Outsourcing choice 13 Jul 2006
72 comments Latest by Des Traynor
Leona’s vs. The Hummus Place
The 37signals office used to be located next to Leona’s, an Italian restaurant. Every time we’d go there, we’d crack up over the length of the menu (PDF). It’s huuuuge: seven pages and over 2,500 words. The beast should come with an executive summary. Here’s just one sample spread:
On the other hand, here’s the menu at The Hummus Place in NYC. Three options and that’s it. Sure, you don’t get a vast array of wraps, sides, and pastas. But you don’t have to spend a century reading the thing either.
Less choice = less suffering
The problem with the Leona’s approach is choice has a cost. It’s one of the reasons why we always talk about less here: Endless options can actually produce genuine suffering. “The Paradox of Choice” (good summary at the New Yorker) talks about how options can actually be “de-motivating.” Offering shoppers samples of six items yields more sales than offering samples of 24, students who are offered six extra credit topics are more likely to write a paper than students who are offered 30, etc. In some cases, just one additional choice can produce outright analysis paralysis. People wind up frozen by indecision.
This concept applies to interfaces too. Here’s one way to do an event form:
Here’s a “less” way (from the calendar coming soon to Backpack):
Minimizing choice noise
Options seem like a nice idea. But each one adds up. Once you realize the evil impact they can have, you start to look at them differently.
As lessheads, we try to eliminate superfluous choices whenever we can. Some choices are unnecessary because the alternatives aren’t really all that much different. Something good enough will work out fine. For example, at Basecamp, it’s 25 messages per page. No option to change it. That’s good enough so that’s the way it is. Done.
If an option proves it’s worth, we’ll still try to find a way to minimize the choice noise (i.e. anything that makes people think). We offer fewer choices and keep the ones we do offer offscreen unless someone requests them via a click, like in the Backpack calendar shot above. The result is less “huh?” moments and more flow.
UI as benevolent dictator
People want to outsource choice (see the Robert Reich bit here). They want experts to make decisions for them. It feels a bit counterintuitive. In fact, it seems almost undemocratic to go around taking away freedom of choice. But think about it this way: By paring down options, you give people the gift of time and attention they can spend elsewhere.
Update 7/14: Changed the more-choice interface shot in this post to one from Yahoo! Calendar.