Easier Is Better Than Better

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In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz comes to an interesting conclusion involving human choice.

“People choose not on the basis of what’s most important, but on what’s easiest to evaluate.”

Common sense would dictate that if you were given a list of choices, you would choose the one that is most important to you, when in reality humans usually choose the one that is easiest for them to understand and evaluate. Very often we do so because we don’t have the time to put in the research necessary to make an informed decision. Politicians are rarely elected based on the majority of people doing research on their background and the policies they support. They are elected for the fact that people can relate to the message they are spreading and because we have heard of them before.

When it comes to our own designs, we imagine people being able to make informed decisions on what the next step should be. However, they are already making 400+ decisions throughout the rest of the day that are likely more important than what they will deal with in our design.

Do you think most people realize there are benefits to driving a manual transmission car over an automatic? Do you think they care? Automatic is easier to pick up so why bother with any other choice? How often do we stay in relationships that we shouldn’t, simply because it’s easier to just deal with it than face the repercussions of having to confront the person?

Have you ever been to In ‘N Out Burger1? I’ve heard great stories about this place and their mythical burgers and fries. The catch behind this place is that they have a very limited menu2. You order a Double Double, cheeseburger or hamburger. You can add fries, milkshake and beverage to that if you wish. That’s all of your options (unless you know about the secret menu). Now, I’ve been there and tasted their food and it’s good, but it is not much different than Wendy’s. The appeal of the place is that your choices are limited. It’s easy to order there because you don’t have to decide which type of chicken sandwich you feel is the best option for you. In ‘N Out makes the fast food experience easy for you. Having it your way is not the way we want.

In 'N Out Burger3
In ‘N Out is known for their very limited menu. Too many choices are distracting and require more time for making a final decision what to order. Image source4

Woot.com5 is an online store with a twist. Instead of browsing through hundreds or thousands of items, you are offered only one item a day. If you like it, you buy it and if you don’t, you wait until tomorrow to see what is going to show up. The site is successful and yet the logic of it all seems backwards. However, if I’m running a store, does it really matter whether I’m selling 100 units of 1 item or 100 different items for 1 unit at a time? Woot makes the shopping experience easy by making our choice simply “yes” or “no”.

How much less fun would Angry Birds be if you had to select the birds you could use before each level? Taking away that choice and letting us focus on how to use the birds we are given makes the game much more enjoyable.

6
By not choosing which bird to play with in each level, one can focus more on how to use them. Image source7

How many of your friends choose to buy a computer for their home simply because they use the same one at work? Since they have been using it at work, it has become easy for them to use. Doesn’t mean it is the better computer  —  it is simply the one that is easiest for them. Our selections don’t have to be the best choices  —  they just have to be ones that we are okay with.

How often do you come across a site that offers you better features than their competitors, but they aren’t as easy to use. There is no reason to switch over to a service that is harder to use even if they have more features. If the features aren’t there to make my life easier then what good does the service do me?

Back when image hosting was cool, the sites that won were the ones that allowed you to upload an image without having to register or login. You simply uploaded your image and you were done. Imgur8 is a great example of this and has now become one of the most popular image hosting sites in the world. That doesn’t mean sites like Flickr9 couldn’t thrive  —  they just had to work much harder to achieve more users and show that going through the hassle of registering was indeed worth it.

User Settings And Choice

In a recent article10, Jared Spool did a study that found that only 5% of users changed their default settings in MS Word. Being a computer nerd, this surprised me because I like to dive into the settings of all of my applications to see what I can tweak. The large majority of people don’t seem to want to tweak though  —  they just want to use the application:

“We embarked on a little experiment. We asked a ton of people to send us their settings file for Microsoft Word. At the time, MS Word stored all the settings in a file named something like config.ini, so we asked people to locate that file on their hard disk and email it to us. Several hundred folks did just that.

We then wrote a program to analyze the files, counting up how many people had changed the 150+ settings in the applications and which settings they had changed.

What we found was really interesting. Less than 5% of the users we surveyed had changed any settings at all. More than 95% had kept the settings in the exact configuration that the program installed in.”

It is great to provide the user with the ability to make changes, but settings aren’t a must-have feature. Building a great product that just works should be priority number one and once you begin to understand what settings might be tweaked, should you then start to think about adding a settings panel.

Users assume you are giving them the settings that are best for them right off the bat. If you aren’t, then they might view your product as a failure.

The Paradox Of Choice

The paradox of choice says that the more options available to an individual, the harder it becomes to make a selection. For example, if there are free samples of jam being given out at the store, you are more likely to get people to buy a jar of jam when only six selections are available as opposed to 24. More choices don’t make the selection process easier for people, but having no choices takes away some of the freedom they believe they have.

Collection of crocs11
According to Barry Schwartz, it is much easier to find your pair of crocs if there are fewer color options available. Image source12

When deciding on which of the new iPhones you should get, you can either get it in black or white and three different memory options. Add in multiple carriers though and the choice starts to become a little more complicated.

If a client tells you that you can do their design any way you choose, it is more difficult than having to do a design with constraints because your options are endless. We need constraints, limited choices, to be built into everything that we do. This makes decision making easier and the benefit of this is an easier design to use.

If somehow you can make the easiest product and the best product in the industry, you have yourself a winner. You have to consider how many choices we are given daily so it’s in your best interest to limit the ones your customers have to make because there is a good chance it isn’t the most important decision of the day for them.

What this means is that the design that is easiest to evaluate (less options to choose from) will win most of the time. Make your copy straight to the point. Don’t waste your time on graphics that don’t drive the point home. Funny t-shirts and bumper stickers are effective because they are easy to evaluate. I have a hard enough time picking my outfit in the morning  —  don’t make me try to decide which one of the 250 default avatars I should use.

What Do You Think?

This article is part of our Opinion Column section where we provide a platform for designers and developers to raise their voice and discuss their opinion with the community. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.in-n-out.com/default.asp
  2. 2 http://www.in-n-out.com/menu.asp
  3. 3 http://www.flickr.com/photos/mesohungry/4525295937/
  4. 4 http://www.flickr.com/photos/mesohungry/4525295937/
  5. 5 http://woot.com/
  6. 6 http://www.flickr.com/photos/65999620@N00/5423823785/
  7. 7 http://www.flickr.com/photos/65999620@N00/5423823785/
  8. 8 http://imgur.com
  9. 9 http://flickr.com/
  10. 10 http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2011/09/14/do-users-change-their-settings/
  11. 11 http://www.flickr.com/photos/harrymia/1497582785/
  12. 12 http://www.flickr.com/photos/harrymia/1497582785/

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Paul Scrivens is a passionate designer who runs Drawar and innovation consulting at Emersian. He loves design. He loves learning. He loves being wrong. That last one was a lie. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

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  1. 1

    The MS Word example is interesting. Perhaps it’s the case that the default settings cater to the vast majority of users. Therefore, there’s no need for most people to change them.

    Ever used Lotus Notes? I’d imagine 95% of users change the default settings but not because they enjoy having the choice.

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  2. 52

    Human Factors has been dealing with this for years. It is not as simple as just take away, or hide options. It is still dependent on the product and it’s uses. Yes, I’m all for making it as enjoyable as possible for the user and as easy to use as possible but there is a bandwagon starting after Steve Jobs’ death that is looking for easy, cookie cutter answers.

    Hiding infrequently used and unimportant options, having good defaults, etc. are all
    important guidelines that have been around for a long time (The military has been doing Human Factors research for 70 years) but it’s not always that straightforward.
    You still have to design your product and do research. You can’t just make it simpler.

    And In-n-Out is consistently rated as the best tasting fast food burger. The amount of items in the menu has nothing to do with that.

    @Mark Simchock
    Perhaps it’s just me but I feel as if I just read a Malcolm Gladwell book. That is, packed with hypothesis and then supported with selective—if not questionable—reference points. (Angry Birds? Really?!?)

    I agree.

    http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/simplicity_is_highly_overrated.html

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  3. 103

    An astute understanding of the common psychology of ‘choice’. But, understanding the basis of this ‘syndrome’ is, i think, very important.

    People are taught from birth “not to think”! But rather to choose the “standard default” when faced with a life decision. The institutions [schools, churches, commerce] all profit greatly from individuals not thinking about the actual underlying importance of choosing well, but choosing instead to ‘default’ to the common/standard/popular choice, most accepted by society. [‘popular’ trumps ‘wisdom’]

    Hence all the pressure is (to quote Albee in “tiny Alice”) “accept Julian, accept”.

    We accept the existence of deities, over the more likely situation that things without any proof of any kind, don’t actually exist; it’s the popular ‘position’ keeping the bulk of people on the planet living in limbo.

    We cloak the school history version of the treatment of aboriginal societies by the wave of (in effect) ravaging hordes from Europe over running the NA continent in a cover story of protecting settlers from ‘savages’ and ‘winning the west’ (finally this is being questioned).

    We allow vapid low quality entertainment on television (etc.) to fill what could be interesting and productive lives, rather than choosing how we can effectively spend our leisure time. [TV in the 21st century has taken the place of the church in previous centuries]. And, of course while having our lives stolen by these organized forms of “crime” (if only dishonest manipulation), we spend our time and resources deciding on “what ‘stuff’ to buy”!

    [“default thinking” is not as benign as these authors seem to imply, but definitely true.]

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    • 154

      Cool. Write us a book BoGoWo. “Thou shalt not think: The spread of Default Standard Syndrome”

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  4. 205

    Nice article. It was very interesting. It doesn’t apply to all of course like everything in life.

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  5. 256

    Excellent. A very good read.

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  6. 307

    Though I am not as Tech as the rest of the readers. I come from the old world of Sales and Marketing and I throughly enjoyed your article.
    I find you are right on the money with offering too many choices. Henry Ford and the Model T was perhaps the first to practice this in the early 20th Century when after a few years of different colors decided to only offer only the color Black for his Model T’s and it was a hit for awhile.
    But, a good example is in everyday life is to ask your friends, “where do you want to have lunch or dinner or what movie to see”, etc. It always seems to come back to one member of the group makes one suggestion and most agree that is the place they will go! Human Nature…what a trip!

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  7. 358

    The guide for future programs (and websites):
    as simple, intuitive, and straightforward as possible, so anyone can use it straight away.
    BUT, very important: never block the possibility to edit all options, to tweek at will.

    That way all techies are happy, and my grandparents are too!
    (My grandpa takes notes with a pencil on his white Macbook, so you see what I mean…)

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  8. 409

    I sometimes think that when a site, restaurant, etc… offers too many choices, it’s because they don’t want to make the choice themselves. Sometimes offering too many options is just a design choice the developer didn’t want to make.

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  9. 460

    Chipotle is a good example of a place that offers numerous choices but presents them in a simple way. Looking at the menu there are only a few options, but then once you pick something, like a burrito, the workers guide you step by step, asking what kind of meat, beans, rice, salsa, etc…

    Contrast this to a menu that displays all the various combinations and it would be extremely hard for one to decide what one wants.

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  10. 511

    Great article! Thanks!

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  11. 562

    This concept applies to designing for print as well. Present a limited choice to the client, but always have back-up options.

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  12. 613

    The quick and simple solution is preffered by life in the Nature.

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  13. 664

    It’s very useful and inspiring information

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  14. 715

    Thank you so much for your insight. I have been dealing with landing sites and rates pages for three websites and your article really demonstrates that I should elaborate more on less. Thanks.

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  15. 766

    Good points, but, being an In N’ Out fan, I have to disagree that it’s the simplicity that makes it so appealing. It’s the burgers — which are amazing! The simplicity is refreshing, and makes it easier to come back and to enjoy the place, but is not the reason In N’ Out is so successful.

    I’d say the “secret menu” is more appealing than the limited “official” menu, since it rewards regulars and makes them feel special. I’d be interested in an article on that!

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  16. 817

    3 – 5 choices ( not 4 ) and the option of mix n match of those and they seem happy.

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  17. 868

    They want to have the option and we have to give them options but as designers we have to control the process.

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  18. 919

    I agree with the larger message. However, In-N-Out is NOT like Wendy’s.

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  19. 970

    I’ve just seen that in my life. Everytime I went to a fast food restaurant I needed like 5 to 10 min to select something from the giant menus they have nowadays.
    Then I became a vegetarian and ba-booom theres just 1 burger and 1 salad left that fits into my new lifestyle. Now I’m done with my order in a sec^^

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  20. 1021

    Wendy’s is as good as In ‘N Out Burger? No way, if I was in the mood for a burger In ‘N Out would win over Wendy’s in less than a heart beat.

    As others have noted, hard to pay attention to the rest of the article when that comparison was so bad.

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  21. 1072

    Decent article but flat-out BAD comparison re: In-N-Out Burger vs. Wendy’s. While the limited menu is a big part of the overall In-N-Out experience, there is FAR more to their success than just that. The difference between those two places, to me, is HUGE. As I mentioned, there really *IS* an “experience” at In-N-Out burger, as opposed to almost every other fast food joint in the country. For one thing they’re limited to the West Coast, so they’re far more rare and “exclusive” than the others. One of the reasons for that is due to their food – they don’t freeze any of their food during shipping, which means they keep their distribution chain small and limited to a certain area. When you get a burger there vs. anywhere else, you are immediately impressed by the high quality of the vegetables. They’re big, crispy, and fresh like they’re always portrayed in the pictures. Their fries are hand-cut on the premises and fried using a healthier peanut oil. Not only that, but the place is CLEAN – almost sparkling clean. That goes to a long-standing idea about fast food places being perceived negatively, so they really put a lot of effort into making sure it’s always looking good, both behind the counter and on the eating floor. The employee’s are well-trained and operate on a level of efficiency and pride that you just don’t see in fast food places today. Working there isn’t looked down upon the way a job at McDonald’s is – they have maintained their old fashioned traditions and kept a high level of quality as their standard. While I have given up eating at most fast food places, the one exception that I make regularly is In-N-Out burger, and it’s because of the overall difference in taste, quality, and cleanliness. I like the simplicity of the menu but to be honest I have, on occasion, been upset by them not offering at least a fish or chicken sandwich along with their standard items. Their limited menu is probably the one thing that I would prefer they expand on or change.

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  22. 1123

    Thanks for showing once more, that it all leads to: “Don’t make me think”

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  23. 1174

    Anirudh K. Mahant

    December 9, 2011 8:42 am

    I watched the whole video on “Paradox of Choices” by Barry Schwartz a few months back on TED.

    It was both entertaining and informative on how the world around us has infamously sky rocketed into changes. In his speech he implied on a very good example where 10 years back when someone wanted to buy a simple pair of Jeans. It felt so good to hear about the experience of buying a new pair of simple Jeans for god sake, most astonishingly because all there was just “A Jeans”, same buying experience goes into spiral today when walking into a store to buy a new pair of Jeans when your flooded and clouded with choices.

    Back then people had Easier/Simpler choices. They only get a pair of Jeans and yet they felt gratified somehow? Its as if Patience, Virtue (Most importantly) and Ethics have left planet earth a long time ago when “we” welcomed these changes around us. Somewhere down the line we made choices that should have been limited or restricted to keep things simple. But who needs that these days ;)

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  24. 1225

    The dangerous part of this is think: if the industry standardize this way of think and limit even more our purchase options. Our life would be easier but extremely limited. Creativity suffer.

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  25. 1276

    This is “Don’t Make Me Think” ten years after. So true that users and clients will choose easier over better.

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  26. 1327

    It doesn’t matter that 95% of the people using word DON’T change their settings… as with any software, customization features should be invisible when you’re using it, there when you need it.

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  27. 1378

    This is a great post, thank you!

    I completely agree, simplicity is always going to be the best option, we have companies like Apple that are striving so hard to make things intuitive for the user. Although limited by settings they get the fundamentals right every single time, probably why they are so successful.

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  28. 1429

    Lets get to the real issue… In n’ Out burger is NOT comparable to Wendy’s! I don’t know who this guy is and by what authority he makes such claims, but I can no longer trust his advice. I was enjoying this article because I am a huge believer in the “less is more”. I mean, that was Steve Jobs’ life goal. One button, and it seemed to work for his company…. Anyway, after reading his evaluation of In n’ Out, I started to doubt everything he said… even though I previously supported his argument. In n’ Out is WAY better than Wendy’s. And also WAY better than Shake Shack too; if you live in the New York area…

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  29. 1480

    Too many choices are the reason why I don’t buy any cereal.

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  30. 1531

    great article indeed.

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  31. 1582

    Excellent Article!!!! With a bit of philosophy that we can add to our designs. Thanks my friend

    tiqaniat.com

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  32. 1633

    I thing peoples refrain themselves from setting up an application to match their tastes because most of them don’t know they can tweak it. As of Microsoft Word, most user are not power-users : They just want to enter text, put some pictures, add some styling to make headers, headlines and stuff and save the document.

    Maybe it’s a good idea to notify user at first run, and help them locate the settings section so they can get the most of their application without feeling lost or disappointed.
    We can for example ask the user to set some basic options at first and offer him a chance to go one step further by redirecting him to a more advanced setting section.
    I think, It is although necessary to give them the choice to skip this step because some users don’t feel like messing around and some may want to use the application as if.

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  33. 1684

    If I go somewhere and there are only 6 choices, and I don’t want any of them, I will go somewhere where they have greater choices — in both senses of ‘greater’.

    Ultimately, fewer choices for the individual leads to a world of philosopher-kings who make all the decisions for the stupid dumb mass, all wearing compulsory Mao-suits to save them from the tyranny of choice each morning.

    I’m not arguing that the mass may not be stupid, merely that they have the right to be as stupid as they wish. Locking them in designer-built boxes merely induces the designers’ dream of universal mass-conformity.

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  34. 1735

    Victoria Casey

    May 13, 2014 4:56 am

    I totally agree that easier is better than better. Having said that, I highly recommend collate box as a better and easier tool than google docs. Try it !

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