Aging in Place: Choice Architecture

“The first misconception is that it is possible to avoid influencing people’s choices.”
― Richard H. Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness


Aging in Place

I’ve been reading the intriguing New York Times Bestseller,  Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. With a subtitle like this: Improving Health, Wealth, and Happiness,”  I got sucked in and couldn’t pass it by. After all, who isn’t in pursuit of improving their health, wealth, and happiness; and they overlap perfectly with aging in place.

In the next several weeks I will be writing about a number of very employable concepts from the book that can impact professionals working in the field of aging in place remodeling/design. For today’s post: CHOICE ARCHITECTURE

Choice Architecture

Definition: Choice architecture is the design of different ways in which choices can be presented to consumers and the impact of that presentation on consumer decision-making. For example, the number of choices presented, the manner in which attributes are described, and the presence of a “default” can all influence consumer choice (

Let’s unpack this and apply it to other professionals in the field of accessible home design and remodeling.

The authors note (page 3 Introduction) that there are many parallels between Choice Architecture and the more traditional forms of architecture. One crucial parallel is that there is no such thing as “neutral” design. A good architect knows, for example, what might seem like an arbitrary decision like where to locate bathrooms will have subtle influences on how people interact. Every trip to the bathroom creates an opportunity to run into coworkers/others (for better or worse).

The most interesting example I found was the problem of men missing the pot when relieving themselves in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The solution was very ingenious, designers etched the image of black house fly near the center of the urinal–the patrons couldn’t help but hit the fly on the wall. Aad Kieboom, the creator of the solution says: “It improves the aim.”  Authors note: I’ve used them myself and have to admit, I too, hit the target!

The key point to keep in mind here is this, apparently-insignificant design details can have major impacts on people’s behaviors.

Choice architecture

A Choice Architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions. Meaning, if you are a doctor for example and have to describe the alternative treatments available to a patient, or you are a CAPS remodeler and are describing to an elderly homeowner the various Universal design elements possible for an age-friendly home, you are a Choice Architect.

1). The Number of Choices Presented

One of the essential decisions facing any choice architect is the question of how many alternatives (choice options) to present to the decision maker? Should the CAPS client (decision maker) be presented with a single option at a time or several? Too few and you run the risk of limiting options like Henry Ford who told customers they could have a Model T in any color as long as it was black. Or, should you give the customer 20, or 30, or even more options simultaneously and risk what has been called “the tyranny of choice” (Schwartz, 2004) and cause choice overload?

For insights, I’ve cited the bookBeyond Nudges: Tools of a choice architecture

To answer the question of how many options to present, the choice architect needs
to balance two criteria: first that more options increase the chances of offering a
preference match to the consumer, and second that more options place a greater
cognitive burden on consumers because of the additional need to evaluate options.
Thus, to answer this question of balance, we should be concerned about the willingness
of the decision-maker to engage in the choice process, the decision-maker’s
satisfaction with the decision process, and more generally the nature of the processes
that will be used to make the decision. Finally, as discussed later, the answer is
contingent upon characteristics of the individual decision-maker. Older adults, for
instance, with less processing capacity seem to prefer less choice than younger adults
(Reed et al. 2008).
Despite the vast amount of research examining the effects of a number of alternatives
on decision behavior (see Payne et al. 1993; Scheibehenne et al. 2010), the
issue of balancing different objectives makes it hard to identify a simple recommendation
for the optimal number of alternatives to present. However, some general
guidelines apply. One wants the fewest number of options that will encourage a
reasoned consideration of tradeoffs among conflicting values and yet not seem too
overwhelming to the decision maker. Yet too few options may generate context-specific
preferences, a well-known phenomenon in choice, where the presence or
absence of one option influences what is chosen. One recommendation that balances
these considerations is that four or five non-dominating options may represent 
reasonable initial values for the choice architect given these tradeoffs. One could also proceed by starting with this limited choice set, but also provide the decision maker with the option of considering more options if desired.

Insights Applied

Given what these authors have suggested, for the aging-in-place remodeler, offering older clients (and baby boomers) fewer choices at first, with the option to consider more later on after building a trust relationship (and enjoyment of the new independence offered by CAPS design elements in the home), makes sense. For example offering only the 3 design elements of “visitability” upfront, explaining these are the highest impact choices towards remaining home by choice, would be a solid place to start–and a Nudge towards choosing independence! 


  1. Non-barrier entrance to the home
  2. Bathroom on the main
  3. 38-42 inch doorways throughout the home

Next post I will discuss “Default Choices” and home design for aging in place.