Why Less Is More

Today, on the last day of the UI11 Conference, we have seen a terrific keynote by Barry Schwartz, Professor of Social Theory and Social Action and author of the book ‘The Paradox of Choice – Why Less Is More’. It is by far the most usable keynote in my experience. Here is a selection of my notes.

We have always assumed that more freedom means more welfare. And we consider the ability make our own choices a key factor of freedom. So, more choice means more welfare. Or at least, this is how we think the world works. The business world has been acting upon this for many years and the public sector has been into this as well. Just look at the choices in the supermarket (cookies, desserts, toothpaste etc.).

Choice is good. But the problem is that we think that is only good. There is more choice than we need. There are three effects of having too much choice:

  • It paralysis people. They simply don’t know what to choose; don’t know how to make the decision.
  • It affects the decision quality: People make their choice based on criteria that are simple. If that those turn out to be the same criteria that you find important, that’s luck.
  • It decreases satisfaction about the decision, because of:
    • Regret: If you made a bad choice, you know you could have done better, because you know there are alternatives that you didn’t evaluate. Not knowing all the available options, for example when you choose based on someone’s advice, will often result in more satisfaction.
    • Opportunity costs: By choosing one option, you have to say no to other things that were also attractive.
    • Escalation of expectations: Is this as good as I expected it to be? With more choice, you expect your choice to be perfect, at least better than when you had less choice. And often that will not be the case.

There are two kinds op people: maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers want to have the best. They will do an exhaustive search, which is either impossible or very exhausting. In general, maximizers are less satisfied with their lives than satisficers. Satisficers will find an option that is good enough by their standards.

What is the best? What is the best car? There is no general answer for that. What we do, is look at what other people have chosen, hoping it helps us making a choice. If you know exactly what you want, more choice may be better. But many times, this is not the case.

About defaults: Many people often don’t wish to bother about choices that require extra effort. As a result, they stick to the default. So create defaults that serve the interest of most of your clients. If they don’t make a choice, they will still get a good option.

Capability vs Usability: When given the choice, people will always choose a product with many features over one with few features, even if the latter is all they would need and is more usable. People are afraid that they will miss something when they choose the simple one. Consider that if you offer features a la carte.

If you want to know more, make sure to read Schwartz’ book ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More’. It will be worth it.

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