Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Tyranny of Choice

If you have used an iPod shuffle or a Bose audio system recently, you might notice something: these are mimalist devices. The shuffle has no screen. You can turn it on or off, play songs in order or randomly shuffle, raise or lower the volume, go forward or back one song. Out of the box, the shuffle doesn't even have a transformer. You recharge by using a PC's USB port.

The Bose docking station, which provides amplification for iPods, allows you just a couple functions. You can turn the unit on or off. You can raise or lower the volume. If you use the remote, you can move forwards or backwards in your song menu. You can mute the audio. Though it initially is jarring, the Bose doesn not even have bass and treble controls, because it senses the acoustical properties of the room and adjusts all that for you.

So in a world where we assume the customer wants choice, how does that make sense? The flip side to choice is that too much choice is a problem. Too many options actually decrease satisfaction.

The obvious implication is that service providers habe choices to make. They have to identify the key things users want, then simplify features enough to satisfy them, while minimizing the total number of features available to users.

As much as many of us stress open platforms, because it leads to innovation, innovation also has to be harnessed to simplicity. Apple gets it. Almost nobody else ever does.

In his book The Paradox Of Choice, professor Barry Schwartz notes that a supermarket offers 285 varieties of cookies, 85 flavors and brands of juices, and 95 varieties of chips, 230 soup offerings, 120 different pasta sauces, 275 varieties of cereal, and 175 types of tea bags. Supermarkets today carry more than 30,000 items, and 20,000 new products are introduced each year.

You get the point, despite all that choice, few of us do much more than return, over and over, to our trusted brands. So there is no alternative but for service providers to continue to be gatekeepers of sorts, simplifying the experience of services and products in ways that give people what they want, but shield them from making all kinds of decisions that aren't central to the core experience.

Service and experience providers will make, and must make, decisions on behalf of their customers, to improve the value of the experience. Ironically, that means limiting absolute freedom to a great extent, even as some will urge openness to an extreme. Apple isn't open. It nevertheless produces products and services users love. So the issue is how well any particular provider really understands what people want.

In some real sense, the attitude of openness to innovation, which is a good thing, also covers a fundamental lack of understanding about what users really do want. Providers don't know. So openness is a good thing. But once needs are discovered, serious pruning has to be done.

It's a paradox, but that is what Apple does so well.

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