Navigability and Sludge.


It’s a simple idea—how easy is it to get from point A to point B?

Unless we’re in desperate need of a burrito, most of us don’t think about navigability; but, it’s one of the most serious issues that we face as humans. Obstacles to navigability make us feel lost.

Even the most basic of tasks can seem complex. The awkward set of knobs that stare back at us as we try to turn on an unfamiliar shower are enough to make us question life itself.

“How did I ever pass 11th grade Chemistry?!” we ask ourselves, self-confidence plummeting quickly.

But the issue of navigability affects more than just basic tasks—it’s equally as influential on our ability to achieve the big goals in our life. To find a job we care about. To find a loving partner. To find peace and happiness.

“When life is hard to navigate, people are less free,” argues Cass Sunstein, scholar and co-author of Nudge. We are unable to get where we want to go. The things that reduce navigability and prevent us from achieving our goals are known as “sludge” to Nobel-prize winning economist Richard Thaler.

Sludge is everywhere, and it keeps us from getting where we want to go. Sludge is all of the hoops we have to jump through to cancel our landline service. Sludge is all of the paperwork we have to fill out to set up a retirement plan. Sludge makes it difficult to make better decisions.

Sunstein and Thaler offer the simple idea of nudges to help us make wiser choices. “Good signage, text reminders of appointments, and thoughtfully chosen default options are all nudges,” writes Thaler. Nudges make it easier to navigate life—they help us get to our preferred destination.

In Cass Sunstein’s book On Freedom, he gives an example of the original food pyramid as a “hopelessly uninformative” tool. It looked like this:

There is no clear path to a healthy diet. It’s hard to translate this pyramid into our everyday meals. “People are unlikely to change their behavior if they do not know what to do,” he writes.

Then, the Department of Agriculture replaced the diagram with a new, simpler one. It looks like this:

The diagram makes it clear: if you’ve got a plate half full with fruits and vegetables and half full with grains and proteins, then you’re on the right path. “Of course we might be able to do better than the food plate,” admits Sunstein, but the point is clear: the diagram improves navigability and makes it easy to find the right path.

If we’re trying to encourage a behavior, our goal should be to make it easy.

We need to identify the correct path, and then make it easy to follow. We need to reduce sludge in our environment. We need “sludge cleanup campaigns” as Thaler calls them.

If our goal is to eat better, then the junk food in our home is sludge that can be removed. If we want our guests to feel welcome, we can give them instructions on how to turn the shower on (only half-joking). We can reduce the obstacles to navigability, and help people get where they want to go.

Navigability is something we can all spend more time pondering, and something we should strive for where possible.