Defaults as first default? Rly? At SxSW 2011, a photo booth that strangely used as the first default email provider.


I grew up in a culture of strong defaults.


Growing up in a small town in the Black Forest in South Germany, essentially life is good: It’s a prosperous region, has an overwhelmingly friendly (if sometimes grumpy) population, lots of nature and some of the best clean air and water you could wish for. Between our home and the Black Forest, the actual Black Forest, there was just our neighbors’ houses. I could get to play in the woods within hardly two minutes. In other words, a kid’s paradise.

Defaults v choice

However, and more to the point, this comes at a certain price, and that is lack of heterogeneity and choice. To give you some examples, for my secondary school I had only three school to choose from in my tier (secondary schools in Germany come in three tiers based on grades upon leaving primary school). One was in a hard-to-reach town with only two buses going there per day, so that was easy to rule out. So there was essentially a choice of just two schools, one pretty much like the other. If you wanted Italian or Chinese or Greek food, there was one restaurant of each of these. If you wanted burgers, you drove to the next bigger city and could choose between McDonals and BurgerKing. In other words, choice was limited.

Smart defaults matter

Growing up with strong defaults has a lasting, profound effect on my thinking.

M and I often joke about cultural differences in defaults over choice. Being American, she grew up assuming that you order what you want, indepently from what’s on the menu (within reason, of course). My impulse is to go with a recommendation and maybe deviate just a little.

Example: Ordering sandwiches while out and about, she’d build her order from the ground up depending on her wishes; I’d typically pick a pre-set menu and just tweak it (say, by removing the onions).

If it’s really a cultural difference or if I’m reading too much into it I don’t know. But either way it’s led me to believe that defaults matter a great deal. It’s important – and if we’re in a position to do so, our responsibility – to set smart defaults.

This is how you set the tone and leverage one type of desirable behavior over another.