Everything was better when everything was worse

Post by Ben Edwards

Since seeing Barry Schwartz’s presentation to Google on The Paradox of Choice I have been struck by how often his words ring true.Give people more choice and they are less likely to make a decision and more likely to feel worse about their decision if they do make one.

“Everyone agrees that having choice is better than not having choice. It seems evident that if choice is good, then more choice is better. The paradox is that this “obvious” truth isn’t true. It turns out that a point can be reached where, with more choice, people are worse off.”

In an old interview (Jan. 2005) Mark Hurst of Good Experience asks some questions of Schwartz that illicit some interesting notions of online commerce (among other things). Here’s something to illustrate this point:

Q – I know you’re interested in getting a major e-commerce site to try an experiment on the home page.

Yes, to illustrate my general view. Take any of the most commercially successful websites – Amazon.com, for example – and look at what they offer. Click Bestsellers; down come 20. My view is, when people look at 20 book titles, each of them is competing with the others, making the others less attractive. This one looks exciting, this one looks educational, this one is about my own childhood, but this one is exotic and will take me into a world of imagination. Each is attractive in some way.

The result is that you look at 20 and buy none. But what if Amazon did a simple experiment of not showing 20 books, but only the top five? You can always click to the next screen and see more. My prediction is that if you reduce the choice set, you increase the number of books sold. This should be true of anything you’re selling – office chairs, CD players, vacation packages; the shorter the list, the more attractive the items on the list will be.

It is interesting to note that this already working in the “real world” at Costco, where there are only a few brands/items represented for each product segment. Yet, Costo customers are among the most satisfied of all retail shoppers.

Try telling the Director of Marketing or the CEO that your homepage shouldn’t have links to everything on your site and you will see just how strong an idea is “more choice is better”. Choice is good, then obviously more choice is better. One of my favorite examples from Schwartz’s presentation (and likely his book of the same name) involves buy jeans. At one point, to buy jeans, you simply went to the store and bought the jeans that were your size – one choice, size. The brand (Levi’s), color (blue), and style (basic) were all more or less determined for you. If you got the jeans home and they were ill-fitting it wasn’t your fault, it was Levi’s fault. Now if you go and get an ill-fitting (or unstylish, etc.) pair of jeans (why is it a pair?) it is obviously your fault because there were so many choices there had to be one that was right for you but like an idiot you didn’t take your time with the decision.

It is a long presentation but well worth it. If you have to skip around, I recommend the segment on the default assumption for society and how to live near the 13 minute mark, about how most people now spend a lot of time on things that were non-decisions years ago.

Barely related: On MPR or NPR I heard a story about how optimistic people tend to be the ones who develop road rage while driving because their expectations and reality do not mesh. An example of this (me) is that despite commuting the same way each day and there being traffic and bad drivers, each day, I still somehow expect there not to be, causing me frustration and anger. A better approach, just set my expectations more realistically. (Note – I do this with sports too – I think every sport I play I should be able to play at a high-level, causing me to get frustrated with myself if I cannot.)

About Ben Edwards

Designer of information and interactions; contributes as much with enthusiasm and drive as anything else; generalist; can migrate easily between discussions of databases, use cases, and Photoshop techniques; avid blogger (from the days when it didn't have a name); critic of bad design; organized and presented at the minnebar (un)conference in Minneapolis; married, no children, dog; loves travel. alttext.com, minnestar.org, @alttext
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One Response to Everything was better when everything was worse

  1. Pingback: refactr Blog Archive » Giving users what they need, not what they want.

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