Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Problem With Options

You'd think giving people a choice would be a good thing. If you have complete freedom of choices, you should be able to get exactly what you want, right? Somehow, this never works out, and I've been thinking lately about why.

I've seen a lot of this problem lately. First, I discovered it with scheduling (parties or anything else involving a bunch of people): never ask people when they want to meet. If you do, you will wind up with complete chaos, and people still won't be happy with any choice that comes out of it. Propose a time, and if too many people really can't make it, then propose an alternative.

Then, there's design. Like, for websites. If you tell people they can choose one of A, B, or C, and one of 1, 2, or 3, they'll tell you they want some of A with a few aspects of C, plus 2 with the colors from 1. Show a committee every button you could add, and they'll try to add all of them, and wind up in a catfight over it. It just doesn't work.

This comes up in all kinds of products. Let people customize every parameter of their bike, and they'll be left with this permanent lingering feeling that it doesn't quite fit right. Have a shoe custom made for your foot with your own colors and materials, and you'll always think it looks and feels just a little bit off.

Yes, I'm overgeneralizing and making these cases out badly, but bear with me. You know you've seen examples of this. But, do you notice a pattern? Why are people unhappy after they are offered choices? For one, since you had a choice, you feel like you should have gotten just what you wanted - and not only that, if it doesn't seem right after you've chosen, you feel like maybe you should go back and choose something different. Beyond that, though, I think there's a bigger problem: people don't know what they want. This is a far more insidious problem than you might at first think. This is why usability is so hard. It's so easy to see when a program "just does the right thing", but it's amazingly hard to know before you see that right thing. It's why ergonomic design is so hard - why is it only in the past couple of decades we figured out that having lumbar support is comfortable? If you don't know what you want - what will look good, what will be comfortable after you've been sitting on it for a few hours - you don't have much hope of making a good choice for yourself.

If you want a much better and longer piece on how hard it is to evaluate things and people (with lots of good research to back it up), read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell - fascinating book, quickly becoming one of my most highly recommended (right behind Hackers and Painters and Freakonomics).



Blogger Piaw Na said...

The Paradox of Choice is also a great video to watch for a discussion of analysis paralysis.

5/24/2007 9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if there is another way of acting on 'choice'. Sometimes I think of choice as a space between enablement and physical barriers. In other words, we can pick a new path only if we feel enabled, and those paths are only limited by physical constraints (can't walk down the street to work stark naked!). But there are some constraints that are 'real', but a whole raft of them that are perceived (e.g I can't do my taxes because I think that I am bad at Math). I find it so hard to make free choices if I don't feel enabled and/or create artificial constraints.
I am still stuggling with this, I know when I feel enabled but I don't know if I can recognize the difference between real and perceived constaints. *sigh*

5/26/2007 2:50 PM  
Blogger Brent Chapman said...

Lately, for scheduling events with friends, I've been using a nice simple web site named Very minimal, but very fast and effective.


5/26/2007 8:34 PM  

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