The Paradox of Choice: What’s Easiest

In his plenary at UI11, Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, made an interesting remark about how people make choices:

“People choose not on the basis of what’s most important, but on what’s easiest to evaluate”.

In other words, many times we don’t choose what’s best for us, we take the easy way out. This behavior is often called laziness, but I think it’s more than that. As Schwartz pointed out, we simply don’t have time for diligent research on all the choices we make. Most of the time, however, we imagine people making informed decisions. We imagine that if the information is there, then they’ll take advantage of it, consider it, and choose wisely.

In his plenary at UI11, Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, made an interesting remark about how people make choices:

“People choose not on the basis of what’s most important, but on what’s easiest to evaluate”.

In other words, many times we don’t choose what’s best for us, we take the easy way out. This behavior is often called laziness, but I think it’s more than that. As Schwartz pointed out, we simply don’t have time for diligent research on all the choices we make. Most of the time, however, we imagine people making informed decisions. We imagine that if the information is there, then they’ll take advantage of it, consider it, and choose wisely.

We too easily forget that they’ve got 400 choices to make that day, this probably isn’t the most important one, and making it as fast as possible is a top priority. Instead of focusing in and really nailing that decision, the goal, instead, is an easy choice for a change.

It doesn’t take much to discover the ramifications of Schwartz’ observation. We choose politicians based on if we’ve heard of them before, not if they have the best record. We choose computers if we use the same kind at work, not if they are the best at helping us get stuff done. We choose movies that get high ratings, not if they’re the most important movie for us to see. Many times it’s OK if it’s not the best choice, but it’s the one we’re most comfortable with.

In interaction design, what’s easiest to evaluate gets attention. To-the-point copy. Efficient graphics. Strong page hierarchy. Easy-to-grasp interface elements. Etc…

This also helps to explain why we readily rely on our friends and family for help making decisions. It’s simply easier to do so, and in all probability will be a better decision than the one we would make casually, without much thought. It’s interesting to see how people make decisions in the face of intense choice: we’re really good at adapting and coming up with strategies that save time and energy.

Published: October 23rd, 2006

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