Thursday, September 01, 2005


cognitive-emotional complexity and customer value

The relationship between simplicity or complexity of a product or service, and value a customer derives from the choice they are offered, has never been less clear cut.

Making products and services simple is not the answer. People are often interested in possibilities offered by complexity, they just don't want to be overwhelmed by it. The limits of people's interest in choice is a major blindspot of free market liberals who believe unlimited choices make people happier. True, people want choices, but they also wince at choices that don't seem personally meaningful. In addition, when too many choices are available, people can feel emotionally drained, fearing they will make the wrong choice, and cognitively exhausted, when they have to compare too many options.

The challenge for designers is to offer products and services that demonstrate extra value, and are meaningful. Generally, people are willing pay more for products and services that reflect more differentiation or customization. As a consequence, businesses offer consumers an unparalleled array of choices in the market, with many possibilities to customize a purchase on the Internet. But choice for choices sake runs the risk of creating a "why bother?" backlash.

The corporate rush to higher value products and services is forcing greater complexity on consumers. ATMs dispense cash, but maybe banks would make more money if they dispensed theater tickets as well. And Lottery tickets. Why not dispense lottery winnings at the ATM too? Soon someone decides there is a market for machines that only dispense cash -- people will pay extra not to stand in line behind someone buying lottery tickets.

Some hotels offer a choice of pillow types for guests. Lovely touch perhaps, if that were the only decision the guest needs to make. But in the self-serviced economy, people are asked preferences about many minor details, only a couple of which matter personally to an individual. Like vampires, some corporations collect personal information for impersonal reasons -- faux customization serves as cheap market research.

The alternative to asking people to provide preferences each time they order is to capture these preferences in a profile. Even creating and maintaining a profile is too much work. I avoid registering for web sites and frequent buyer programs where ever possible. So far at least, helping computers develop some intelligence about our preferences is still a net investment of effort by users. Perhaps in the long run this will change, but I can not overly optimistic about the next ten years at least.

Although cognitive complexity is a symptom most prevalent among interactive products, other more humble products are seeking to become more complex, higher value, and more scary to purchase. Once simple white goods like stoves/cookers are now industrial machines with idiosyncratic design languages that match other similar looking white goods to form a cohesive kitchen "system." Woe the poor person who learns through use she hates the brand she has spent thousands of dollars or Euros on. The opportunities for buyers remorse keep escalating.

The future for user centered design never looked brighter. People's time is always limited, the total emotional capital they have available to invest in consumer decisions is limited as well. Our cognitive capacity to process information and juggle decisions is perhaps growing modestly, but is still outstripped by the growth in choices demanded of us. Meanwhile, corporations are addicted to the notion that offering consumers more choice is the best and only strategy to gaining market differentiation and achieving success.

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