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Reading time: 9 minutes

What are Heuristics?

And how to use them to improve engagement

Heuristics. You may have come across the word when it’s use in the realm of computer science or with behavioural psychology. Or you simply haven’t come across the word at all. But it is something that we all use every day, thousand times over.

In simple terms without resorting to Greek, a heuristic is a method that our brains use to create shortcuts to make decision making easier on our minds. And that’s both a good and a bad thing.

It’s good because we can use heuristics to help engage our audiences in the right things. We can leverage what we’ve learned from the study of heuristics to cut down on the cognitive strain of our audiences through the use of visuals, language and even audio. This way our audiences are less fatigued going through our experiences and come out with positive associations from making better decisions when it counted.

But it can also be bad. Anything that is a shortcut inevitably leads to something that was understood or made with limited time and information. A quick example of a type of heuristic is when we use anecdotal comparisons. We’ve experienced something like what we’re experiencing now or expect to experience and therefore we’ll relate it to that. This is how bias, stereotyping, subjectiveness and prejudices occur. We had a negative experience before, and because this one is similar, we expect that it’s likely to be negative as well.

What I’d like to do with this piece is to quickly take you through what the tool of heuristics is and when it can be used effectively, for the right reasons. And when we should be aware of the pitfalls that occur when using it. Either when we use them ourselves or we allow our audiences to use them.

Exploring heuristics

So when does our brain use a heuristic?

It’s usually when our mind is faced with too much information, or we have too little information, we don’t have enough time to decide or the decision is (perceived) to be unimportant. (Pratkanis, 1989).

If that’s the case when we use a heuristic, what kind of heuristic methods does our brain use then? I’ll go through a selection very quickly just to give you some basis. A few of the types of heuristics that we tend to use are:

  • Familiarity

This is similar to the example used above. If we’re being overwhelmed by a situation, our mind will revert to a previous experience that we are familiar with and where we were successful. This then guides our behaviour in that situation.

  • Scarcity

A fairly straightforward one, where we perceive things that are scarce to be of more value. Such as when we shop online and see that an item only has 2 left in stock, we’re more prone to make a decision faster because it might not be available for long.

  • Anchoring & Adjustment

This heuristic is likely what we’ve all seen or used in recent times. It’s when we’re heavily influenced by the first bit of information we get and formulate a new expectation based on that. As with online shopping, without additional information, you may see the item is priced down and you jump at it. Not researching to see if that’s its regular price anyway.

  • Availability

Here our minds make decisions based on readily available information. For example, you may be researching to buy a new car, and suddenly you see more of that car, leading you to believe that it’s likely a reliable car, as you see a lot of people driving it.

  • Trial & error

If you’ve ever played a game or done a puzzle, you’ve likely employed this one. Rather than spending time to figure out the solution, you just eliminate all possible options systematically until you arrive at the solution.

  • Representative

With this one, we compare a current situation to a mental model that we have to make a quicker decision. We’re at a flea market and we choose to go with a vendor that is older, better dressed and well-groomed. This is because in our head we’ve made the association that someone older is likely more trustworthy and a better dressed and well-groomed person increases that ‘trustworthiness’ level even further.

As you can see with this shortlist of some of the possible heuristics our minds can use, they can both be good and bad for the same reasons. What allows us to cut down on the mental load when it comes to decision making, can also lead us to jump to conclusions without thinking it through properly. That’s why when we decide to leverage heuristics we need to consider why and how we use them with our audiences.

How to use heuristics

The intention is not to trick people. Though I admit that this is a possible outcome. Heuristics is a tool, and only its usage can be wrong and not the tool itself. If you use a hammer the wrong way and hurt yourself, then you’re at fault, not the hammer.

What we want from leveraging heuristics to improve engagement in our audiences, is to reduce the mental fatigue where it counts, and to help them make the right decisions when it counts.

In other words, you want to decrease the mental load for your audience in an experience when they are going through easy, zero consequence areas so that they are fresh and full of energy at the points when they need to make significant decisions.

A use case of when heuristics are used badly is when a simple problem and decision are made overly complex to tire out the audience so that they make bad choices when it’s important. For example, when a shopping experience is made so overly complex that the customer is glad when the payment method is a 1-click process. They are so tired with the whole ordeal that they don’t care what the ‘hidden’ additional costs are as long as it’s over and done with. Sound familiar? I know some airlines that use this method.

When using heuristics, and using them effectively, it is done by being clear, simple, and transparent. If at any point your reason to use them is to trick your audience, either intentionally or unintentionally, then you’ve failed and likely propagated a bias. And in all likelihood as soon as they figure it out, you’ve also alienated your audience.

Let me give you an example of when I use heuristics when I work with my clients.

When working with clients who have a website-based experience, one of the easier ways of applying heuristics is with the type of language that they use on their website. Such as not using overly complex language to confound the audience and allowing for mental shortcuts where it counts. In this case, the example is when gamifying an experience by utilising an internal currency. When using a currency, the best thing to do is to use easy to understand terminology, such as ‘coins’ and not some made-up word that references a currency. If you use a made-up word, you’ll probably have to explain what it means, and it will likely confuse your audience. They’ll feel tricked if they didn’t understand it, and it can lead to the value of your currency being obfuscated because the audience doesn’t know how to equate it to real money.

It sounds simple and obvious, but it is true. An audience will have an easier time if you say 1 euro is worth 1 coin, rather than 1 euro is worth 1 strangering (because my company is aeStranger, and that is the name of the currency and now I’ve had to explain what it means and what it relates to…).

In the example of 1 euro for 1 coin, we used familiarity, anchoring and representative heuristics to help the audience. And as long we stay consistent with the value of the coin and are transparent and honest, then everything is fine. And both we and our audience do not need to worry about anything. Or explain anything further.

What to do when heuristics are used

When you are providing the experience or are the audience going through the experience, you should consider a few things about when heuristics are being used.

As an experience provider, you need to ensure that that which is supposed to be simple remains simple. Have a clear goal in mind of what you want to achieve with your experience and be transparent about it, allowing your audience the space and the time to make an informed and well-considered choice. In the other words, keep the easy parts easy, and where it’s difficult, don’t dumb it down to where obscures the real reason. Give your audience the chance to consider other options (even if it is to leave). This builds trust and loyalty, rather than alienation.

And as an audience, go into an experience with your own clear goal of what you want to get out of it. And when you’re in it, slow down your processes if needed and consider the emotions you are having. If you start to feel anxious, overwhelmed, fatigued, or are racing through the experience then something is likely off. Remember that you always have a choice and you can always take it easy, restart or even leave the experience if you are feeling uneasy about it.

Final thoughts

Heuristics are a tool, and they are meant to help improve experiences and not to trick audiences into doing something they don’t want to do.

Remember to consider your goal and why you want to use heuristics. The overall reason should be to reduce mental fatigue in your audience so that they are fresh and ready when it comes to the choices that count.

When using heuristics, we want our audience to remain healthy, happy and open-minded. We don’t want to use them to promote negative biases or prejudices for our benefit and at the cost of the audience’s trust.

When we give them a shortcut, it should be so that they can go through the dreary, unimportant stuff quicker, and get to the fun, challenging crucial stuff sooner, because that’s where the experience truly counts.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æ, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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