UI prof's website tackles decision-making

URBANA — Should I get a tattoo?

How should I impress my girlfriend's mother?

Should I go to graduate school or find a full-time job?

When faced with decisions, many of us will talk it over with friends and family or pull out a legal pad and write down the pros and cons.

But decisions can be full of uncertainties and not all of us have learned decision-making skills.

Enter Ahoona.com.

University of Illinois Professor Ali Abbas created the website to help people navigate decisions, from major ones like, "Should I start my own business" or "Should I get a divorce?" to relatively minor ones such as, "Should I buy a laptop or a tablet?"

The site, modeled after social networking sites like Facebook, invites users (either anonymously or using their name) to post decisions they're facing, solicit information and feedback from others and then run their decision though a "decision wizard." Ahoona (it's a made-up name) also includes news feeds with links to articles about decision-making and a host of other topics, a database of decisions already made by others, plus polls ("Would you vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016?" and "What are the best online dating sites?"). Users also can choose to share a recommendation publicly (on Ahoona and sites like Facebook) or keep it private.

Abbas, an engineering professor, specializes in decision analysis research. The site is his attempt at helping people, especially teenagers, learn decision-making skills.

"I do believe this is the role of what people should do in academics. Not only just write papers that only a small percentage will understand. Our duty is to bring this research out, to help society as a whole," Abbas said.

Abbas, who worked in the oil industry before pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering, was working on a master's degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University when he took a course in decision analysis. At the time, he wished he had known more about decision analysis while he was working in the field "because we were dealing with risks all the time," such as when the company should keep on drilling or when to stop drilling for oil.

He's been at the UI since 2004 and has taught courses in decision analysis and been involved with projects such as working with teens and corrections officers at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center on how to make better decisions. He also conducts workshops for people in various industries, such as an upcoming one for NASA.

"We can think of decision-making as a calculator," Abbas said. The "inputs" in the calculator or elements of good decisions include good information, alternatives, uncertainties (what's out of your control?), preferences (what you like might be different from what others like), pros/cons of each alternative, and what's the bigger picture.

Ahoona breaks down for users those elements of quality decision-making. A diagram shows users where they need to seek more input or where they need to further explore before making a decision.

The Ahoona project received funding from the National Science Foundation and launched in July 2013. Since then, Ahoona has attracted about 10,000 users, many of whom are in their late teens to mid-20s. Last semester, students in Abbas' decision analysis course logged on regularly.

Nora Al-Qadi, a University of Illinois senior in industrial engineering, was one of those students who posted regularly to the site.

"It definitely shows you things you don't normally think about. It helps you take a step back and look at things from a different perspective," she said.

One of the more important decisions she posted about was whether she should graduate early or take a few extra courses and stay on an extra semester at the UI. Hearing from others about their experiences in similar situations "made me feel more comfortable with the decision" to stay at the UI for one more semester.

Like others, she talks with family members about decisions, but those on Ahoona who responded to her decision post were in her peer group — juniors and seniors in college, some of them in engineering.

Ramavarapu Sreenivas, a UI engineering professor, has been a user on the site for about a year, mostly to observe, he said.

"It's a neat concept — that there's a demographic that can use peer opinions," in their decision-making process, Sreenivas said. High school students will talk with their friends at school and their parents, but logging in to a site like Ahoona "widens that net a bit," he said.

In surveying how decision-making is taught in the U.S., Abbas said he found most of the time it's taught in college, often to upperclassmen or in graduate school.

He is hoping to capture the teen audience. That's a group facing major decisions, such as where to go to college and what subjects to study.

"If we can get decision training and decision skills to teens even before college — and it will take a certain art in presenting it in a certain way that makes it fun, that makes it appealing to them, that makes it second nature — then we can improve societal decision-making significantly," Abbas said.

You can log onto sites like Yahoo Answers or Google, but those provide information, which is only one element of decision quality, Abbas said. For example, you can find out information about Florida's housing market but a basic web search won't tell you if you should buy a house there now, Abbas said.

What makes Ahoona different, he said, is users receive feedback (that is categorized), and the pros and cons of a variety of alternatives are weighed. The database of other similar decisions that have been made also can help people as they weigh their own decisions.

"What we found, what makes decision-making difficult, is not the analysis. ... It's thinking of those elements of decision quality. People forget their objectives or their preferences. (What do I really like?) By giving them this feedback automatically they can understand, 'Oh yeah, I should be thinking of that.'"

Abbas' hope is that when people face a decision, they instinctively review the elements of decision quality.

"We want you to become a better decision maker just by spending time on the site. We want it to be second nature. We don't want it to be a theory taught in school," he said.

Decisions, decisions

The elements of decision quality — via University of Illinois Professor Ali Abbas and his website ahoona.com, which helps people make decisions.

— Alternatives (What you can do)

— Information (What you know)

— Uncertainties (What you do not know)

— Preferences (What you like)

— Pros/Cons (What is good and bad with each alternative)

— Bigger-picture elements.

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