Content Decision Fatigue

If something of value is in short supply you will tend to conserve it. That turns out to be true of your capacity to deal with alternatives, make decisions and even to sustain your efforts at tasks.These finding have profound implications for enterprise content management (ECM).

Psychologists have recently described the phenomenon of Decision Fatigue. A recent New York Times article by John Tierney titled, "Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?" gave an excellent overview which I will quote extensively here.

The more you make decisions, the less capacity you have to make additional ones in a given period. And these decisions do not have to be hard to deplete your capacity — in fact they can be quite trivial. Once you have depleted that capacity, you generally respond in one of two ways: you make impulsive decisions or pick the default; or you delay making any decision.

The biology behind this process is beginning to be understood. It turns out that making decisions takes energy; in fact regions of your brain actually use glucose to fuel decision making. If the glucose becomes depleted it needs to be restored — typically by taking a break and having a snack. Until that happens, these brain regions, especially those involved in impulse control, have lowered activity.

However, overall use of glucose by the brain does not change, because other regions of the brain, including those involved in seeking reward, become more active.

An increased tendency to make impulsive decisions is also associated with a reduction in willpower. People become more easily distracted and less likely to complete tasks, including completing a series of decisions required of them. Alternatively, they make take the easy way out by picking a default.

What does this have to do with enterprise content management? I think it is very important. Let's consider two examples:
  1. Consumer behaviour on a business website — a web content management (WCM) example
  2. Staff execution of work — a business process management (BPM) example

Website Consumers

One of the studies cited in the New York Times article compared the degree of decision-making required of online consumers and the consequences:
"...Kathleen Vohs, ...now at the University of Minnesota, performed an experiment using the self-service Web site of Dell Computers. One group in the experiment carefully studied the advantages and disadvantages of various features available for a computer — the type of screen, the size of the hard drive, etc. — without actually making a final decision on which ones to choose. A second group was given a list of predetermined specifications and told to configure a computer by going through the laborious, step-by-step process of locating the specified features among the arrays of options and then clicking on the right ones. The purpose of this was to duplicate everything that happens in the postdecisional phase, when the choice is implemented. The third group had to figure out for themselves which features they wanted on their computers and go through the process of choosing them; they didn’t simply ponder options (like the first group) or implement others’ choices (like the second group). They had to cast the die, and that turned out to be the most fatiguing task of all. When self-control was measured, they were the one who were most depleted, by far."
Very clearly then the online purchasing process required a series of decisions that online consumers found fatiguing, and which reduced their motivation or self control.

The tiresome nature of the process could cause some consumers to abandon the website without purchasing the computer, defeating Dell's aim of selling a computer.

But those consumers who complete the process became more susceptible to impulse purchases. This is illustrated in another study:
"Levav... put the experience to use in a pair of experiments conducted with Mark Heitmann, then at Christian-Albrechts University in Germany; Andreas Herrmann, at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland; and Sheena Iyengar, of Columbia. One involved asking M.B.A. students in Switzerland to choose a bespoke suit; the other was conducted at German car dealerships, where customers ordered options for their new sedans. The car buyers — and these were real customers spending their own money — had to choose, for instance, among 4 styles of gearshift knobs, 13 kinds of wheel rims, 25 configurations of the engine and gearbox and a palette of 56 colors for the interior.
As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2,000 at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer."
These findings could be used to improve the effectiveness of a website to help consumers make the best decisions to meet their needs, or to make the most lucrative, near-term decisions to the benefit of the vendor.
They also point to the importance of reducing the number of decisions that are being asked, asking the most important ones first, and providing default options that ideally are matched to the specific, expected needs of a given online consumer.

Business Processes

Many business processes are quire automated, but typically depend on staff to provide input. This input usually takes the form of decisions, whether those are to interpret handwriting entries on faxes or to approve a purchase order.

A design goal for most automated business processes is to process more items while employing fewer staff. Little consideration is usually given to the decision-making capacities of the staff, or the consequences of decision fatigue that will lead to poorer or delayed decisions.

A study of Israeli judges reviewing parole application cited in the NT Times article illustrate this very clearly:
"Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time."
Those are astounding numbers. The effects of glucose were clearly illustrated:
"In midmorning, usually a little before 10:30, the parole board would take a break, and the judges would be served a sandwich and a piece of fruit. The prisoners who appeared just before the break had only about a 20 percent chance of getting parole, but the ones appearing right after had around a 65 percent chance."
The safest, default decision for a judge is clearly to not grant parole. They take the 'easy way out' when decision fatigued.


In my last post I talked about the 'disjunction effect' and how users may fail to correctly use the categorizations you designed in your content management system. In a similar manner, the elucidation of 'decision fatigue' has clear implications on the potential for success of a wide range of content management solutions.

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