I am almost through reading a book called “The Paradox of Choice,” written by a professor at Swarthmore College named Barry Schwartz. I first heard about the book by listened to a TED Talk in which the author top-lined the main ideas of his theories.
The premise of the book is very simple, and can be summed up succinctly as “Some choice is good, but after a point, too much choice can be bad.” The two-hundred-and-fifty pages of the book go into significantly more detail than that, with some concrete examples from psychology and sociology literature, as well as many hypothetical thought exercises. But it all goes to support the notion that some choice is good, but only to a point, after which actually having that much choice can lead to anxiety, distress, depression or worse.
One reason I like this book is that I can totally identify with some of the personalities he writes about. For example, I’m a maximizer and not a satisficer, which basically means that I drive myself crazy to obtain the best [ food menu choice | consumer electronics device | birthday card ] instead of settling for the first one that comes along which meets my needs. It’s exhausting. Usually, when I’m deciding between purchasing a couple of different versions of the same thing, I eventually just tire out from doing research and end up “settling” for the more expensive one, because I’m convinced it must be the best of the lot. If you’ve ever felt the sensation at a restaurant, when even before you’re finished reciting your order the the waiter, you already feel a gnawing sense of loss and disappointment, knowing that there was something better you could have ordered…. then this book is for you. I won’t say it changed my life or anything yet, because it hasn’t and I’m not finished reading it, but it’s certainly brings up some really good points to ponder and forced me to introspect on my own decision-making processes and rationalization, which, I’ve found, are kind of ridiculous some times.
As Applied to Design
In addition to the influence I think this book will have on my life, I also think that it has some pretty serious implications for my work as a designer, as well. Schwartz mentions during his TED Talk how the ubiquity of connected devices adds yet another choice in our lives: namely that we have the option working any time we reach into our pocket and check our corporate email, and that the knowledge that one could be working at any time can cause anxiety. But I think the application of his theories can be even taken one step further down. In applying the author’s theories to the actual design of digital interfaces, I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to say that user interfaces which are too cluttered, and which try to cram too many options (choices) into one place can go beyond being unusable and annoying they can actual be … *gasp* … harmful to your health!
It’s no news that machines and people just don’t get along some times, and that frustrations which the technology which surrounds us is probably a pretty significant source of stress for many people. This source of stress, I’d add, is one which was not there a couple years ago, and it is only becoming more significant. The number of hairs stuck in my keyboard is pretty visible evidence of that (well, actually, i’m losing my hair for other reasons, but still, I’m sure a crashing PC doesn’t help).
The Real Meaning of Intuitiveness
A term that is often used (and abused) when talking about good design is the notion of
being ”intuitive.” Apparently, an intuitive user interface is one that you can just pick up and start using, because it makes sense or just works (Don Norman would say that an intuitive web site / object / user interface is one you need to learn just once). I remember when the iPod first came out (b.t.w. I am the proud owner of a working 2nd-generation iPod); this coincided with the time in my career where I started becoming interested in design and usability. I’d ask people why they liked it, they’d say because it was easy to use and intuitive. When pushed further, people couldn’t say why, just that it was. (Note, this is purely based on my observation, anecdotal evidence).
I find the notion of intuitiveness to be somewhat nebulous; it has an intangible, magical quality to it. It’s the kind of adjective many designs strive for but few truly achieve. Certainly, adhering to good UI design principles such as supporting discoverability and providing timely and useful feedback on user actions will lead to a warm fuzzy feeling of “intuitiveness” in your users. But I think that there is something also to be said here for the feature-set — what stays and more importantly what gets cut — that can lead to someone to utter the i-word.
So I’d argue that: “Intuitive” is the word people use to describe a system that doesn’t make them decide between seventeen different options in order to complete what should be a simple task, thus sparing them the feeling of being a moron or causing them undue amounts of stress.
So I think the mantra that “some choice is good, too much choice is not” applies both at a systems level as well as at an application level.
I’m a fan of my Mac. Not a fan-boy, just a fan. I realize that like any other piece of technology out there, it has its problems, and it even crashes some times, although – come on – i’d take the gray screen of death with that nice transparency all those fancy languages on there over the BSOD any day.
When people ask me why I like it, there is a very specific answer with which I respond: “I like it because there is one way to do things, and that way usually works pretty darn well.” It’s simply that someone else has made all the difficult decisions for me. All my images open up in Preview, Finder handles CD burning, and iTunes is great at handling all my media needs, video, audio and otherwise.
Now, compare this to a PC. The Windows registry is like a fucking popularity contest … or a war zone. And in the battle of Empeethrie, the armies of iTunes, Nero, and Windows Media Player are constantly vying for control of the .MP3 file extension. It’s almost comical. Real Audio would try to bogart every file type if it were given the opportunity to.
I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert user, and at this point, quite adept and choosing which file types I should open with which applications. But for a first time user, clicking on a streaming media file and then being asked to choose among fifty different applications raising their hands and saying “Me! ME! Ohhh pick me!” must cause a bit of anxiety.
But even an ‘expert user’ can succumb to the file type fiasco! I recently spent more hours that I’d care to admit to trying to figure out how to mount an .IMG disk image file on a PC. I also downloaded and tried several free utilities, and even followed an entry in the Windows Knowledge Base about some unsupported Microsoft solution …. all to no avail. This functionality is supported out-of-the-box on the Mac with a combination of built-in system tools and Terminal commands.
When I insert a CD into my PC, a dialog comes up that says “What do I want to do with this CD?” I appreciate the wizard-style approach and letting me choose how I want to use the disk … but …. come on … don’t make me choose! Can’t my machine, which I’ve been using for years now, figure out for me that I can’t open a disc full of .JPGs in iTunes? Or that I don’t want to open a disk with a movie file on it in “FinePixViewer” (whatever the heck that is?!?)
One of the more common complaints of the Macintosh ecosystem of hardware and applications is that there’s a special Mac way of doing things, and once you start going Mac, you get sucked in.To this I say: Bring it! If someone has already figured out the 80% solution for what I need, and has done a great job of building elegant, easy-to-use applications to meet these needs, then I can deal with little less choice or having to do things a certain way.
Opening up the Preferences pane for the first time on a newly installed OS X application is quite a treat for me. Why? Well, preferences panels in general are exciting because they display the various dimensions along which an application can be tweaked and tuned. But on many OS X applications, I find that the list of preferences is usually surprisingly small, despite the power and feature-set of the application. I like to see which options that were chosen for me to define. It’s not many, but I am nevertheless confident that, within the sandbox of customizability provided for me, I can get the application to behave the way I want. Also, I end up spending a lot less time fiddling around, and don’t feel as if I’m missing out on a large chunk of functionality.
In a very unscientific experiment, I count about forty options for the Safari Web browser. Counting the options for the Firefox web browser, I count about double that, as many of the options are buried several levels deep beneath tabs and “Settings” buttons (Yes, that’s right…. Preferences->Settings). Is Firefox a more powerful browser than Safari? Arguably so. Certainly more extensible. But this added feature comes at a cost, namely the potential to confuse the heck out of users. But it doesn’t have to be this way. To give a concrete example of how good design can keep power in the hands of the users without burdening them with innumerable choices, let’s look at how you browse ‘privately’ in each of these browsers.
You do the math!
Thinking about the mobile phone space, I’ll again use Apple as an example of how throttling back on the number of choices available to the user can lead to a good user experience. In addition to the novelty factor of touch and a set of swiping gestures used on the iPhone, there are real cognitive benefits to a model of direct manipulation that does not squirrel away gobs of features under an Options menu. For the most part, what you see on the screen of the iPhone is what you can do. Most buttons have one-to-one mappings with functionality (i.e. no nested buckets of features) and this list of possible actions is therefore small.
As far as I can tell, the camera has no options on it. Well, one option if you count the option to take a picture at any given moment. Once I’ve snapped a photo, I can do six things with it (use it as wallpaper, email it, or assign it to a contact, delete it, zoom in or start a slideshow). All of these, with the exception of zoom (which is achieved by a double-tap gesture) is visible on the screen when I’m looking at the photo. On my Windows Mobile device, I can do 14 (I don’t feel like listing them here), only one of which (”Send”) is visible when I’m looking at the photo. The rest are buried in hierarchical Options menus. In my opinion, if not used carefully, an Options menu can be a slippery slope and facilitator of designer indecision and laziness. (”Whatever, just put it in the Options menu.”) Option menu features should be considered like fats and oils, at the top of the feature pyramid. Eat options sparingly and thoughtfully.
Is the iPhone more limited in its functionality. Yes. Limited, perhaps, but if the popularity of this platform is any indicator, certainly full-featured enough to deliver a stellar user experience despite (or because of!) these limitations.
I realize that a lot of what I’ve spoken about here just corresponds to good user interaction design principles.
But instead of thinking each feature as an entity in and of itself, which can be executed or not by the user, I think that some new insight, and perhaps inspiration, can be garnered from thinking about the accrued effect that all these options or features or applications can have when presented to the user. The decision to use one at any given time is also actually a decision not to use all the others, and the more total there are to choose from, the harder this decision will be, the more cognitive resources will be spent making the decision, and the more will be riding on the results (for more about this chain of events, read the book!).
So going back to Schwartz’s original (paraphrased) mantra: A little choice is good; too much choice is bad.
At its very core, design is about choice; how things look, how things work, can all be broken down into a series of individual choices which the designer must make on behalf of the user. And thus I believe that designers have a responsibility to their users to protect them, by making the hard decisions so that users don’t have to. Just as a father wouldn’t ask his middle-school-aged son which mutual fund to invest in to eventually cover his college education, we shouldn’t ask our users to make decisions that they are not qualified to, and often don’t care, to make.
If, as Schwartz points out, there is a significant linkage between an ever-increasing number of choices and an overall declining quality of life (and I agree that there is), then I believe that designing with an eye towards reducing the number of choices a user must make (in addition to all the other crucial UX design principles), even at the expense of some functionality, will not only lead to a positive user experience, but also to significantly happier users.
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