What Happy Meals Can Teach us about Good User Experience

Exploring behavioral science principles and how you can apply them to your social enterprise or program.

April 06, 2017

Have you ever wondered why McDonald’s menus focus on combo meals? Before fast food chains, we walked into restaurants and asked for a burger, fries, and drink separately. Combo meals were born out of operational necessity, as customers were taking too long to decide what they wanted to order off the menu board. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, believes that this is an effective example of creating a Path of Least Resistance for customers. The focus on combo meals allow customers to only say “I’ll take the #2” instead of listing out the 3 different items that they think may go well together.

This may seem like a small change, but it’s incredibly efficient at getting people to order more food, more quickly. McDonalds has effectively harnessed several psychological forces to create an ease of access to fast food that has contributed to the growing obesity crisis. What if we could use some of these same forces for good? In this blog, we’ll explore the behavioral science principles behind these forces and how you can apply them to your social enterprise or program.

Reduce Choice

The growing trend of customization and personalization will have us believe that the more choices we give customers, the more satisfied they will be. However, that’s not always the case. According to Dan Ariely, we should be wary of creating choice overload. Faced with too many decisions, customers shut down and decide not to complete their purchase, procrastinate, or choose a less desirable option. One of the most famous social science experiments to demonstrate this phenomenon was the “jam study” conducted by Dr. Sheena Iyengar at a grocery store in California. When customers stopped by a display of 6 jams, 31% of them bought a jar. But when the display showed 24 different jam choices, only 4% of people bought a jar. Customers presented with fewer choices were 10 times more likely to purchase compared with those who were shown more choices. By bundling the items together, McDonald’s effectively reduces the total number of choices a hungry customer has to make.  As a social entrepreneur, think about how you could take inspiration from McDonald’s combo meals and start to bundle your products or services so that customers can automatically put the right combination together. Instead of saying: “I’ll take the micro-drip irrigation system, fertilizer, and seeds,” could a smallholder farmer just say: “I’ll take Option 2?” 

Create Smarter Defaults

Treat every decision and every choice your customer has to make as if it is nearly insurmountable. Assume that people—especially people living in poverty—might be so overwhelmed by other priorities that even the smallest thing might dissuade them from purchasing or using your product or service. One solution is to introduce smarter default options to help people do the right thing. As Dan says: “We need to recognize that choice is difficult. We need to recognize that if people choose not to take on that difficulty, we need to create smarter default options so that they can still get a good outcome.”  For example:

  • Do you want kids to eat healthier at school? Design meals where carrot sticks are the default side that automatically comes with every purchase.
  • Do you want more people to sign up as organs donors? Make organ donation the default option on driver’s license applications that most adults will need to go through.
  • Do you want people to continue using their solar home system for electricity? Create a system where the default payment is automatically deducted every month instead of requiring the customer to decide if they need the service on a monthly basis, and make the trek to the corner store to pay. 

Improve Your User Experience

Streamline Your Customer Journey

Dan Ariely recently told +Acumen: “Social scientists see friction everywhere. We look into things that other people don’t think are difficult and we say ‘those are difficult.’ The general thought is that more choices are better, but the reality is that more choices can also be more confusing and fatiguing.”

To avoid creating choice overload for your customers, look for sources of friction in their journey. Where do they face complex decisions and how can you make them simpler? Print out every page of the sign-up process on your website or storyboard all of the steps your customers must take to successfully use your product. Where are the critical decisions points? Where can you eliminate steps so that they are more likely to get to the desired outcome in a painless way?

Clean Up Your Website

Websites are one of the most common and easiest places to create friction. Too many government agencies, nonprofits and social sector organizations’ online interfaces are full of friction. Just try googling “apply for food stamps” and you’ll quickly be directed to the sites of well-intentioned government agencies that contain a mess of links, forms, and FAQs. People struggle to figure out where to click and may have to decide whether it is better to go hungry for a night rather than attempting to navigate the maze of forms. In contrast, if you visit Oscar’s website, a health insurance startup, you’ll see one clear call to action button: “Get Your Quote.” The designers behind the site have created a Path of Least Resistance to guide customers toward the desired outcomes. Clean and elegant user interfaces are not just something that tech companies need to worry about. Creating Paths of Least Resistance for people to access things like shelter, nutrition, clean water, and education should be a high priority.

When it comes to motivating specific behaviors in your customers, Dan’s recommendations can be boiled down to reduce choice complexity and build smarter defaults. These tweaks might seem minor, but they can mean the difference between significant social impact and lost opportunities. Don’t you want your customers to walk away from your services saying “I’m loving it!”?

Our new Master Class with Dan Ariely on Changing Customer Behavior will launch on October 11th. You can sign up to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to be the first to know when registration opens.

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