Cut Down Those Choices

You’ve certainly heard about the phenomenon called The Paradox of Choice. If you haven’t read the book, I welcome you to take a look at a 20-minute TED talk on the subject.

Cliff notes version: you’d think that having choices makes you happier. And wrong you are. If the choice is made for you, if you have fewer options, you in the end will be happier with the result. Choice messes with your head, making you THINK that the process of choosing is liberating, while in reality, it plain sucks. Why? Because of the What-If thinking that poisons the brain after the decision is made (here’s one more fantastic TED talk from a Columbia Biz School prof on the subject).

Yes-yes-yes, this all can be taken to an extreme and converted to Socialist crap. I’m not talking about societies here – it’s obvious that removing all choice and having a central entity at the helm is plain stupid and Russians have tried and I’ve experienced this personally and my god it sucks.

I’m talking about small choices. Which of the 5000 templates do I pick for my essay? Which of the digital cameras to buy? Do I want to send the Christmas e-card on the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, or 24th?..

Every one of those choices takes mental capacity to make. Every one of them makes you LESS happy in the end.

Software engineers  frequently think about flexibility as the measure for the usefulness of the application. They put in knobs to do all permutations of the possible tasks. They offer settings that let you mess with the inner working of the application, all for the purpose of making complex things possible. I’ll tell you this much – every one of these choices is making SIMPLE things way harder. They take the attention away from the obvious, 95% path, all for that fringe scenario you were going for.

A great design book called Don’t Make Me Think whines about the stupidest paradigm in software development – the “are you sure?” dialogs. Well f#@!, if I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t click the damn button, would I?.. They speak about the gigantic settings dialogs like this one – exposing features nobody cares about in a huge hairball of unrelated knobs, switches, options..

I’d say this much: every option you allow the user to modify is a cop-out. You were too chicken to make a choice for them, and are instead punting the problem, pretending that this choice will make the customer better off. Guess what, it won’t. Grow some cojones, make the decision that optimizes the key path and cuts out the unnecessary options. Find the ONE scenario that your product solves well, concentrate everything you have on that scenario. Be the first generation iPhone – forget about FM radio, Start button, multiple devices, hardware keyboard, good battery, applications.  Deliver a BEAUTIFUL end-to-end experience in very few areas. FORGET about the rest.

Hey, if you think I’m wrong, feel free to follow the other path – the path of features, the path of Windows Mobile 6 – the most flexible platform out there! You can make any application you want on it! So many hardware choices to select from! Physical keyboard! It’s cheaper! Has much better battery life! FM radio!..

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2 thoughts on “Cut Down Those Choices

  1. Antoine says:

    Makes me think of the Amazon 1-click story (which everyone says is an obvious thing – but it is not!):
    – Amazon boss came to the engineers and mentioned that he wants a 1-click buy button
    – Engineers came back with a 4-step wizard
    – Boss came back and said “No! I want 1-click!”
    – Engineers came back with a 2-steps process
    – Boss came back and said “Which part of 1 do you not understand?”
    – The solution was simple: 1-click, boom, it’s bought. If you made a mistake, on the landing page after the click, there is a nice well place “undo” button that cancels the order.
    – Instead of assuming you need to always interrupt the user and double-check, make a more subtle (undo, etc…) feature do the right thing and stop over-confirming!

    Simplicity is nice and less choice is a good thing. Just not the way most engineers think 😉

    Great post Alex!

    (source: the video here: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2010/08/19.html)

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