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The Paradox of Choice 537

sproketboy writes "Psychology professor Barry Schwartz has written a book which is a must read by those wanting to get Linux on the Desktop. Dr. Schwartz examines the problem of too much choice in our society. Maybe Microsoft has it right after all? Here's a video interview with Dr. Schwartz, a review of the book from the New Yorker and more info from PBS." Of course, the choice issue applies to far more than desktop computers, but is still instructive in that area. Thanks to Stefan Hudson for a SciAm story that has more information.
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The Paradox of Choice

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  • Freedom of Choice (Score:5, Insightful)

    by The Queen ( 56621 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:04PM (#8703770) Homepage
    is what you got...

    Freedom From Choice
    Is what you want.

    (Are we not men?)
    • Re:Freedom of Choice (Score:5, Interesting)

      by bobcat7677 ( 561727 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @01:18PM (#8704634) Homepage
      There are alot of people that seem to think that choice = freedom. While this is true at some levels, there are deeper issues to be considered. For an American example being that America was founded on the idea of freedom: Is a choice between Busy Kerry Nader really freedom? Sure you have a choice but you are limited to only 3 options. Is that really pure freedom or just a little bit of choice allowed you by a governmental system so you feel like you have freedom.

      Going back to the current topic however, it seems like everyone is making this desktop choice issue way too political IMHO. It should be about what the needs are of the users. Isn't that what we as technology professionals are supposed to look to? (tech hippocratic oath if you will?) For some users, we want to limit their options because they don't have the knowledge/experience/brain capacity? to choose the correct option for what they are trying to do. Thank you M$ for aknowledging that. However, there are increasingly more people who DO have the knowledge/experience/... (especially with a whole generation of kids being brought up to use this stuff) that need to have the choices. If the future inventors, artists, and innovators have their tools dictated to them in nice neat little "luser" packages, then how much will that limit their ability to invent, create, and innovate? And how much will the corporation that controls all the tools become in control of the society in dictating who has the tools to do things and who doesn't. [Maybe a caste system of technology dictated by M$ on the horizon?]
      -- my random thoughts
      • Re:Freedom of Choice (Score:4, Interesting)

        by cygonik ( 679205 ) <aeon.descriptor@NOspAm.gmail.com> on Monday March 29, 2004 @02:26PM (#8705525)
        It seems relatively simple to me: Have the first choice be "How much choice do you want?". We have verbosity levels in logs, why not have a 'busyness' or 'user level' option for ui and configuration? With a few clicks I could change my interface from Default to Clean or Busy, and change my configuration screens from Beginner to Intermediate or Advanced. One could even have a default that is login, desktop, or system-wide. ----- If only Ben Franklin had known people would be using Linux, the choice between Freedom and Security would never have been an issue.
        • by groomed ( 202061 )
          Another choice to choose the level of choice? What a nightmare. Can you imagine the documentation? "Select Tools->Options, unless your user level is Clean, in which case you must go to Control Panels->User level, except when you're in Beginner mode, in which case you have to log out and ..."

          That's not making things easier. It's deferring responsibility.
      • Re:Freedom of Choice (Score:5, Interesting)

        by SillyNickName4me ( 760022 ) <dotslash@bartsplace.net> on Monday March 29, 2004 @02:48PM (#8705879) Homepage
        It is limited freedom.

        When the USA was founded, freedom was an important argument, but it should be seen in the settings of the late 18th century.

        I have been reading a lot about the early days of the USA and the following is my recolelction of what I read about the discussions regarding the exact form of government that the USA got at the time.

        In that time, there has been a lot of discussion in the USA and France about the different models of government without monarch.

        There is a choice between a few systems there, and 2 of them were discussed a lot in detail:
        - The republic of Sparta
        - The democracy of Athens.

        What they ended with is somethign that looks a lot more like the republic of Sparta then the democracy of Athens.

        Bottomline, an elite is in charge of the country, however, this elte is elected.

        This means that people cannot make direct choices in matters that concern the country as a whole, but they can appoint those who can make those choices.

        At the time, people were afraid that the purely democratic way would result in chaos and unlimited individualism. The Spartan system didn't provide for the freedom that people demanded and was too much of a tirany.

        In the end, it did end up folowing the Spartan model, but with an elected elite.

        What this tells me is that the founders were actually looking for a way to limit individualism at least to the point where peopel would not act against the common good, and in the hope that peopel would contribute to the common good, while at the same time trying to maintain as much freedom as possible.

        I believe it is a bit simplistic to say that Freedom is THE thing the USA was founded on, it was an important aspect, but in the end, balance to get a state that worked for as big a part of its citizens as possible, and finding the right balance between individualism and the common good were at least as important if not more important.

        It seems to me that the way political parties function in the USA is pretty much a continuation of English tradition. A rather substantial part of the representative democracies in the world have more then 2 major parties, and do indeed need coalition governments. Few of those have the problems that we have seen for decades in Italy where a government wouldn't last more then a few months, in fact, Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium are 3 examples of countries with very stable governments while having many political parties.

        A basicly 2 party system (with all respect for the man, I'll skip Nadar, untill some major change happens to how the US population percieves politics, I am afraid he has little chance whatsoever) makes life easy.

        Political views can be put into a black/white perspective, and there is no need for cooperation since one side will end up beign in power while the other side will have to wait and watch untill the next elections (yeah yeah, I know it is a bit more complex then that due to the way the senate and congress work in the USA where you can have a republican president with a democratic congress for example).

        The black/white choice makes it easy because people don't have to think too much about things of which they often don't see the direct relation to their daily life.

        Most people want simple choices if any at all for things that they are not really interested in but want huge variety of choice once they are interested.

  • by IronTek ( 153138 ) * on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:06PM (#8703783) Homepage
    This would have been an informed post, but there was a link to a video of the guy discussing the paradox of choice, a link to the article about the book, and a link to an interview with the guy in the video who wrote the book that the article was about... ...so I couldn't decide.
  • by QEDog ( 610238 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:06PM (#8703791)
    Should I post in this story or in the other stories? What to do? what to do? argh! I'm going crazy!!!
  • by -Surak- ( 31268 ) * on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:06PM (#8703795)
    Looks like link this was going to be included in the article, but something got messed up. Sciam digital subscription required for the full article, unfortunately...

    Scientific American: The Tyranny of Choice [ PSYCHOLOGY ] [sciam.com]
    Logic suggests that having options allows people
    to select precisely what makes them happiest. But, as studies show, abundant choice often makes for misery
    • Like you, I didn't read the entire article since it requires a digital subscription.

      There was a time when I would have chosen to read Scientific American, but now I choose not to.

      Gee - choice. And I chose. And I'm happy with my choice.

      That wasn't too difficult. I don't need a massage. OK, I do, but that's because I did a 60 mile bike ride this weekend and my legs are a bit cranky.

      Personally, I think Professor Schwartz misses the cause and effect. These people who stress over too many choices could b
  • by Chris_Stankowitz ( 612232 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:07PM (#8703799)
    Thats like saying ther is such a thing as getting laid too much.

    Linux (and Pizza) is like a Blowjob, no matter how bad it is, its still pretty good!

  • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:07PM (#8703805) Journal
    Last Monday, Miguel de Icaza (at Novell's BRainshare here in Salt Lake City) mentioned Novell's push for the Linux desktop, and covered a lot of the same ground, but he presented it quite intelligently...

    You can have a simple desktop that Joe Sixpack can play with, and at the same time set up a dialogue that allows the tweaker in some of us to have free reign over what each little widget and bit of desktop does.

    I just don't get why it has to be such an "either or" choice here...

    • I feel so justified. I was talking about this long ago. I think for (any distribution of) Linux to be really successful on the desktop market, they'll need to deliver at least two versions of the product. This can be chosen at installation time or literally be different products, but desktop success NEEDS to have a wizard/automatic driven desktop for people who just want the thing to work, and linux NEEDS to have the geeky engine exposed to be accepted by the experts.

      The company that does this well and

      • by Valar ( 167606 )
        I think it is even easier than that. For every configuration item, come up with a good guess. Then in the dialog to change it, present a simple list of the options which joe-user can be expected to understand (hm, do i want big icon or small icons?). Then, down in the corner, put a little checkbox labeled 'advanced'. If they click it, they get the 'tweaker' box.
    • As for the "either/or" mentality, I guess it doesn't matter much. The important thing, I think, is to draw a line and decide which is part of the "easy to use" desktop and which is part of the "experts only" desktop. Then you can support one or the other without telling Grandma to open up her config file in vi and edit the daemon options to support more client connections.

      There are plenty of "easy to use" packages for linux, but having 10 easy to use programs with 30 hard to use programs makes for a desk

    • by Nurgled ( 63197 )

      As much as I hate to say it, the problem isn't "hiding" the choice, it's making the "desktop" of every linux system the same, so that users can transfer knowledge. This is true of MacOS, and it's true of Windows within a given version. (MS are less good at this.)

      If a user sits down at a high school linux system and learns how to start his or her favourite word processor, then sits down at another system elsewhere with a different Window manager and desktop environment... what now?

      Sure, they'll learn not t

    • by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @04:23PM (#8707009)
      I just don't get why it has to be such an "either or" choice here...


      Though it really, really grieves me to say this, Apple got this right first, and Microsoft eventually learned from Apple and their own customer feedback. The only people who want a whole bunch of choice and configurability from computers are geeks like you and me who enjoy the computer as a thing-in-itself. Everyone else is just trying to use the computer to accomplish their jobs, a particular hobby, or something else where the machine is just a means to an end. And those people are where the money is. (There certainly isn't much money in folks like me who rejected the Macintosh because they preferred the joys of the Applesoft command prompt and 6502 machine language programming!)

      It also means less expensive support if you don't have to train your support drones to answer questions about a million conceivable configuration possibilities.

      This is no doubt what Novell is thinking. For all I know, the executives at Novell think free and open software is a great thing in and of itself, but at the end of the day, their jobs depend on making money, so reducing interface choice is an eminently rational route for them to choose.

      Novell's efforts will go to whatever they decide is the "best" interface, period. If geeks like you and me want special feature X, we'll have to code it ourselves, because only we care. There is a sliding scale of preference for complexity in users, starting with zero for the general public and sliding all the way to infinity for Java development toolchains, in inverse proportion to the likelihood of profit.

      This is, however, nothing new.
  • annoying... (Score:5, Funny)

    by spangineer ( 764167 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:08PM (#8703815) Homepage
    Tons of choices can be annoying - going to a restaurant and being forced to select from a huge list of foods can be overwhelming. Usually, all I end up doing is finding one thing I like and then ordering that all the time, without checking out other stuff. It's too much of a hassle to try out every choice that exists in the world.

    Then again, if we didn't have as many choices, I might not be able to find one thing I like in the first place, and thus probably wouldn't go back to eat there - I'll choose to go somewhere else.

    But if that choice was taken away, I'd have to eat something I didn't particularly like, which never killed anyone.

    Morale of the story? Having too many choices is the real reason I'm a picky eater.
    • Re:annoying... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by EnderWiggnz ( 39214 )
      but at a restaurant, you get a menu of complete dishes, and not a list of ingredients.

      imagine if the waiter came out and said:
      well, the chef has some chicken, some salmon, a couple a nice cuts of beef... some vegetables, this list of spices, and some potatoes...

      what would you like?
  • Wow... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Somebody really fubared their links...

    But anyway, I know I enjoy my choices. I can choose linux or windows. I much prefer choice to no choice. Does anyone really believe that we are better off when we can't make decisions for ourselves?

    Sure, it might be nice to be a little drone in the big hive... You don't have to put any effort into thinking for yourself, or expanding your mind, since the hive could really care less about your individuality. In fact, indivduality is discouraged.

    I dunno, I think lin

    • Re:Wow... (Score:3, Informative)

      I actually saw this on TV yesterday (on the show "Daily Planet"), and it's clearly apparent you didn't see it at all.

      Basically, the idea is not to take away all choices from you, but to limit the choices to a respectable number. This is NOT a new idea. Your choice of Windows or Linux is not a problem. The problem, as was explained, is like when you try to choose a cereal. You have over 200 different brands. It becomes overwhelming the number of choices. It's also like wine. Walk into a SAQ (Canadian
  • by toupsie ( 88295 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:08PM (#8703819) Homepage
    Apple used to have a massive product line with dizzying list of model numbers. Not only did it confuse customers but it also brought down quality and delayed shipping of many of the models. Now you can just buy a notebook (iBook and PowerBook) and a desktop (eMac, iMac & PowerMac) from Apple. Sure you can supe up the basic model they sell but you are still buying a standardized item.
    • I got a 20g iPod a couple of months ago and in some ways it's made walking with music a worse experience for me than before.

      My first Walkmen (dating back to 1984) were cassettes, and while you could carry extra tapes, you were largely stuck with one or two and even then skipping around wasn't much of an option (no music search on a Walkman I could afford until the mid 1990s). So you listened to bands you really liked or spent a lot of time making a few mix tapes to guarantee you'd like most of the songs.
    • by glassware ( 195317 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @01:33PM (#8704800) Homepage Journal
      On the other hand, Apple's software philosophy is to have only one way to do something, and to have that work well and be obvious. Check out the Macintosh Human Interface Design documents.

      Even more importantly, this philosophy extended to the Macintosh API. Even Microsoft moved in this direction. Bill Gates once said, "Why should everyone in the world have to write a File-Open dialog?" The Microsoft Common Controls API was the best thing that happened to Win16 programmers back in the early '90s.

      Yet, after a few years, Microsoft started putting together OLE, DDE, ActiveX, and a bunch more stuff - there were tons of choices. Consider Microsoft's media player: there was a text-based API, a procedure call API, and an object oriented API. Microsoft programming has been getting harder, thus they introduce .NET and standardize everything again.

      I'm all for choice when it works. For example, KDE offers you tons of choices; by default there's this multiple-virtual-desktop thing with all sorts of options and shortcut keys and soforth. But the one choice I want - the ability to stop files and folders on my local harddrive from acting like hyperlinks - isn't available. I suppose that, given a few months of practice, I could get used to treating my hard drive like a website, but it isn't working out for me at the moment.

      I dunno if I have a real point here. But I think Extreme Programming has at least one useful idea: customer stories. Try writing down all the things a user wants to do - "Map a Network Drive", "Change double-click behavior", "Organize My Documents" - and then put together an obvious way for the user to do it, or (if it's too hard to make it obvious) at least a straightforward help page that explains the task.

      Am I rambling? Feel free to call me redundant.
  • Nothing new (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:11PM (#8703846)
    The observations are a direct consequence of a well known usability heuristic called Hick's Law [usabilityfirst.com]. Hick's Law states (roughly) that the time an individual requires to make a decision increases with the number of alternatives available.
    • Re:Nothing new (Score:5, Insightful)

      by rev063 ( 591509 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @02:21PM (#8705442) Homepage
      Put another way, choice is an abdication of responsibility on the behalf of the programmer.

      When an interface gives you dozens or hundreds of different choices, it's because the programmer (or designer) was lazy. Instead of trying to figure out -- in advance, or by context -- what options would be best for the user, the programmer throws his hands up in the air and says: "YOU figure it out, loser!".

      There are SO MANY instances where programs insist on making you make irrelevant, useless choices. Just look at the typical installation program, for example. Like 95% of users, I don't CARE where the program is installed, what the application is named, or what skin I'd like the interface to use. I just want the damn thing installed -- and stop bothering me, dammit!

      An interface with fewer options is easier to use, no doubt about it. An interface with fewer, well-selected options also makes a BETTER program.
  • Good Title (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Doesn't_Comment_Code ( 692510 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:11PM (#8703850)
    The Paradox of Choice
    From the title, I thought this was going to be a deep mathematical or philosophical piece that I would have to give a lot of thought to.

    I do agree with concept that we have too much choice in our society, or rather, we are deep in information overload. Too much choice is not a problem if you can quickly whittle down what you want and what you don't want. The problem is when the choices become confusing and ambiguous - and I think that has happened for the average individual. For instance, go into an applience store and say you want a tv, then hold on to your butts, because you're going to be there for a while. Then pretend you didn't know what all the fancy jargon stuff means (like the average consumer). If that wasn't bad enough, I think marketers actually inflate the problem on purpose, making it seem that there is more choice than there actually is - since that boosts the chances that a consumer will buy your product.
    • Re:Good Title (Score:5, Insightful)

      by BiggerIsBetter ( 682164 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:49PM (#8704312)

      I think marketers actually inflate the problem on purpose, making it seem that there is more choice than there actually is - since that boosts the chances that a consumer will buy your product.

      They do this, and it's really bad in small countries; in some markets, you can go to every store in a town and find the same range of products, which have all come through the same two importers (two, so there's no monopoly, I guess).

      But there's another insidious problem with "choice" - Most of the time, you aren't making one. I went to a local supermarket which is the only one open at 4 am, and there are signs saying "Thank you for choosing to shop at [supermarket name here]". The only choice I made ws to get food now or later, not to shop there. Or you get a Dell and it has Windows on it, and there's a little note saying "Thank you for choosing Microsoft" or similar. You didn't choose it, it just came with the computer whether you liked it or not.

      People are so used to being told they are making choices when they plainly are not. When confronted with a real decision, it overwhelms them and they freak out and run back to their comfort zone. The paradox of choice is not that we have too much choice, it's that when given a real one most people don't want it anyway.
    • by G4from128k ( 686170 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @01:14PM (#8704582)
      I do agree with concept that we have too much choice in our society, or rather, we are deep in information overload. Too much choice is not a problem if you can quickly whittle down what you want and what you don't want. The problem is when the choices become confusing and ambiguous - and I think that has happened for the average individual.

      Very good points. I see the issue in terms of 4 factors:

      Rising Cost of Decision Making: Excessive options and excessive information on each option drive up the cost of choice. The cost of decision making can easily exceed the marginal benefit of making the decison.

      Psychological Risk of Decision Making: Some people are more comfortable without choice because it absolves them of responsibility. If you have only one choice, you get to bitch about it. If you have multiple choices and you chose incorrectly, you have only yourself to blame.

      Cost of Competition: We seem to live in a competative, judgemental socitey in which people are judged by the choices they make. This increases the importance of every minor decision. Faced with a number of reasonably good options, people often spend too much time deciding. They feel compelled to do this because of the perceived social penalty of making the wrong choice. Nobody wants to pick the second-best option even if it is nearly as good as the #1 option.

      Scale of Society: The bigger problem is the increasing scale of society. Many might think that have umpteen types of mustard, text editors, or cars is too much. But there is no unanimous agreement on which alternatives to remove.

      This problem will only get worse. I would wager that in most industries, the number of economically viable choices scales with the log of the market-accessible population. With global trade and rising standards of living, we will only see more choices.
  • "Too many choices, not enough voices" which I interpreted as too many people willing to settle for the norm and not enough people who will demand more, go out on a limb and challenge the status quo, which I think is the main reason that microsoft has its hold.
  • by ajs ( 35943 ) <ajs@ajsBOYSEN.com minus berry> on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:13PM (#8703887) Homepage Journal
    Choice is a fine thing for now. Most of the world is still being introduced to desktop computing. It is not yet time to select the best technologies for any given application because we don't understand the application well enough yet.

    Even something as "basic" as word processing has changed radically in the last 10 years as a wider variety of people have gained access to computers. The "outliers" in the sample set have, in some cases, become the majority of users.

    Open source OSes are especially subject to this. Our systems are designed by those who have a combination of real-world-need and ability to implement. As time goes on that will be a broader and broader segment, and others will be brought in to implement for those who have the need, but not the ability (certainly already happened in some areas).

    Give computing 20 or so more years to find its feet and it will be time to make hard decisions, but for now I think choice is a good thing.

    Now, moving on to the officeplace (which is where most people think of desktop computing in terms of adoption strategies), I think it's key that OS vendors such as Red Hat, Mandrakesoft, SuSE/Novell and others produce a desktop with clear defaults and clear ways for admins to limit choices. This is important for large scale systems admin where you are maintaining 2,000 systems on people's desks. You need some uniformity in order to scale that support reasonably. This does NOT meant that choice should not be available, but that it should be available to the admins who install the systems and the system should behave well once those choices are made.

    I think Red Hat and Mandrake do a decent job here. I'm not as familliar with SuSE, so I can't say. But, that is clearly one of the jobs of a vendor: to establish best practices and ease compatibility.
    • Even something as "basic" as word processing has changed radically in the last 10 years as a wider variety of people have gained access to computers.

      What? Sorry, no. More than ten years ago, I was doing word-processing using Mac Write II on a Macintosh classic, now I'm using Word X on a Dual G4. Would you please tell me what radical changes happened in word processing? The interface is basically the same, the text window, the ruler above with the tab stops and some buttons for getting bold etc. Many as

  • by burgburgburg ( 574866 ) <splisken06@ema i l .com> on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:14PM (#8703900)
    while not forcing them to constantly make them. Having a simple, functional default desktop but with the adaptability/personalization we've come to expect is the best way. For those willing/desiring to modify, their options are open. For those who have better things to do (like work), the default is there for them.
  • by Joe Tie. ( 567096 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:18PM (#8703946)
    Q: Choice is bad? A: Yes Q: Can anyone understand the issues? A: Think of how many letters there are in one word. Now multiply that by how many words are in a page, and then the book. Then by how many books there are. That's so much information! You shouldn't even try. Q: I like choice A: No you don't. You'd be happier if you didn't have them. Q: No, really, I like choice A: Well, here's some proof for you. People with cancer like having doctors treat them instead of creating their own chemo routines. Do you think you're better than people with cancer or something! THE END
  • There's only a lot of choice in areas where there is still a lot of experimentation into the possible solutions. In areas where a suitable and economic solution has been found, choice is really rather limited.

    It's a standard aspect of evolution: early forms show extraordinary variation and complexity; as time goes on the simplest and most economical solutions get standardized and the bizarre varieties get killed off.

    The same happens in technology, which is why we converge on mature standards such as TCP/IP and (dare I say it) Linux.
  • by stateofmind ( 756903 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:20PM (#8703990)
    It's just like when I'm trying to find some good porn, I've overwhelmed!

    So many fetishes, so little kleenex.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Psychology professor Barry "FUD" Schwartz receives $50 million from a mysterious donor...
  • by Perl-Pusher ( 555592 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:21PM (#8704002)
    I can concede that 50+ operating systems with no data exchange compatibility would be a bad thing. But that is not the same as having no choice at all. The old Soviet Union had one choice state owned monopolies. Look where it got them. The addition of choice becomes less of a problem when they all follow standards. Take a look at cars, they all have a steering wheel, brakes, etc. They all use similiar motor oil, the same gas etc. Having a choice in cars is good. Being locked into one supplier or manufacturer is bad. It's the same with computers. Open standards, choice, competition spurring innovation, all good things. One supplier, added features and imcompatibilties just to force an upgrade and maintain monopoly, bad!
  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:22PM (#8704015) Homepage
    In many ways he is correct - with so many choices it takes a lot of work to figure out what is worth what.

    The problem is made worse by the rapid improvement. Rules that apply last year do not apply this year.

    But on the other side of that if the manufactures were not scum, that problem can easily be dealt with.

    All it takes is a classification system, similar to what we do with cars.

    People know what you mean when you say:






    station waggon

    What we need are some similar terms for the newer technologies to become more common.

    We need categories like: game-system (high end video/audio), word-system (low-end MS word,Excel,presentationsm with low memory, low speed etc.), net-server (designed to host a web site or other network), etc. etc. to be come common terms that everyone knows and uses.

  • by heironymouscoward ( 683461 ) <heironymouscowar ... m ['oo.' in gap]> on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:25PM (#8704041) Journal
    It's a common mistake to confuse choices with decisions. Decisions are what confuse and annoy people, not choices.

    Some simple illustrations of this. Choice: "these are the desktop themes you can play with". Decision: "please choose a desktop theme to continue installation.

    Choice: "tired of your wife? Here are ten more girls to choose from." Decision: "you gonna marry me or what?!"

    Choice: "choose from fifty different fabric colors for your car interior". Decision: "what color interior do you want your next subway car to have?"

    Basically a good designer maximises choice but minimizes the decisions needed to get started.

    I believe the article has made the error of confusing the two.
    • by globalar ( 669767 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @01:05PM (#8704487) Homepage
      It is easy to adopt a new program, it is not so easy to adopt a new OS and everything else.

      The barrier to Linux adoption is mostly entry. There are not only so many choices (some required, most just clouding the decision) to make the first step, but a new way of thinking about software ("How good can free software be?"), new applications, (not really) new security dynamics, new names, new acronyms, new conventions, etc.

      The way to mediate all these is to make a common, extremely well documented and supported, simple, and well-crafted base design. Introduce the design (maybe through big corporate rollouts, preinstallations on PC's) and then let people play with it. But there can only be so many designs to fit the market. The average users does not need to consider over a dozen Linux flavors (let alone two desktop environments).

      I think Linux could be a little bit more like OS X in these regards.
    • Even Windows has choice, but minimizes decision. For example, there are multiple screen savers available, but one is chosen for you by default upon installation. Same for themes. Windows has one standard text editor (notepad), but you can easily install others if you wish. Same for browsers, etc. Choice is alive and well.

      It seems that most people posting WRT this issue think that it is a question between choice or no choice. Of course, I want choice. Just keep my decisions to a minimum, and provide

  • by bperkins ( 12056 ) * on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:26PM (#8704055) Homepage Journal
    I saw this on a silly cable TV show and have been thinking a lot about it. Choice is nothing new, it's just that the types of choices we all have are changing. If you think about what career you should taken or where exactly you should live, the choices are absolutely staggering. These, for the most part aren't new developments, though more people have the ability to make a wider array of them.

    What's interesting to me is that things that people have had to choose from for many number of years have special agents who specialize in making these choices; travel agents, real estate agents and career counselors. I expect that we'll see more and more of these agents in the future, though it's hard for me to imagine how a breakfast cereal agent would work exactly.

    I understand that some people may feel overwhelmed by the breadth of choices presented to the average person, but it seems rather condescending to imply that you ought to give up your choices. The underlying attitude seems to be choice is bad for _you_, and I'll go ahead and keep reading the Economist and drinking my reserve cognac.

    Concluding that choice is bad because it causes indecision is like concluding that the sun is bad because it causes sunburn.

    After all, is freedom really slavery; ignorance, strength?
  • OS Winner by TKO (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mulletproof ( 513805 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:28PM (#8704087) Homepage Journal
    " Dr. Schwartz examines the problem of too much choice in our society. Maybe Microsoft has it right after all?"

    Um, Microsoft being right or wrong doesn't really factor in here. It's the lack of effective competition that's creating a lack of choice. Apple OS has more or less limited themselves to their own platform, which is generally more expenisive than the average computer user is willing to pay, while Linux is still too obscure for the average user to screw around with. It's not that Windows is a spectacular product that by nature crushes all competition in it's path, it's the fact that what competition exists has been limiting itself in one form or another, giving MS free reign on the PC. As such, most products now cater to it, which makes it more popular.

    Too much competition doesn't even begin to enter into the PC OS market, because there never has been that amount of competition. MS won by default, which has nothing to do with them being right or wrong.
    • by sheldon ( 2322 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @04:26PM (#8707043)
      Too much competition doesn't even begin to enter into the PC OS market, because there never has been that amount of competition. MS won by default, which has nothing to do with them being right or wrong.

      There was that much competition in the 1980's, before Microsoft became dominant.

      You must be too young to remember this, but there was a day when you could go to a store like Computerland and be faced with a choice of 8 different computers. None of which interoperated with one another.

      Over time people got tired of this, they got tired of seeing something and finding out it wouldn't work on their computer. So they started making purchasing decisions based upon compatibility. This led to the final decision to standardize on Microsoft. This has also been going on with hardware, the advent of CPU sockets and SIMMs, IDE ports, USB ports, and so forth is all about making the computing easy to understand and hook up and make work.

      You're right in that this doesn't make MS right or wrong. Microsoft never made that decision, it was instead the Consumers.

      But it does help to explain the dominance of Microsoft software.
  • by MattRog ( 527508 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:34PM (#8704164)
    This is a well-known phenomenon in people management. If you're trying to persuade someone to make a choice and give them 50 options they are most likely to not choose any of them (or in this case, stick with Windows). When you have so many options they get worried and confused - did I pick the right one? What if I had picked XYZ? What makes option XYZ better than option ABC?

    Now, I'm not suggesting that choice is bad - but if you want someone to decide you must initially present them with a small number of options - A or B - not A or B or C or D or .. N, etc..
    • The choices also must mean something. "Gnome or KDE?" or "SMB or IPP?" probably don't mean much to your average user, at least when they're getting started. If they need to make those choices before they can get any work done, it'll be considerably off-putting.

    • with voting there is a rule/problem (I don't know its name - Condorcet is all that comes to mind) that any vote with more than two participants may yield cycles (for example, in some cases, A is prefered to B is preferred to C is preferred to A....) or other nonoptimalities; thus voting methods may not give results consistent with what everyone would want of independent of how the vote is done. The problem with runoff systems (do you want A or B? do you want B or C?...) is that they depend on the order or o
  • Makes sense to me: (Score:3, Interesting)

    by airrage ( 514164 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:35PM (#8704173) Homepage Journal
    I have often found that cell-phone (mobile) carriers have the vast array of plans which overlap and seem to not really give you feeling that you have a well-fitting plan.

    Also, it's that Coke in a 1-liter bottle versus 6-cans versus 6 glass-bottles versus...

    I tend to re-buy crap for this very reason: the first purchase I realize now why it was so cheap, the second purchase while more expensive I realize it's just over-hyped. The third typically is a good cost-to-quality ratio.
  • Joel on Software (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Boing ( 111813 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:41PM (#8704228)
    Chapter Three [joelonsoftware.com] of Joel Spolsky's User Interface Design for Programmers has an excellent, clear presentation of this problem.

    The summary (as I read it)? People like choice when it's related to what they want to do. If they're making a greeting card, they want to choose what font it uses and what overused clip-art to use. They don't want to choose its orientation as it comes out of the printer, or whether it's saved in MS Word or PDF or RTF or HTML or BMP.

    So when I install a linux distribution, and I want to compose a word processing document? I don't care all that much whether I'm using KOffice or StarOffice or OpenOffice.org or AbiWord or whatever, because the point is not what program I'm using. The point is to write a document, and I shouldn't have to make a needless choice just to get to that point.

    That's why modularity (versus "yes" or "no" to compiling it in) in the linux kernel is such a good idea, for example. It allows me to say, "make this choice for me if I need it, and don't hassle me about it."

  • by Junks Jerzey ( 54586 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:49PM (#8704304)
    This is a simple, fundamental principle. Every option you give the user means that you dodged a design decision. Sometimes this is fine, but it can be tremendously overdone. In a great many cases, what you're doing is forcing the *user* to make design decisions: which fonts look good together, which icons are the clearest, which keys work best for various features, and so on. Have some spine! Keep things simple and clean!

    With Linux things are worse, because the decisions forced on the user run much deeper. Now you don't just wade through pages of configuration settings in KDE, you have to choose which window manager to use in the first place. Bleah. I'm a techie, a programmer, and I don't want to mess with this stuff. Just give me something reliable and WELL THOUGHT OUT, and I'll use it.
  • by Neil Watson ( 60859 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @12:51PM (#8704338) Homepage
    I just installed Linux on a friend's laptop. He does not have much experience with Linux. To help in through the transition I installed Openbox as his window manager and gave him a simply menu and hot key list:
    • Web Browser: F1
    • Chat: F2
    • Email: F3
    • Word Processor F4
    • Speadsheet F5
    • Presentation F6
    • Xterm F7
    • Run Command F8
    • Exit

    Less choice, less questions, less confusion. So far I have had no complaints. Obviously, as he gets comfortable he will want more choices later. At the beginning, I think the overwhelming amount of choice is what turns new users away from Linux.

  • by Quebec ( 35169 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @01:04PM (#8704470) Homepage
    I've seen one professor talking about the problem
    of having too much choices (I think it was the author of this book) and he was clear about
    something, it only is a problem for one type of people; those who are not satisfied with their choice until they absolutly know for sure they made the best choice. Those with a "good is good enough for me" mentality do not have any problem with too many choices.
  • by Guardian452 ( 761937 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @01:06PM (#8704499)
    This concept was driven home for me in elementary school with the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. I could NOT read one of those without jamming my fingers between pages to mark interesting divergences in case my choice didn't work out! It drove me nuts to think that I might be missing out on something interesting somewhere else.

    "Do you want to repair the damaged robot? Turn to p. 42"
    "Or you want to flee with the princess? Turn to p.22"

    Choices? Bah! I just gave up and went with the old "one narrative only" books. Much more satisfying.
  • Apple, not Microsoft (Score:4, Interesting)

    by hak1du ( 761835 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @01:38PM (#8704858) Journal
    That's Apple's secret: Apple picks a lot of things for you. They don't always make the best choices, but they usually make workable choices, and even when their choices are technically bad (as they are from time to time), at least they still make them look good.

    Microsoft, on the other hand, is all about choice (within well-defined, money-making parameters): you get zillions of audio and video CODECs, lots of configuration options for the UI, preference panels with sub-panels until your eyes glaze over, dozens of classes that all do the same thing, and let's not forget an ever expanding list of third-party utilities and add-ons to make up for the choices Microsoft didn't give you and the problems Microsoft created while creating all that choice. Microsoft isn't kidding when they are saying that they are giving you choices.

    UNIX, like Apple, traditionally has made choices and stuck by them. For example, the UNIX folks at Bell Labs understood that the use of "tab" in Makefiles probably was a mistake, but it wasn't a big enough mistake to create another "make" utility (at least not for a couple of decades). And, yes, the file system may not be the ideal IPC or database mechanism, but it worked well enough and provided a good, simple answer.

    Linux has inherited some of the UNIX simplicity and philosophy, although, sadly, there has been a lot of uncertainty and waffling come into it, mostly from people who are trying to turn Linux into Windows.
  • by buzzoff ( 744687 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @01:43PM (#8704936)
    I recently bought two sets of tires for my SUVs. The set of brands and models were overwhelming. I got through the process by looking at reviews for the tires. Within 20 minutes I had narrowed the list to four models of tires. I checked prices locally and made purchases within the week from two different vendors.

    Not only is choice of tires good, but choice of vendors. The qualification is, you have to be smart about it. I can see how choice could be bad for people with low comprehension skills. For those who negotiate prices and want the best quality, the more choice the better.

    Reviews, either formal or informal, are key for high involvement purchases (choice in low involvement purchases don't matter as much, because the product is inexpensive, not critical, etc.).
  • Biased... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mercuryresearch ( 680293 ) * on Monday March 29, 2004 @02:00PM (#8705155) Journal
    I thought the name of the professor sounded familiar, and sure enough, it was who I thought it was. His position is not agenda-free (not that anyone's is.)

    Schwartz wrote a paper for the January, 2000 edition of the Journal of the America Psychological Association, American Psychologist, titled "Self-Determination, the Tyranny of Freedom."

    The artical basically lays the groundwork for restricting freedom for people's own good, and to force beliefs on people for their own good. Coming from a libertarian viewpoint myself, the entire article was disturbing in a very subtle way -- and it was clear that a political or social agenda was a subtext.

    It appears he is simply continuing on this theme.
  • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @03:10PM (#8706166) Journal
    Don't want to confuse the lower classes with all these options on the ballot paper you know. Might scare them.

    The old MS joke comes to mind:

    One world, One web, One program - Microsoft Ad

    Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer

    Either this guy think this is a good idea or he doesn't understand choice.

    The current choice is simply:

    • Apple

      Easy oneway to do things. (well if you don't make use of its unix background wich you never need to touch if you don't want to)

    • Windows

      Oneway for the OS. (easy until you become an admin, the old change network settings example comes to mind)

      Choice for everything else. Just check how many email programs and office suits there really are for windows.

    • Linux

      Roll your own. Choice in everything except hardware. And even there you got choice. Just write your own.

    • BSD

      For the necrophiliacs.

    But how is this any different from choosing a car? Choosing a house? Choosing a meal?

    Do I want a car I can fix myself if needed (handy if you drive in remote places) or just a little town cruiser how about no car at all? Do I want my own house I can rebuild however I want or do I want a nice rented apartment fully furnitured with a maid? Do I want a meal I can microwave and be ready or do I want to spend hours in the kitchen to create a feast fit a king?

    Now some people here seem to want everyone to make the same choice they have. This applies equally to all computer OSes. These people accuse other OS users of being zealots and never realise they are a very black pot.

    I for one am not scared of choice. I am scared one day I will not have a choice. Choose whatever OS you want. But let it be YOUR choice.

  • by Trolling4Dollars ( 627073 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @03:13PM (#8706205) Journal
    Recently I was discussing what I see to be a central conflict in human beings. It is the conflict of two desires that every human being has:

    1. The desire to be an individual. To be unique.
    2. The desire to be part of a group. To be accepted as being the same as others.

    I'm not sure of the forces driving these two desires, but it certainly has an effect on making choices. Which leads to another issue which I think this article was focusing on: who has the control?

    In situations where one entity has all the control (a centralized system), there are fewer choices to make and therefore the system tends to work better. However the downside is that the system will entity will naturally impose restrictions. This is the point where the desire for individuality comes into direct conflict with a centralized system.

    In a situation where the individual has control, the system they are working within must allow for a variety of choices to be made since no individual is the same. With all this choice, the system has a tendency to be very complex and break down frequently (witness Macs vs. PCs, with PCs being more complex). It also has a tendency to lead to situaitons where there is no continuity. On the PC you have a gazillion choices no matter what OS you choose. Expand that to the hardware, and you have even more choices. With a Mac, you only have a handful of choices, but they are the "best" choices based on experience. The user gives up a certain level of control for a simpler experience.

    So... what's the answer? There really isn't one. It's a flaw in human design. We would be largely better off without the desire for individuality and centralized control, but we would also be a lot less interesting. However, the trains would probably run on time... ;P
  • by spun ( 1352 ) <loverevolutionary@nOspaM.yahoo.com> on Monday March 29, 2004 @04:24PM (#8707017) Journal
    Maybe there are people genetically predisposed to want to make choices, to want to choose from the widest array of options. These people would sometimes make the wrong choices and die. Then maybe there are others, people genetically predisposed to do what everyone else is doing. They would become unhappy when forced to make choices on their own (knowing, genetically speaking, that making the wrong choice may kill them.) Sheep and goats, you see. Maybe geeks tend towards the latter, and perhaps that's why most people here have a hard time grasping the fact that many people don't like to have too many choices.

    Or maybe I'm just full of it. I don't know. Maybe the moderators will decide for me.
  • by FreshFunk510 ( 526493 ) on Monday March 29, 2004 @04:26PM (#8707042)
    This week's Newsweek has an op-ed article called Afflictions of Affluence that speaks on this very topic. According to it, there are 3 consequences of our rich society: obesity, time crunch and buyer's remorse.

    In short the article goes on to say that because we're so rich and food is so cheap our portion sizes have been getting bigger. And that's why we're becoming fat.

    We're facing a constant time crunch because we constantly view our time as more and more valuable (time is money in our capitalistic culture) ergo there's this need to cram all our activities into shorter time periods.

    Lastly, ther'es buyer's remorse simply because we havfe so many choices out there. You buy one mp3 player but have time to research all 100. You're likely to find a feature in another mp3 player you wish you had.

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun