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What Are Heuristics?

Heuristics are experience-based mental shortcuts that help you make decisions or solve problems quickly. When you’re using heuristics, there’s no set formula for thinking—it’s all based on situations and events that you’ve thought through before. Heuristic methods favor speed over research, which saves time. 

Psychological studies indicate that even though heuristics use a smaller amount of information to make a decision, they’re still shown to be good decisions in the end. This makes heuristic methods viable shortcuts for small decisions in your business. 

Because heuristics don’t use all of the information that can be gained from the subject you’re deciding on, they tend to be best suited for low-risk business decisions. When it comes to big decisions that will cost a significant amount of money, it’s best to research accordingly and decide from there. 

While heuristics focus on making decisions quickly, they’re still an active way of working with problems you encounter. Much like with active learning methods, heuristics are employed to engage with the issue at hand and come to a solution, even if the goal is a quick final decision. 

Why Heuristics Are Used

For the most part, heuristics are used when a situation is time-sensitive but a decision needs to be made. Any business has a plethora of moving parts, meaning the quicker a final decision is made, the better. Heuristics help you make those decisions and can also break down complex questions and circumstances, making them easier to answer and follow. 

Because heuristics are more speed-oriented than information-oriented, they’re not meant to replace all your business decisions—especially important ones. If you can carefully research and take hard metrics into account, you’ll want to do so for big decisions. 

However, time is money, and sometimes even with the maximum amount of information available, you’ll need to make some educated guesses. 

Examples of Heuristics

While there are many different types of heuristics, a few stand out when it comes to business. Let’s dive in to see how heuristic methods can assist in making faster business decisions. 

Availability Heuristic 

The availability heuristic is one of the most utilized heuristics in our daily lives. Availability is all about synthesizing the information that’s immediately available to us at the moment, as well as whatever comes to mind. 

Let’s say you’re creating a content plan but you’re having trouble offering suggestions, so you pull from what’s on your mental radar. You know that a major holiday is coming up—it’s on your radar for business and personal reasons, so you know it needs to be incorporated into the plan. Perhaps the weather has been dreary, so you suggest some warm imagery. Both of these suggestions were made using the availability heuristic. 

Something to keep in mind about the availability heuristic is that sometimes the information we have immediately available isn’t the most important. Don’t be afraid to pivot later on based on new information that you receive. 


Trial-and-error is another heuristic prevalent in day-to-day life. As it sounds, the trial-and-error heuristic is all about trying something and noting the results. If you’re doing something right, you continue with that method. However, if things don’t go as planned, you pivot to something else until you find a good match.  

For example, say you want to target a different part of your audience than usual and create an appropriate initiative, but you’re only somewhat sure it will work. Then, the day after it’s implemented, you get a review the next day from a customer having their “Aha Moment” talking specifically about this new initiative. This means that your trial-and-error experiment was a success!  

A downside to trial-and-error is that what has worked in the past may not always continue to work, which can be costly if you’re not careful. So if you notice that your trial-and-error experiment isn’t yielding results promptly, you’ll want to take note of your snags and adjust. 

Representativeness Heuristic 

The representativeness heuristic assumes that if something shares key factors with something else we have experience with, it will be similar overall. This heuristic is particularly handy when it comes to dealing with unfamiliar situations, individuals, or events. 

A practical example of this is customer segmentation, which is the practice of grouping customers by factors. Popular segmentation factors include age, career, and level of experience they have with your product, but factors can be anything relevant to your business. Good customer segmentation can make marketing easier and more effective, which boosts success.

Something to watch out for when it comes to the representativeness heuristic is stereotyping, especially if you’re using this heuristic with customer segmentation and anything similar. This can be avoided by only choosing segmentation factors that are relevant to your business. 

Familiarity Heuristic 

The familiarity heuristic is a straightforward mental shortcut where we favor something that’s familiar over something we’re not so used to. This is especially prevalent if you’re weighing an option that you’ve experienced success with against something unfamiliar. 

This heuristic tends to come up when deciding whether to shift to a new strategy or a new company for something your business uses. As an example, if you’ve used the same scheduling software for a long time, but a different software offers more features for the same price, you might still be tempted to stick with what you know.

Even though the familiarity heuristic is an understandable way of thinking, it may mean you’re missing out if you don’t take a chance. Like in our example, a different software with streamlined features could be easier to use, which may cause a productivity boost in your social media team.

Recency Heuristic 

Studies in psychology show that we typically remember new information and arguments more clearly than information presented to us first, and the recency heuristic reflects this. This heuristic focuses primarily on recent events or information you’ve received, or information that you’ve gotten last in a sequence.

For instance, if you have a blog on your site and certain kinds of posts have been notably garnering webpage visitors—you might use the recent results as a heuristic to decide on posting that same kind of content when making your plan for the following month. 

Be careful with the recency heuristic, especially regarding something that doesn’t have a documented pattern. Just because something played out a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean the results will be replicated. If you notice that the same approach isn’t yielding the same results, it’s okay to adjust accordingly. 

How Heuristics Are Used

Typically, decisions that employ heuristics aren’t ones that are high-risk (but they may end up being high-reward). 

Let’s say your company has narrowed down three different content marketing tools that are all equally suited to your needs. Instead of agonizing over what’s going to be the perfect fit, you can use heuristics to make a final decision. Any of the three contenders will be better and have more productivity output than no tool at all.  

When it comes to using heuristics as a business strategy, representativeness and trial-and-error can both be good ways of establishing buyer personas. Heuristics can also be used to reach these buyer personas once you have them squared away.

Hand in hand with buyer personas, customer segmentation is another way that heuristics are used strategically. Once you have your customers segmented efficiently, you’ll be able to reach them more effectively and keep them coming back. 

With heuristics in your toolbox, you can make smaller decisions more quickly, which frees up your bandwidth for bigger projects.

Alberto Moreno

Alberto works as a content creator at DemandPlaybook, where he's deeply committed to developing 'reader-first' SEO content. He explores topics such as search engine optimization, content strategy, e-commerce trends, and insights into social media marketing.