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Keep it simple, silly. Design and the framing effect.

Cognitive psychology, the study of the human mental processes, is an area of study that influences many fields beyond just psychology. One specific interdisciplinary field that heavily benefits from cognitive psychology research is user experience design. User experience design is a field that focuses on improving the accessibility (usable by a wide variety of people) , usability (easiness to use and learnability), and satisfaction of using a product. Whether creating an e-commerce website or an artificial home assistant, a well-designed positive user experience is at the forefront of success. However, there are many different ways in which great product, website, and interface designs can be viewed in a negative light by a user. One of the ways that user experience design can be negatively affected is by framing. Imagine that you have an online apparel business and a potential customer encounters two different scenarios:

  • Purchase the item at the full retail price of $100
  • Purchase the item at a 50% discount of a retail price of $200

While both options end up costing the same, customers would more likely purchase the item under the second scenario. Why is this the case? The first scenario frames the purchase of the item as a loss of $100. Conversely, the second scenario is framed so that the customer has the illusion that they are saving $100 by making the purchase. They are more likely to purchase the item because it is framed as a gain. This human bias is known as the framing effect.

What is the framing effect?

An image of a people flocking towards a burger that is 75% fat free over one that contains 25% fat because the way that it is framed makes it seem healthier and more appealing.

The framing effect is an error in thinking in which people make a decision based on how a situation is presented. People are generally biased to pick an option that they view as a gain (e.g. a glass half full) over an option that they view as a loss (e.g. a glass half empty) even if both options yield the same result. They are also less likely to make a riskier decision when the option as presented as a gain versus a loss (Smith, 2013).

An example of this is seen in an experiment conducted by James N. Druckman, 2001, on the strength of framing effects. In the study, 320 participants were randomly assigned to one of three different conditions (survival condition, mortality condition, and condition that included both survival and mortality) and were tasked with choosing a program in order to combat a hypothetical disease. The table below shows the programs for each condition.

Condition Program A Program B
Survival Saves 200 people

(guaranteed gain)

1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved and a 2/3 probability that no one will be saved

(risky gain)

Mortality 400 people will die

(guaranteed loss)

1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die

(risky loss)

Both 200 people will be saved and 400 people will die 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved and nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved and 600 people will die.

The results of the study found that in the survival condition 68.1% of the people chose program A compared to the 22.8% that chose program A in the mortality format. In the both format, 43.6% of participants chose program A. The implications of the results show that when presented with a gain (saving 200 people) people tend to be more risk-averse, are more risk-seeking when presented with a loss (400 people will die), and are generally more risk neutral when all possible information is presented. The important takeaway from this experiment is that our willingness to take risks and decision-making processes are not always as rational as we believe them to be and we are influenced by the way information is presented. An example of how framing effects can impact our seemingly rational decision making skills can be found in another post which discusses how bilingualism and framing could have impacted the results of the 2016 presidential election.

What exactly causes this bias to occur?

In a study examining the cognitive functions behind the framing effect, Gonzalez, Dana, Koshino, & Just, 2005 had fifteen participants perform various risk tasks while in an fMRI scanner (a noninvasive way to look at brain activity). The results of the fMRI showed that when choosing a gain that is guaranteed, participants used significantly less cognitive effort than when choosing a risky gain. Conversely, when choosing between a guaranteed loss and a risky loss, a similar amount of cognitive effort is required. However, choosing the guaranteed loss over the risky loss can be a more emotionally taxing option because there is no chance for a positive outcome.

All of these different possible decisions have to do with the fact that we have limited cognitive resources and our default choices are the ones that will use less resources and be less stressful. Due to the limited capacity of our cognitive load and working memory (amount of information that we can attend to and use at a particular time), we do not always process information in the deepest possible way and rely on whatever information we have easily accessible to make a decision. One way to visualize this is to imagine that you have been hired by a technology company to design an interface for a new product. You have a month to create the design and have the option to start from scratch or to use previously created designs and modify them. Choosing the first option may lead to creating a better overall design but may not be ideal given the time constraint and the amount of effort it would require compared to the payoff. The second option is easier and less stressful but may not yield the best possible design. This is similar to the cognitive tradeoffs that we have to make when deciding how many resources to spend and how deeply to process information. When we aren’t consciously aware of this tradeoff, our minds default to the decision that limits the total amount of resources being used.  Therefore, our mind is susceptible to framing effects because we aren’t usually looking at how the information is framed and affects our decision.

The implications of the fMRI study confirm the behavioral observations in Druckman’s experiment and show that because of our imperfect cognitive processes, how we make our decisions can be as or even more important than the decision that we choose.

Why is the framing effect important in user experience design?

A visual diagram showing how UX (user experience) design is related to cognitive biases

Framing effects focus on the tradeoff between making a better/more rational decision and using less cognitive effort. This is directly applicable to user experience design because designs need to account for this trade off and make it easy for the user to make the best possible decision with little cognitive effort. For example, framing critical information in an overly complex way can lead to poor decision making. Imagine that you are in a super market and are looking for a low sugar drink. You find one that has 5 grams of sugar and decide that it is a healthy option and choose to buy it! However, what you fail to realize is that the drink really contains 5 grams of sugar per serving and there are actually 10 servings. This is a simple example of complexly framed information because instead of just listing the amount of sugar in the drink as 50 grams, the customer is deceived and misinformed about the truth and makes a bad decision based on how the amount of sugar in the drink is presented. In order to avoid such mistakes, information should be presented in the simplest and easiest to process ways in order to make correct decision making easy.

When evaluating design, framing effects can also distort the data. Asking someone how they “like” a product versus how they “feel” about a product can yield drastically different evaluation data. According to Morgan’s article, “The Importance of Framing in the User Experience,” using the word feel evokes a more neutral and accurate response because it doesn’t require that they actually like or dislike the product. This is a small but significant way in which the cognitive bias can skew the results of a design evaluation simply because of the uncontrollable/involuntary ways in which we process and respond to differently framed questions. Framing effects are also important when communicating the results of testing different designs because they can affect people’s perception of whether a design is good or bad and if it needs to be redesigned. Suppose that you have conducted a usability test on a website and communicate the result of the test by stating that “20% of users were unsuccessful in completing the majority of the required tasks.” Using this negative frame increases the chance that a client will want the website to be redesigned rather than if it was presented with the positive frame, “80% of users were successful in completing the majority of the required tasks.” The framing effect here is significant because it can negatively influence a person’s view of a relatively functional design.

How can you use and reduce framing effects in design?

Make it easy to think like a scientist (critically)

A study by Ayanna K. Thomas and Peter R. Millar found that when the information required to make an unbiased decision is more accessible or when participants were primed to evaluate the options closely, framing effects were reduced during decision making. This is because participants used their controlled cognitive processes when making decisions. This means that they were intentionally, consciously, and effortfully evaluating the different options, as a scientist would. You can directly apply this to a user experience design by adding in cues or priming (priming is the process of exposing a person to a specific stimulus in order to elicit a certain response when presenting another stimulus) people when they are completing a task to give them the necessary information to think critically. This can take the form of pop up messages or alerts that give them important information or signal them that the task they are about to complete will require their conscious attention and limit any unwanted framing effects. A frequently used example of good and bad design choices  is the design of door handles. The way that a door with a handle is framed suggests that it should be pulled. A door with a flat metal plate suggests that it should be pushed. In the case of the door with the handle, the cue provided by the handle is that we have to grip and pull in order to open it. The cue provided by the flat metal plate suggests that there is no way to pull the door so, it must be pushed. Bad design occurs when a designer uses a handle for a door that should be pushed because this conflicts with the cues associated with a handle. This can cause frustration and errors when a person tries to use the door.

Keep it simple

When you are creating a design, avoid overstimulation. Do not provide the user with more information than they need because it can overload their cognitive processes and make them more susceptible to framing effects, forcing them into poor decision making. Instead only provide critical information with limited options and allow the user to complete a task with minimal focused attention. By eliminating the need to think critically about a gain/loss decision, framing effects become irrelevant in good design. The image below shows an example of good an bad website design. More times than not, using lots of low quality flashing images, over the top fonts and colors, and laying out information in a messy way is a major sign of bad design. A good way to avoid this is to remember the phrase “keep it simple stupid.”  The phrase is pretty self explanatory but it focuses on the principle of making things as easy to understand as possible so that people can use it properly (Bjornard, 2018). Simple designs that are easy to understand will usually be more favorable and more used in the longer run.

Know your audience

Surprisingly, the older you are, the more susceptible you are to framing effects (Kim, Goldstein, Hasher, & Zacks, 2005)! Why? The older you get the more accessible emotional and relational information is. This means that as you get older, you are more likely stop analytically evaluating a decision quicker and use heuristic processing (a way of processing information that is cost efficient by using whatever information is available, accessible, or applicable to a situation) because even more limited cognitive resources. Aging can also affect a person’s metamemory, whether their cognitive abilities are better or worse than they think they are. However, if you are motivated to process information analytically, your performance will be just as good no matter how old you get. To account for this in design, it is even more critical to add motivational tools for elderly users to ensure that they perform tasks as intended and are not easily influenced by framing effects.

Use framing effects to your advantage

If you are presenting data on a design evaluation, use positive language and frame information in terms of a gain instead of a loss. Doing so will increase the likelihood that users find your design to be effective and attractive and are more likely to have a positive experience if they see it in a good light.

Cognitive biases such as the framing effect are constantly present as problems that need to be accounted for in design. It is nearly impossible to completely eliminate their effects but by learning about the ways in which they affect our judgement and decision making, we can account for them to make better and more user friendly designs.


Bjornard, K. (2018, May 12). KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) – A Design Principle. Retrieved May 19, 2018, from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/kiss-keep-it-simple-stupid-a-design-principle

Druckman, J. N. (2001). Evaluating framing effects. Journal of Economic Psychology, 22(1), 91-101. doi:10.1016/s0167-4870(00)00032-5

Gonzalez, C., Dana, J., Koshino, H., & Just, M. (2005). The framing effect and risky decisions: Examining cognitive functions with fMRI. Journal of Economic Psychology, 26(1), 1-20. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2004.08.004.

Kim, S., Goldstein, D., Hasher, L., & Zacks, R. T. (2005). Framing Effects in Younger and Older Adults. The Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 60(4), P215–P218.

Morgan, M. (2017, September 17). The Importance of Framing in the User Experience – UX Planet. Retrieved April 25, 2018, from https://uxplanet.org/the-importance-of-framing-in-the-user-experience-8392a061158e

Smith, M. A. (2013, July 16). The Framing Effect Bias: Improving Decision Making Skills for Cognitive Misers. Retrieved May 10, 2018, from http://www.highiqpro.com/willpower-self-control/the-framing-effect-improving-decision-making-skills-with-capacity-strategy-training

Thomas, A. K., & Millar, P. R. (2012). Reducing the Framing Effect in Older and Younger Adults by Encouraging Analytic Processing | The Journals of Gerontology: Series B | Oxford Academic. The Journals of Gerontology, 67B(2), b, 139-149. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbr076

Whitenton, K. (2016, December 11). Decision Frames: How Cognitive Biases Affect UX Practitioners. Retrieved April 25, 2018, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/decision-framing-cognitive-bias-ux-pros/

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