on prior knowledge, in other words, the user has to add the proper details, feedback and information for the interface to analyze, examine, and be able to accurately make decisions instead of the user who is now part of an ecosystem where a decision doesn’t have to be made.

Some shy and early stages of Anticipatory design are starting to appear, like the recommendations on Netflix and Amazon which offers it’s users with a choice of products based on previous purchased or viewing. Or even with Google and Facebook Ads which promote similar items to products viewed on different web pages on the browser.

Nest is also a great anticipatory design example of a thermometer that automatically adjusts the room’s temperature based on previous users’ choices. And Digit, that “Save money, without thinking about it.” Digit analyses the user’s use of his bank account over a period of time, checks his spending habits and removes a few dollars from his checking account in order to save as much money as possible.

All these amazing initiatives are just preliminary examples of how anticipatory design can rock our lives and make them much simpler by reducing the number of decisions we make every day.

With every research I make, it becomes clearer how the digital world has no limits. After seeing all of these fascinating technologies emerging into our lives everyday, our task for now is just to imagine, and work hard on applying these life-changing technologies on our work and find out how we, as user experience and user interface designers, can make use of these technologies to contribute to making the world, and the web, an easier and simpler place.



Christian AlMurr

Product designer, design instructor, entrepreneur | On a journey to understand what makes us tick.