The Dark Side of Design

“Would you like the full coverage or just the basic insurance?”

“Would you like us to fill it up for you when you bring it back? We charge $3.10 a gallon, which is pretty close to gas station rates right now.”

In a way, I’m impressed with these two questions typically asked when you rent a car. Both questions must be significant revenue generators. Unfortunately, both questions generate revenue by hiding key information.

The first question fails to present the possibility that you can decline the insurance entirely, presenting your options instead as a binary choice.

The second fails to mention that the car rental firm is going to charge you for an entire tank, not just for the number of gallons they add to it. If you bring back a car with seven gallons of gas in an 18 gallon tank, you are going to pay for 18 gallons, not 11.

The way they’ve worded the questions is clever…but dishonest, I think, and an abuse of design.

The idea of presenting a binary choice when there are more options is powerful, and one that’s useful with children (do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue one today?) to prevent choice paralysis and minimize fuss. And I imagine there are instructional design and/or change management possibilities in the false binary choice. The risk with adults, though, is that once they realize you are presenting false choices, they’ll distrust everything you ask them.

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