Happiness, decisions, & the paradox of unlimited choices
March 31, 2007
If some choice is better than no choice, and more choice is even better than that, then how can still even more choice — a seemingly unlimited array of choices in fact — not be a kind of decision-making nirvana where people make both better decisions and are happier about those decisions? Do not more choices and a greater number of options lead to better decisions? And if so, why then are people unhappy with their decisions even when a decision is a good one? Why do people feel regret even when they choose well?
Barry Schwartz’s TED talk in London (2005)
Here is a good presentation from TED (watch below) which is a great follow-up to the previous post on the liberating effects of constraints. A couple of PZ readers reminded me that Barry Schwartz, in his 2004 book called The Paradox of choice, put forth some very interesting ideas about how pursuing the maximizing of choice is not as liberating as one may think, in fact he believes it’s one cause of unhappiness. I read the book two years ago and liked it (and then sort of forgot about it, though the ideas stayed with me). Creatives know through experience that no freedom is to be found purely in the maximization of choices (as we talked about in the last post). In The Paradox of Choice, the author makes a similar claim that having an unlimited array of choices and few constraints is not liberating or enabling and is in fact often (not always) a burden and a bondage. Here Schwartz is not coming from the point of few of design and creativity but rather speaking from the point of view of the consumer (that’s all of us) and the paradox we face today: that having choices is essentially very good but that having a huge amount of choices does not make us necessarily more productive, nor does it always improve our decisions or make us any happier.
Learning to love constraints
At the end of the book Schwartz ends with 11 ways we can end the crippling effect of too much choice or “the tyranny of small decisions.” The last one in the list is simply this: “Learn to love constraints.” I recommend the book, but you can save your money and get a pretty good feel for the book’s content by watching this 2005 presentation by Barry Schwartz at TED (below). This is a good presentation, though you will surely have some tips to offer him on both slide design and on the issue of making appropriate fashion choices on the day of your presentation.
(More video/audio download options here on the TED site.)
Back to design: What does “more is less” feel like?
Schwartz gives us a lot to think about related to freedom, constraints and choices in our daily lives, but what does “more is less” feel like when it comes to interacting with the design of such everyday things as software, cell phones, or street signs and other forms of visual communication? What does it feel like to be confronted with too many options or to use designs made without adequate thought to and use of constraints? I found a good description of what “it feels like” from one of the photography books I’ve been reading recently, Learning to See Creatively by Bryan Peterson. The author in this case is talking about how inexperienced photographers often snap photos that have too many points of interest, too many elements which alienate the eye causing it to move on. This lack of direction in the composition, says the author, fails to engage or satisfy the viewer causing him to look elsewhere. The viewer is left feeling a bit of confusion which may feel something like this according to Peterson:
“Imagine finding yourself lost on the open road. You finally see a lone gas station up ahead, you’re hungry to discover the route back to the freeway. You ask the attendant for directions, and he begins to offer plan A and plan B and plan C, each with varying degrees of specific detail. Rather than finding the clear, simple, and concise directions you were seeking, your brain is now swimming in a sea of even greater confusion. Clear, simple, and concise directions are all that you want.”
We've all had a similar feeling while using a poorly-designed website, application, or even a cell phone that did everything under the sun except make calls that didn't drop halfway through a conversation.
Simple, clear, concise
As daily life becomes even more complex, and the options and choices continue to mount, making designs which are clear, simple, and concise becomes all the more important. Clarity and simplicity — often this is all people want or need, yet it’s increasingly rare (and all the more appreciated when it’s discovered). You want to surprise people? You want to exceed their expectations? Then consider making it beautiful, simple, clear…and great. The “greatness” may just be found in what was left out, not in what was left in.
• Creativity Loves Constraints (Business Week)
• Recent articles by Barry Schwartz
• Marketing: Too Much Hype Backfires (Science Daily)
• Happiness vs. number of choices (flickr photo)
• Opportunities, Constraints and Barriers affect Creativity (Design at the edge)
• Poster of Schwartz's main ideas from the presentation/book
You have to wonder what he was thinking, looking like he just came in from cutting the grass.
Posted by: Chris | April 01, 2007 at 07:40 AM
Garr, really interesting points. I'm a business writer and the rationale is the same in writing for keeping it clear, simple & concise. If you confuse your reader or presentation audience with too many words, concepts or angles, you create the same effect as the amateur photographer using an over-stuffed composition - confusion and ultimate loss of interest. Also, it supports why it makes sense to start any piece of writing with a right-brain brainstorming exercise (creative), but then 'constrain' it with the application of left-brain (logical) clustering & structure.
Posted by: Nicola Norris | April 01, 2007 at 08:40 AM
Constraints are heaven-sent.
I write best under deadlines, like when my plane is landing in half an hour and I have about 10 minutes in which to finish a paragraph before the flight attendant politely tells me to shut my contraption.
Less is indeed more. Thanks for the post.
Constraints and allowances in eastern Massachusetts: http://surfcountry.blogspot.com/
Posted by: Howard | April 04, 2007 at 09:57 AM
I think in a world of excess, the eye is naturally drawn to the simplicity of uncluttered design. There was a big movement recently towards the importance of white space in print and on the web. I think we find it refreshing. It lets the mind breathe for a moment and makes it easier to know where the audience's focus should be drawn.
Posted by: Leigh | April 07, 2007 at 10:58 PM
This really rings true with me, since in my profession as trade show spokesperson (product demo gal), my job is basically to take the plethora of features and benefits in some new product--and in just five minutes, make them sound *simple.* And compelling and irresistible, but mostly simple, easy to use and cost-effective. My job is to simplify all the choices, options and features so that they are digestible and desirable.
Not saying that the wide range of features isn't necessary, but you're right--they can lead to confusion and indecision. Making the choice simple makes it easier for your customers to make a choice.
Posted by: Heidi Miller | April 10, 2007 at 01:53 AM
I think Schwartz is really onto something, and have referenced his book with clients for a couple of years, as they try to pile on more features and choices for users.
Couple of things on your specific post:
1. One arguement that people say to counter Schwartz is that if we had no or limited choices then people will be less happy, and Schwartz says as much. But what needs to be driven home is that it's not just about a product or service in isolation, it's about the aggregate of *all* the choices. If the overall choice load were low and you had to wade through a lot of choices for a single decision, that would be OK. But everything now requires a lot of choices, that is wahat gets overwhelming.
2. Check out Yolo Colorhouse: http://www.yolocolorhouse.com/ They are an eco-freindly paint manufacturer (zero VOC) that has a very limited palette. But the colors are very well chosen and all go together. They have translated their weakness (inability to create a large palette due to cost/manufacturing constraints) into a strength (more focused decision for customer).
Posted by: richardsona | April 14, 2007 at 07:30 AM