Options Paralysis

I found this amazing TED video of Barry Schwartz through Ayelet Noff’s post (thanks Ayelet!).

Yes, it’s long (as in > 2.8 minutes, which seems to be our average attention span these days). Yes, it’s worth it.

In a way, Barry’s brilliant words strongly resonate with some of the principles I’ve tried to follow over the years (and to each to others) when designing user experience for software products. I try to be careful when I offer the user a choice. I ask myself: am I offering them a choice because I’m being respectful to them, or because I am too lazy to make up my mind?

Joel Spolsky already said it:

Pull up the Tools | Options dialog box and you will see a history of arguments that the software designers had about the design of the product. Should we automatically open the last file that the user was working on? Yes! No! There is a two week debate, nobody wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, the programmer puts in an #ifdef in self defense while the designers fight it out. Eventually they just decide to make it an option.

(User Interface Design for Programmers, Chapter 3: Choices)

I learned this lesson again and again many times, though only once did I get to see just how bad it could get. It was about 10 years ago, when I had a brilliant computer science major working in my team. The guy could easily traverse red-black trees, design them O(1) algorithms, the works.

But one day, I was passing next to his cubicle, and I saw him staring at the screen in bewilderment. I looked at the screen, and there it was – a dialog box with a short message, and 3 dreadful choices – Yes? No? Or maybe Cancel?

I asked him what’s wrong. He looked at me with tearing eyes, and said in the saddest voice ever – “I think I am having Options Paralysis”.

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