Thursday, April 30, 2009

Too much of a good thing, or not enough?

This morning, I sat in a meeting where the various flavors of Windows and Office were being discussed. Some users like Vista, some hate it, some like Office 2007, others hate it and want to stick with Office 2003. In about a year, we'll get to add Office 14 and Windows 7 to that mix, which will present even more options to the world. Maybe too many.

*side note* I installed Windows 7 on my home laptop and work PC this week and absolutely love it. Where my laptop used to take two minutes to boot, it now comes up in 20 seconds. Windows 7 is much faster, is visually more pleasing and has some really great bells and whistles.

Last night, we watched two TED talks. The first was given by Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice. Schwartz made the point that sometimes, too many choices can hurt us, rather than help. He gives some examples. First, if you go into a supermarket to buy salad dressing, you are presented with over one hundred varieties of salad dressings. You pick one that looks appealing, but when you go home and use it on your salad, you continue to think of the other varieties. No matter how good the one you chose tastes, you are plagued by the notion that maybe, among the other 99 or so bottles you didn't choose, there is a better variety. Therefore, your overall enjoyment of your salad has not gone up, it has gone down.

The second example he gave involved the purchase of blue jeans. Many years ago, Schwartz went to buy jeans and had one option. Today, he is presented with dozens and dozens of options - loose fit, easy fit, slim fit, acid-washed, distressed - the combinations and permutations are seemingly endless. Eventually he found a pair that he liked. In fact, they were the best-fitting jeans he had ever purchased. But - they weren't perfect. A vast sea of choice holds the possibility of perfection, and when perfection is not achieved - no matter how much better the results are than they were previously - disappointment ensues.

The conclusion I gathered from this talk was that too much choice can be a bad thing.

Interestingly enough, the next random talk we decided to watch last night was on the exact opposite of this idea. Malcolm Gladwell used spaghetti sauce to illustrate that more choice is better than less - at least, when it comes to food products. Gladwell tells of Howard Moskowitz, a pioneer in the market research field. Once upon a time, market researchers brought a group of 100 people together, presented them with Spaghetti Sauce A, Spaghetti Sauce B and Spaghetti Sauce C, and asked the group which Item they liked best. If 40% of the group liked Spaghetti Sauce A, 35% liked B and 25% liked C, Spaghetti Sauce A was the winner. While that did represent the most popular vote, 60% of the group wasn't satisfied. Tough luck for them. Moskowitz pioneered the idea that they didn't need to develop a better spaghetti sauce to appeal to more than 40% of the population - they needed to develop better spaghetti sauces. More choices, not less, was the key to satisfying the wants of American consumers. Instead of presenting them with one thin version of sauce (think Ragu), present them with a thin version, a chunky version and a spicy version. This is why there are 36 varieties of Ragu on the shelves today instead of the one that my parents grew up with.

The conclusion I gathered from this talk was that more choices is a good thing.

Are these two talks necessarily contradictory? Not really. I don't think Schwartz's point is that we shouldn't have choices at all, but there is something to be said for having too many. Especially if, in the vast array of choices, you are still limited. Before I got my iPhone, I wanted a cell phone that did nothing but send and receive calls. No camera, no texting, no calendar. Guess what? 1.8 billion cell phones on the market and not one of them is just a fucking phone. Or how about when I go to Mama's on 39th Street. They have 80 omelettes on their menu. Do they have the one I want (ham, onions, mushrooms and cheese)? No. Peanut butter and jelly omelette, yes. To this I say, WTF? Where was I going with this?

Ah yes - We are a society (and workplace) inundated with choice. Some of that choice is great - count me as one who likes chunky spaghetti sauce. But some of that choice is overwhelming, frustrating and/or confusing Have you shopped for women's clothes at a department store? I rest my case. Mr. Awesome feels the same way about MicroCenter (it's still one of his favorite places on the planet, nonetheless). He's gone there to purchase something - a hard drive, for example - and there are so many types and sizes and brands that he literally throws up his hands and walks away empty-handed. And he's a tech-savvy guy.

I think the key to happiness through choice is finding that sweet spot between not enough choice and too much. When it comes to my workplace computing environment, I think fear of change leads people to reject new technologies without giving them a chance. At some point we need to be able to eliminate the choice of holding on to the old in order to expose them to the new.

Maybe Howard Moskowitz can tackle that problem next.

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