Thinking fast and slow in digital

Ronald Ashri

Jan 04 2017


Successfully delivering a digital project starts by understanding how we, as humans, think. The better we get at identifying what might mislead us and learning to focus on what is important, the more chances we have for delivering a successful project. We need to cultivate our ability to think slow in order to deliver something that will enable others to act fast.

In the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, psychologist Daniel Kahneman provides a conceptual framework to help us better understand how we think. The basic tenet is that we have two systems that influence us and they are in constant competition.

System 1, as Kahneman calls it, is fast, instinctive and emotional. System 2 is more deliberative, rational and effortful. He goes on to describe a number of experiments that demonstrate how we often allow System 1 to lead us down the wrong path when faced with complex and unusual situations as we attempt to anchor them in what we know and relate them to patterns we’ve seen in the past.

Digital projects, it could be argued, are almost perfectly designed to set these traps for our minds and lead us down the wrong path. Here are some examples.


What on the surface can appear as a simple request such as “our organisation needs a website”, once unpacked, opens up a significant number of questions that go well beyond what people intuitively consider the domain of digital design. Framing, as psychologists call it, significantly influences our subsequent choices. If we frame the problem of creating a website in terms of “what CMS will allow us to create pages quickly” as opposed to “what reactions do we want to generate from users”, we will go down a very different (and not very useful) path.

Substitution problem

The relatively young age of the discipline of digital design means there is an unusually high level of noise within the information available. It is easy to be misled as to the actual complexity of the task and become overly concerned with a specific aspect (which CMS, which technology, which colours, etc). Breaking through the noise to get to what is really useful challenges the very core of how we as humans are equipped to think. In particular Kahneman describes, through what he calls the substitution problem, how we are naturally inclined to substitute complex questions (e.g. “What is the most important message our organisation should get across?”) with apparently simpler, but not as useful, questions (e.g. “What colour should the page footer be in?”).

The Planning fallacy

The actual realisation of a project requires a variety of different disciplines to complete. Digital strategy, design, user experience, analytics and software engineering all come into play. Each brings its own terminology and set of norms and you are taken on a whirlwind tour of the possibilities and called to sign-off in time for the project to keep pace and stay within budget. Unfortunately, as Kahneman explains, humans are also inflicted by a planning fallacy. We tend to consistently underestimate the time required to complete a task. At the same time optimism bias means that we overestimate the benefits.

Think slow to allow others to act fast

What are we to do then? Understanding both how we think and how people that interact with our website think is central to delivering a successful digital project. We improve our chances of success by recognizing that designing, planning and delivering the project is going to take deliberative, rational and effortful thought.

As we have seen, we have to avoid a number of pitfalls and stereotypes and challenge what we think we know in order to create something that achieves our goals. At the same time, the project we deliver needs to engage with people in a manner that is fast, instinctive and emotional. We cannot expect visitors to engage with our site using their slow and rational systems.

At Deeson we have built a project delivery process that helps us avoid or minimise the risks of these pitfalls. During our Discovery phase we hold a one-day Blueprint workshop that directly aims to address the framing issue by getting all stakeholders in a single room and guiding them through a discovery process, with the aim of defining the problem we are trying to solve.

Ongoing internal debates and unlimited training budgets for all employees means that we are not afraid to explore the hard questions and avoid the substitution problem. Finally, empowered and multi-disciplinary teams working closely with clients through an agile methodology mean that the state of the project is kept in check and planning is focused on realistic deliverables.

In short, we need to engage our deliberative and rational side in order to produce systems that are beautiful, intuitive and emotional. Deeson’s approach is designed to achieve just that.

Ronald Ashri

About the author

Ronald Ashri

Technical Strategy Director