Making Choices Meaningful: At the Intersection of Competence and Autonomy

What constitutes a meaningful choice for one person may not be meaningful to another. When I presented with Raphaela O’Day at SXSW a few weeks ago, we talked a lot about packaging decisions in a way that made sense to the person making them. This is where competence and autonomy intersect; a choice can’t be meaningful if a person doesn’t have the knowledge or expertise to make it well.

One example is buying a car; unless someone is an auto enthusiast, bundling features makes the decision much easier than having a buyer choose each one individually. Raphaela also gave the example of a physician trying to involve patients in care and asking for their preferences on the minutia of surgery, such as what direction an incision should be made. Not only are most patients incapable of meaningfully contributing to that decision, it’s likely terrifying to them to be asked as it suggests the physician’s expertise is not being applied.

Not only is it important to understand a person’s level of knowledge when determining their choices, it’s also critical to keep the number of choices reasonable. The “paradox of choice” research shows that too many choices can be overwhelming and less likely to lead to action than a smaller number of options. If we’re trying to influence people’s behavior, it benefits everyone to offer a carefully curated and limited group of choices for users.

So as we design interventions for people, we need to pay attention to the level at which they are able to make meaningful decisions based on their knowledge and skills. Chunking decisions at a more granular level can become tedious and overwhelming, and may lead to inaction. Offering choice points that are too macro, on the other hand, may undermine the sense of autonomy we’re trying to foster.