Sunday, January 02, 2005


Provocative book of the past year

My colleague Trent recommended and lent me Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. The book raises profound issues for both design and life, and was probably the most thought-provoking book I read in 2004. Interestingly, John Maeda of MIT has also singled the book out on his SIMPLICITY site.

Schwartz has a simple thesis, backed by empirical data. Essentially, the explosion of choice we are offered causes more regret than happiness. Schwartz focuses on what he calls "the price of maximizing", which leads to the "curse of high expectations." We are happier with our choice when made from a smaller selection. People think they want more, until they make their choice, then they worry if the choice made was the right one. Schwartz draws on his own work, and the work of Stanford economist Amos Tversky and especially Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman.

"More is less" is a challenge to sacrosanct notions of consumer sovereignty embedded in today's business culture. While we have long known that too much choice can be distressing, causing cognitive overload, and resulting in "satisficing", Schwartz looks at the emotional, rather than cognitive, side of choice. And what he says runs counter to much of today's design philosophy. In the post-modern, user-focused design age, designers are to assume that consumers choose what's good, not designers. There is no standard of "good design" anymore. Moreover, we have moved back in time to design being about a lot about style. Designers are extolled to appeal to endless and amorphous desire, not be stuck on needs. But emotional design does not necessarily offer lasting user satisfaction. Users don't know what to want, because the choice is based on so many intangibles. If I buy a neon green computer this week, suppose I want an orange one next week?

As I think about the topic, I'm not ready to dismiss the importance of emotional design, but I do want to limit its application. Humans have only so much emotional capital to invest in objects. It is silly to think they will want to get involved emotionally with everything they own. I read a charming essay by Harry Rich of the Design Council about his adventures buying a carpet in Marrakech. He went through dozens of carpets before finding just the one for him. But it wasn't a chore, it was an education in carpets that made him appreciate his choice all the more. It's a great example of what the philosopher Michael Polanyi referred to as connoisseurship as knowledge. The connoisseur considers making distinctions as rewarding as much as making a final choice.

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