Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice

by Andreas Koller

In his TED talk, the american psychologist Barry Schwartz makes a valid point in explaining why it’s better to offer a limited number of choices only. This is an important lesson for all graphic designers, I think it’s especially relevant for UI and web design, but also for corporate and print design.

In capitalism, freedom is defined by having an unlimited number of choices. How could this be wrong? Isn’t it awesome to have every imaginable possibility? Well, not really. When people are confronted with too much choice, they tend to end up unsatisfied, regardless of which option they chose. Schwartz explains this phenomenon.

Actually, the reasons are easy to understand:

Looking at the range of products in a supermarket for example, products come in any conceivable way. With so many options to choose from, we find it very difficult to choose – we become paralyzed, postpone the decision and don’t choose at all.

Opportunity costs
The way of which we value things depends of what we compare them to. It is easy to imagine the attractive features of alternatives that you reject, that make you less satisfied with the alternative that you’ve chosen.

Escalation of expectations
Adding options to our lives can’t help but increase the expectations we have about how good those options will be.

„The secret to happiness is low expectations.“

After having made a decision, and even though the results of the decision are good, we feel disappointed about them; we blame ourselves and regret our choice. So the net result is that we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse.

„There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice.“

To summarize, Schwartz uses the metaphor of a fish in a bowl to explain the paradox of choice: „If you shatter this fishbowl so that everything is possible, you decrease satisfaction. You increase paralysis, and you decrease satisfaction. Everybody needs a fishbowl.“ He argues that a „metaphorical fishbowl“ is essential, and an absence of limits is a recipe for disaster. As a graphic designer, the lessons learned are obvious: think carefully about the number of choices you are offering to your users – less is more! Looking at all the software, websites and interfaces out there (just look at office applications or, even worse, all these incredibly over-ambitious car dashboards!) this is an important lesson that designers clearly often ignore.

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