The Paradox of Choice

January 23, 2012

Barry Schwartz’ TED talk about choice from a few years ago remains one of my favorites.  (Warning: semi-NSFW slides in the middle)

In a nutshell, Mr. Schwartz studies the effect of presenting choice to consumers.  Some choice is clearly better than none, but there is a point where more choice just confuses and exasperates the consumer.  In areas where I must make choices, this talk resonates.  I feel his pain when shopping for everything from computers to toothpaste.  Too much choice is not better than just a bit of choice (provided that the latter choices are at least passable).  On the surface increased choice seems to add value, but it frequently only frustrates and disappoints.

As an interface designer, I have learned the hard way that I can accidentally put my users in a similar bind by attempting to give them too much robustness.  Some of the most dramatic improvements I have made in my software have been by hiding choices from users.  A few years into maintaining a project, I made an eye-opening observation during a training session.  I was demonstrating features to new employees, and several times their managers, who I consider to be power users, gasped when I pointed out a button, remarking that they never knew that feature existed.  The screen was so full of buttons that they could not discover on their own what each one did and use it to their benefit.

Determining what choices to limit or take away is a delicate but necessary process if the goal is to create a positive experience for the consumer.


2 Responses to “The Paradox of Choice”

  1. Kevin Moberly Says:

    Too often, the choices provided do not take into account the needs / interests of real users. It is the proliferation of useless choices that drive us crazy. Just because is can be done doesn’t mean it should.

    recommended reading: The Inmates are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper.

  2. Ron Says:

    Excellent! Hope you never stop blogging!!

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