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Outlier’s Path

Power of Defaults

Hello again from Tokyo. Last week I had to remember to walk on the left side of the street, but this week, it has become my default.

Defaults are simple presets that shape our behavior and decision-making in many aspects of our lives. They are all around us and are triggered automatically in the background without us noticing them. Even if they are not the best solution, defaults save us time and cognitive overload. For example, imagine if every town had to decide daily which side of the street their citizens would walk and drive along. Imagine if your favorite applications rotated through different user design interfaces each day. Defaults are so subtle we need to pause and reflect or be transported out of our usual operating mode to notice that we live in a world full of them.

Defaults may have unintended consequences. In the US, organ donation was defaulted to opt-in, believing that letting each person affirmatively make their choice is better. Some countries have switched to an opt-out system. This small change has led to an increase in organ donations and helped save many lives. Unfortunately, while the data is clear, it has been hard to change our system settings. Some defaults, such as HIPAA, were implemented to safeguard our privacy. While not the intention, sharing your medical records with your different physicians or your anonymized medical information for life-saving population studies are now both challenging. We may be saddened and dismayed by these defaults, but we live with them since we don’t think they are ours to change.

However, there are plenty of defaults that are ours to change. For example, when Zappos was founded in 1999-2000, the default user interface was through a navigation bar, popularized by the web portals, notably Yahoo! By 2005, consumers had become accustomed to keyword search due to Google’s prominence, and Zappos changed our default user interface to emphasize search. By 2010, with the popularity of mobile smart devices, we had to optimize the design for mobile browsing, particularly how we loaded and displayed images. In retrospect, these changes were evident and necessary to keep up with the times, but initially, each change had tremendous opposition. Front and back-end systems had to be redesigned, rearchitected, and rebuilt. Consumers had to adjust to a new experience, and initially conversion rates plummeted before climbing back and moving higher. It took time to adapt, but after a short adjustment, no one wanted the old defaults back.

It is essential to be aware of default settings. Usually, the settings make sense, and affirmatively making those settings the default is a feature. However, the world constantly changes, sometimes downgrading default settings to nothing more than just the default and then, inevitably, an unintended bug. Some established companies have failed because they did not realize that certain defaults moved from a feature to a bug. Upstarts have replaced their predecessors by noticing the bug and changing to new defaults as their feature. Thus, if you observe that certain defaults in your business no longer make sense, fix them.