Posted: 08 Jun. 2022 3 min. Lukuaika

Your user is probably making less decisions than you think

Explaining human behavior is a difficult task. The field of behavior is broad and complex with focus ranging from psychological processes to social institutions. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at how people make decisions in their daily lives and how this affects design work, especially user research.

95% of all human decisions are made unconsciously.
(Gerald Zaltman, 2003)

Typically, most of the focus in user research is given to people’s conscious thinking; how they behave and what are the reasons behind the behavior. But it’s often forgotten that consumer behavior is largely driven by the unconscious mind. The term “unconscious mind” is usually associated with Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, yet the general notion predates him by many centuries.

The theory that unconsciousness exists to help humans process all the information we take in and to filter that data to plan and organize choices was popularized by Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman in 2003. What makes it even more complex is that people themselves only have limited visibility into how their unconscious mind works and thus, have a hard time explaining the decisions it makes.

The decision-making process

The human mind can be described as working in two structures: autopilot and pilot. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-prize winning psychologist explains in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), that relying on the unconscious mind refers to autopilot and the decisions made are implicit, emotional, and fast. This is where 95% of decision-making happens as Zaltman illustrated above.

The more rarely used pilot structure is for slower, methodological thinking. In more detail, the decision-making process begins with a derived demand towards a physical or intangible thing that fulfils the human need. To understand decision-making, you need to know what need the person is trying to fulfil. Underneath the surface, it can be, for example, the need for belonging or self-actualization that truly drives the behavior. 

Decisions are also defined by a set of preconditions that drive and shape the action. Such can be, for instance, resources and awareness. They affect what the user can afford or has time to do. Understanding a person’s preconditions may help figure out what kind of decisions they are enabled to make.

Researching the unconscious mind

This understanding of how a person makes decisions is one of the key elements in design. People make most decisions instinctively and irrationally. They evaluate available options through their subjective reality and assumptions of the world. The mind is also shaped by the body and its surroundings and thus, it’s worthwhile studying the user in a larger social and physical context.

One method for gaining insight is to observe the user’s decision-making: how they act and what kind of expressions or reactions they are making during the process. After, the observations can be presented back to the user in a reflective interview at which they can attempt to explain their thinking behind the behavior. This method requires professional researchists since people might lack the vocabulary to express themselves. 

Providing users with tools to express their thoughts in other ways than words can provide a more accurate account of how or why they made a certain decision. One method for uncovering unconscious motives is using metaphors, such as smileys, analogies, allegories, or proverbs. Unconscious thoughts are rarely words and therefore providing the user with a way to communicate their thoughts in other ways than words might prompt more accurate representations of unconscious decision processes. 

Three steps to get started with understanding your user’s unconscious behavior

Even though understanding human decision-making is hard, it’s not impossible. With human-centered design research we can observe our users’ behaviors and use the insights gained in our design work.

Three steps to get started with:

  1. Understand the logic and role of unconscious thinking in human decision-making.
  2. Don’t guess – research. Involve your users in the design process. Observe and listen to your users’ signals and provide them the tools to express themselves accurately.
  3. Make drafts, sketches, early visualizations, or prototypes that help your users to understand the concept you are trying to explain. These can be used in the research process for people to contextualize their decisions.

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Erika Sipilä is a design researchist and service designer at Deloitte Digital. Her expertise lies in interpreting and researching human behavior and incorporating that into design concepts.


Daniel, Kahneman (2017). Thinking, fast and slow.

Liikennevirasto (2018). Yhteiskäyttöautojen potentiaali ja vaikutukset käyttäjänäkökulmasta, Loppuraportti.

Zaltman, Gerald (2003). How customers think: Essential insights into the mind of the market. Harvard Business Press

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Erika Sipilä

Erika Sipilä

Service Designer

Erika works as a service designer and design researchist at Deloitte Digital. She focuses on design thinking, user research, and human-centred concepts. Erika holds a master’s degree at Aalto University School of Business in International Design Business Management. Erika toimii palvelumuotoilijana ja muotoilututkimuksen tekijänä Deloitte Digitalissa. Hän keskittyy muotoiluajatteluun, käyttäjätutkimukseen sekä ihmiskeskeisiin konsepteihin. Erikalla on kauppatieteiden maisterin tutkinto Aalto-yliopiston kauppakorkeakoulusta, jossa hänen pääaineensa oli International Design Business Management.