The Tyranny of Choice

There is an interesting tension in product design between features/functionality and usability.

On the one hand, users of an application, as they gain expertise, demand sophisticated and nuanced features that allow them to do more varied tasks and create more efficient workflows.

On the other hand, new users to an application are intimidated by large menus and palettes of buttons that deter them from getting basic value from the application.  

More often than not, designers err on the side of features/functionality because they are necessarily experts of their own product and thus subjectively over-value those features that broaden and deepen the experience.

This, as some established product teams eventually learn, can be a recipe for failure as they race ahead of the mass of potential users waiting behind their early adopters.

One interesting way to look at this problem is to consider how, for people, choice can be a bad thing.  

At first blush, this seems very counter-intuitive   

In almost any domain, it always seems better to have more and varied choices.  More styles of clothing, more flavors of ice cream, more ways to get to work in the morning, more colors of paint.  And companies work very hard to give consumers these choices.

And there's no denying there are a lot of good things about choice.  

Novelty is one of the strongest human emotions.  So too is self-identity, and a plethora of choices allows us to construct for ourselves an experience to suit and, sometimes, identify it to others.  The t-shirt is one of the the most elegant vehicles of self-expression ever invented.  Imagine explaining to a Victorian how people would someday display, emblazoned on their chests, their current thoughts about philosophy, culture, and ideas.

And yet, people complain bitterly about the complexity and pace of change that these same choices induce.  We're punished each day by thousands of decisions, some important, some trivial, but many made poorly because of lack of time or energy.

The Rise of the Curator

I signed up recently for Bombfell.  Their service is to deliver you an article of clothing on a set schedule (i.e., monthly) and for a set amount ($69).  You choose some parameters for what you'll receive, like your sizes and preference for long vs. short sleeves, and a personal shopper picks something within those parameters and sends it to you.

I signed up out of interest for their model after reading an article, but after 4 deliveries, I'm quite enamored of them.  

The clothing they choose for me often falls somewhat outside of my standard repertoire, but not embarrassingly so.  As it turns out, this is exactly what I want, though I didn't know it when I signed up.

Another service I started using is Quarterly.  They provide care packages of curated swag, again as a subscription, selected by notable writers, entrepreneurs, organizations or other personalities.  I've yet to receive my first package (from Mark Frauenfelder), but I find myself anticipating it as I would a gift from a friend.

The thread that ties these two services together (and they with this blog post) is that they are fundamentally about taking away choices, rather than creating them.  And they do this while still retaining the novelty and self-expression that come with making good choices for yourself.  

Curation is a bit of a buzzword, even though it's a concept as old as media.  The lasting engagement of broadcast television despite the near-infinite choice available online, is an example of successful curation.  Any story, whether told to friends or written down in a book, is really just a curated set of experiences, arranged to clearly express a larger idea or emotion. 

Both remain compelling, in part, because they liberate their audiences from the tyranny of making endless choices.

When designing a product, it's worthwhile to consider the "cost" of choice in your design.  Walk through your most important use-cases and:

  • Score -1 point for each choice the user is presented with.  And, yes, every widget on that toolbar is another choice.
  • Score -2 points for each time a user is forced to choose between multiple options in order to continue.  
  • Score -5 points for each instance the same choice is presented multiple times without regard to what a user has previously chosen.  
  • Score -10 points for every choice that has serious repercussions if made badly ("Do you want to save that?  Yes/No/Cancel", I'm looking at you..)

On the positive side. consider how your application can make good decisions on your users' behalf.  Use your expertise of the domain and your product to provide a guided workflow that shows the user how to work or play without wasted steps.  Share your deep and nuanced perspective of your content by providing curated spaces where users can passively discover and absorb it.

Done well, good decision making on the behalf of the user, like Bombfell and Quarterly, can be a wonderful product in and of itself.