Designers Responsibility in the Tyranny of Choice

Jared Spool

September 25th, 2006

I’m very excited we’ll have Barry Schwartz as the UI 11 Spotlight Plenary speaker this year. He wrote a wonderful book, The Paradox of Choice, which describes the problems we incur when we’re offered too many choices.

Not everyone agrees this is a problem. Scott Anderson, in a 2004 essay, feels Schwartz’s approach will cause us to limit choices, removing what he suggests is an erosion of our freedoms. He quotes a University of Rochester psychology professor, Dr. Edward Deci, who says,

“I am very wary about anyone who wants to take away options from others or limit other people’s opportunities for choice. It amazes me that some psychologists are arguing that we should limit human freedom.”

I guess the questions are this: Is limiting the choice of jams or digital cameras removing our freedoms? Doesn’t the person offering the choice earn some of the burden of the problem?

The average electronics ecommerce retailer offers 135 digital cameras online, with virtually no way for the purchaser to distinguish between the cameras. Doesn’t the design team of the site (including the information architects who lay out the choice mechanism, merchandisers who choose the products to sell, and content providers who describe the individual products) need to bear some of the responsibility for solving this problem?

Schwartz suggests it’s not freeing to provide so many choices. Having too many things to choose from causes a cognitive and emotional burden, putting us in the situation of always wondering if the choices we’ve made were the ones we’ve should’ve made. And the less equipped the individual is to make the choice (does someone really know why they need a 5.5 megapixel camera versus a 6.5 megapixel one?), the more that burden increases.

I don’t think Schwartz is suggesting we eliminate all choices. Only choices where the outcome probably doesn’t matter.

I think part of the responsibility of design is to ensure, when we’re providing choices, we’re giving our users everything they need to make an informed and confident selection. If we can’t guarantee that, maybe we should take Schwartz’s recommendation and start to eliminate options from the spectrum until we can.

One Response to “Designers Responsibility in the Tyranny of Choice”

  1. Zephyr Says:

    Glad you mentioned digital cameras. I recently spent a lot of time researching, trying to find the best digital camera for me. There are A LOT of options. When I’d finally decided on one (which was a liberating feeling in itself) I found out that the camera wasn’t being produced anymore. At that point I decided it just wasn’t worth all the effort again; you could it turned me into a (digital camera) satisficer.

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