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Easier Is Better Than Better

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.

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 Link

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 Link

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? Link

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.


Footnotes Link

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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.

  1. 1

    Jonathan Wilcock

    November 28, 2011 4:43 am

    I 100% agree! Excellent article.

    If you’ve ever seen a creative department trying to crack an open brief with no constraints or guidelines, you’ll know that limitless choice makes the decision process almost impossible.

    Modern life is extremely complex, with the majority of us trying our best to multitask every waking moment. Anything that helps to simplify things, will invariably be a winner. Give your clients simple choices and they’ll thank you for it.

    • 2

      I tend to think that easier != fewer choices. Having all the choices is still important, but having an interface that guides users to the right choice is required.

      Anecdote: I used to work in an oriental rug store. Literally every rug was different. Choices abound. We killed our smaller competitors who had fewer choices. We did it by having salespeople who could look at your color swatches and immediately take you to the 3-5 rugs that would work best with those colors in the desired size.

      Rugs were aranged by size and type, but that was mainly to help sales find them. In fact, the rugs were moved around the store regularly to keep the appearance of moving stock. Customers would never find what they wanted alone.

      The business fell apart when we got a new manager who thought the best approach would be to reduce the selection to the best selling machine made rugs, arrange them on racks in some rigid categorization, never move the racks (getting rid of stock help), and reduce overhead (get rid of sales people). Sales went through the floor and that store still hasn’t recovered.

      Translated to the web, our salespeople were the search box. Type in what you want, we’ll find it for you. Designers are the stock help, they keep things moving around and looking fresh.

      If you’re arranging your products behind huge lists of categories, you’re just doing it wrong. The number of choices isn’t the problem. The user doesn’t know or care what category you’ve selected for that piece of info or merchandise. They want to tell you what they are looking for and you produce your short list of *relevant* choices.

      • 3

        There are certainly cases where more choice is better (combined with the right UI, of course); Amazon is a great example. But there are also times when more choice is just distracting and actually painful. Neuroscience tells us that rejecting an available option causes us some level of discomfort. More choices generally means more discomfort, which means less happy customers.

        The point of this article is that more choice isn’t always better, and I think the neuroscience of human decision making backs up that conclusion.

        • 4

          I tend to buy products with lots of choices over few choices. Limited options often make choices more difficult for me because I often don’t like any of them when they are limited. I guess I’m different than most people.

      • 5

        well, let’s see, you just exemplified this article, your rug store had a filter for the client called an informed sales rep who presented 3-5 options based on that filter. Same for the site, it should be capable, based on initial input (how the user ended up at the site, basic funneling) to leave clients with as few choices as possible. I can’t stand going to restaurants that require you to name your condiments and toppings, it’s so annoying, anyone can get a bunch of toppings and force the customer to decide what works best together. But to have a signature sandwich that always works the way its structured is art. Say you want a particular item but you don’t like onions, just ask to omit them. I’ve always liked whoppers but without onions. I’m fully capable of ordering one without onions. Ask me all the ingredients in a whopper and I’m sure to miss some and miss out on the total experience I wanted (I can name all the ingredients in a big mac but that’s another story due to my generation.) It shouldn’t be my job to know what works best, it should be the business and that’s what makes them successful.

  2. 6

    Niels van Tilborg

    November 28, 2011 4:52 am

    Great article. I think the real challenge is to find the right balance between the variety of options and the feeling they have enough choices.

  3. 7

    Nice article. Simplicity is the most sophisticated thing

    But if we are making the choice limited then the foremost thing is to have a good product backing it up. That Burger Joint, iPhone, Angry Birds, Croc are good products to start choice makes the shopping experience even easier and of course eventually better.

    Thanks for sharing

  4. 8

    Great article. I find that this “fewer is easier” approach is something clients often need to be reminded of when assessing what options should be presented in a site’s navigation menu. The temptation is to provide top-level links to lots of pages to “make it easier” for users to get what they want with 1-click, but the reality is that the abundance of choices often overwhelms users instead of helping them.

  5. 9

    Very well put. However, I believe that limiting the choices is the right decision mostly if the user is in a browsing mode, (i.e.) they don’t know specifically what they are looking for, hence are more open to suggestions we can impose as designers to make their choices simpler. If the user is looking for a specific item or service I would consider it beneficial to give them plenty of options to choose from and customize the product to their need.

  6. 10

    Gordon McLachlan

    November 28, 2011 5:36 am

    So basically people are lazy but still like the illusion choice? :P

    I would agree with that and it’s probably why companies like Apple are so successful. They offer a modicum of choice and personalisation in all their products but ultimately it’s very limited yet incredibly easy to use. Google are taking a similar approach with their tools such as Google Docs and offering a vastly reduced set of features when compared to MS Office.

    Personally I’m all for it. Give people good, simple, restricted stuff rather than overly complicated choice and variety. The latter doesn’t seem to offer any benefits to anyone.

    • 11

      Albert Einsteins quote holds true: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I think that what “as simple as possible” means varies in different domains. Different cultures, industries, skill levels, etc might want different amounts of complexity and choice. A highly advanced music player supporting many formats, configurations, would be overkill for the casual listener. But for a sound engineer it is a must.

  7. 12

    I think it might hold true but in some niches, that won’t work simply because the consumers are looking in having as many options as possible.

  8. 13

    Has anyone here been successful at convincing his/her boss that we should be pushing less?

    I tried that once, using the same intelligent logic presented in this article – among many more, and even some Malcolm Gladwell works.

    My response was, “Are you kidding? We should be pushing more!”

    Designers try to understand human thinking and optimize. Managers only understand the dump-and-discount method. Shove tons of crap down people’s throat and quickly remove the items not swallowed.

    If anyone knows a place where this isn’t the case, please share.

    • 14

      Steve Jobs. Apple. ’nuff said.

      Haha… OK, just so that I don’t sound so much like an Apple fanboy, one of the first things that Jobs did when he came back to Apple was to rationalise and simplify their product line. Look at Apple’s choices (or rather, lack of choice) now: each product in their line-ups offer 2 or 3 models with very limited options for customisation.

      There’s really no arguing that this strategy has not been successful.

      • 15

        The lack of an option for a slideout keyboard is why I have an Android phone.

      • 16

        So basically people are lazy but still like the illusion choice? :P

        / / Dead on. It’s the reason Apple is a massive company and Tom, below, is getting thumbs down for his Android comment. Apple puts out a phone that essentially doesn’t work because of where its antenna is but who cares? Any other product and the company would have been crucified.

  9. 17

    Lucas Gomeslalau

    November 28, 2011 6:27 am

    Nice article!!!

    But I think that simple is better than easy. Easy is subjective, easy for me may not be easy for you… While simple is objective to everyone.

  10. 18

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

  11. 19

    I usually say to my colleagues (programmers) that if the elevator were made for these fellas it would have a “cancel” button aside of each number/floor button, maybe together with a “trace route” and a “memorize”, who knows, even with some state-of-the-art face recognition! So it would be over-complicated, but it would have all the features one could think of to “help users”… it would be as paradoxal as our current interfaces (most).

  12. 20

    Marios Lublinski

    November 28, 2011 7:01 am

    Great article, I do agree with everything in this article… people say they want all the features and options but in reality they want simple and quick…

    This article kind of remind me of the book “Don’t Make Me Think!” by Steve Krug…

  13. 21

    Great article bud! Good reading material..

  14. 22

    I completely agree. When I go to a sushi restaurant, I am always overwhelmed by choice. I always end up picking one thing I know I like, even though I would like to try something different. I even tell the waitress at times that I have no idea what I want, after looking at the pictures of all the beautiful sushi rolls. Sometimes I want her to just pick for me. haha

    I have also noticed this with my small business. We have a huge assortment of products but when a smaller selection is offered, we tend to have better sells. When a large selection is offered, people tend to just walk away because they are overwhelmed.

  15. 23

    Cassaw Creative

    November 28, 2011 8:23 am

    Great article. I agree with everything except the In-N-Out’s food isn’t much different than Wendy’s comment. WAY better and fresher lol.

  16. 27

    I’m sorry but you lost my attention after you said that In-N-Out isn’t much better than Wendy’s. I can’t take this article seriously anymore. You have lost credibility

  17. 28

    Yeah, the article content was fine. But comparing In-N-Out to Wendy’s? Really? In-N-Out burgers are fresh and you can tell on the first bite. (Plus, if you every DO try anything from the secret menu, you’ll never want to eat anywhere else ever again.)

  18. 29

    Subway is the obvious counter point.

    • 30

      Not really, I suffer the same issue when I go to Subway, there are so many options that now I just stick with what I know because I can’t decide otherwise. However, Subway helps this process a little bit by breaking down your choices…

      -What Bread? 4 options
      -What Size? 2 options
      -Extras? 3+ options
      -Veggies? 8 options
      -Sauce? 4+ options

      By doing this, at each step you are only faced with a few options. If they asked you all that information first thing, then you would be overwhelmed. But instead they walk you through the sandwich building process and break it down into simple steps.

  19. 31

    Stefano Bussolon

    November 28, 2011 9:13 am

    Interesting article.
    Things, however, are a little bit more complicated:
    – customers prefer to choose among fewer options if they have to decide;
    – paradoxically, however, they prefer to choose among a large number of options if they already decided what to take.
    See Chernev, Alexnder (2003), “When More Is Less and Less Is More: The Role of Ideal Point Availability and Assortment in Consumer Choice,” Journal of Consumer Research, 30 (2), 170-83.
    I gave a talk about what I called choosability at the last european summit of information architecture. The slides (if I can advertise, but it is in topic):

  20. 32

    Good article but you are overlooking the difficulty in implementing your advice. While more choices do make decisions more difficult, most people still prefer to have more choices. It is related to the misunderstanding people make about robustness in an application based on how much it does rather than how well it works. So if you’re considering offering fewer choices upfront you might follow the n’out example and provide a means to get more choices or your clients (users).


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