The Brink of Chaos

Can you have too much choice? [The Paradox of Choice Reconsidered]

Can you have too much choice? [The Paradox of Choice Reconsidered]

You walk into your local burger joint and the menu says: “The Ultimate Customizable Burger – $5”, and that’s it. Since it’s the only thing on the menu, you ask for “The Burger” and the person behind the counter responds:

“What kind of meat would you like? We can make it with beef, bison, lamb, chicken, tofu, pork, tempeh, seitan, jackfruit, or plain.”
“Well, what do you think is best?”, you ask in a daze.
“They’re all good. What kind of meat do you prefer?”

This is only the beginning of the ultimately customizable burger requiring you to choose your selection of 50 toppings (which are all given to verbally from the clerk who amazingly has them all memorized), what type of bread you prefer (8 types), what country you want your lettuce from (out of 4). Imagine the answer at each stage to the question, “What do you recommend”?, is always answered with, “It’s your choice, anything you want!”

Feeling overwhelmed yet?

Is having the ability to customize a bad thing? Not necessarily, but forcing your customer to make decisions about how to customize something that is not important to them is a bad thing, but many software packages neglect this principle. People want choice when it’s important, but otherwise, they would rather someone make reasonable default choices for them.

A debate rages between the book Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz (Excellent summary talk he gave at TED) and those that favor the book The Long Tail by Chris Anderson.  Even though recently it’s been difficult for behavioral economists to reproduce Schwartz’s studies, I think his main point is very well taken: The sum of all the choices we are required to make actually makes us less satisfied with them.

The Long Tail is all about the value of choice. When something matters, like “I really love Mexican lettuce”, then you’re more likely to be delighted at the ultimate burger joints ability to provide this to you. We absolutely love to customize and develop niche tastes that are all our own. But if I’m a lettuce connoisseur (is there such a thing?), not a mustard connoisseur, I really just want someone to pick a reasonable choice for the mustard.

So I reconcile these two views as follows:

  • To the consumer: Satisfice, set high standards, buy the things that meet them and enjoy them rather than worrying about whether there is something better
  • To the business: Make your product mass customizable, index comparitively so customers can quickly find what they need, and provide good defaults so that you enable satisficing

[My earlier blog summarizing the concepts in the Paradox of Choice]

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