The Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that leads us to draw conclusions based on what comes to mind immediately. This means that when we make a decision, we give a lot of importance to things that we recall quickly, and things that we can already see in front of us.

How would you describe a Post-it? 

First, the picture that came to mind for me is the classic Post-it note that I’ve seen in movies and in my office. It’s small, yellow, and unlined. What was most available to me was something I remembered instantly. Because I’ve seen it a million times.

If I asked you to describe a Post-it when this table is right in front of me, you might mention that Post-its come in many different shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Your answer is being shaped not only by your memory but by what you’re seeing now. 

Those are the two main pieces that go into the availability heuristic. 

  1.  What we remember quickly
  2.  what we see. 

We can design the availability heuristic in mind to guide users through a typical journey. This principle should influence the way that you design, particularly the beginning and end of an experience. 

At the very beginning of a user journey: 

  1. Pay attention to the very first impression your site makes. When someone is forming a first impression, they make a value judgment about a site based on what is available right in front of them.
  2. Consider the availability of heuristic when planning your branding and marketing strategy. The information that people have been repeatedly exposed to, becomes more relevant to them. 

Taking a long-term approach that focuses on surfacing your product in many relevant search results will often prove more useful than trying to create one particularly memorable advertising campaign. The mental shortcuts that we use unconsciously help us make decisions the way we often need to.

Make sure that you consider the availability heuristic throughout your site to designing for the way that users think.