Design Choices

Posted: January 18, 2007 at 8:02 pm in design

I was thinking a little bit more about the point I mentioned in my previous post where the iPod Shuffle is actually easier to use because it doesn’t give you a choice about what music to listen to next. With my other MP3 player, I’ll often spend a few minutes trying to decide what kind of music I’m in the mood for, and whether I’d have time to listen to the whole album, and things like that. With the Shuffle, all of that is taken away from me, and I’m left with only a couple decisions – “This song or the next one” and “Louder or softer”.

Alan Cooper tells a similar story in his book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, in a case study about redesigning scanner software for Logitech. His team realized that most people are trying to do only three tasks with an image after scanning: cropping, resizing and reorienting. So they took out all of the other “functionality” and concentrated on making those three tasks as simple as possible. In user testing, their software was consistently rated as the most powerful despite objectively having the least number of features.

I think another aspect of choice is that increasing the number of choices makes it harder to get started. Figuring out the first thing to do often paralyzes us into doing nothing at all. Sometimes I won’t put on music because I can’t decide what I want to listen to. I think the same is true in most endeavors. Presenting more options does not help – it actually makes it harder. If anything, it would be better to be restricted to one choice, one simple thing, as a way to get started, like the iPod Shuffle. Once I become more comfortable with the scenario, then I can handle more choices; in fact, my brain will have been trained to make those choices subconsciously.

But when I’m faced with a new scenario, I don’t have those cognitive subroutines built yet. I’m faced with an infinite number of choices, and have no way of selecting between them, because I don’t have the experience. How does one deal with this situation?

I think the answer is to pick something, anything, and just get started. You won’t know until later whether it was the right choice, but since you have no basis for making a choice, all choices are valid, so long as you continue to evaluate and evolve based on the results.

The idea of just picking something reminds me of a story Robert Pirsig tells in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where Phaedrus gives his class a writing assignment, and one girl just can’t figure out what to write about. So he narrows it down, and says write about the town. She’s still stuck. Write about the city hall. Still stuck. Finally he says, write your essay about the top left brick of the front of city hall. And she looked at him as if he was crazy. But once she started writing about that brick, the dam broke, and she wrote a beautiful paper. The top left brick was completely arbitrary, but by continuing to remove choices, she was eventually able to get past her paralysis and get started.

Our society often favors increased number of choices. A decision that gives us more choices must be the right decision. After all, who wouldn’t want more opportunities, more options, more features? But I’m starting to wonder if that’s the case. Research like that described by the Paradox of Choice indicates that choice is good up to a certain point, and then becomes overwhelming. The examples I gave above certainly seem to indicate that choices can often get in the way of getting things done.

There’s a tension in design here. On the one hand, having more features and more customizability lets us make things work exactly the way we want. But if a design presents too many features and too much customizability, it becomes intimidating and hard to get started. I think there’s value in presenting a well-marked path forward for the novice user, so that they don’t have to make decisions they are not competent to make yet. Then present them with more options when they have enough experience that they can make those decisions. Actually, this approach reminds me a lot of my Ambidextrous article.

It’s very difficult for software to get this right. Most software tends towards the too many features right away approach. And while I’m a fan of the 37Signals Getting Real approach, I wonder if it swings too far in the other direction. The topic of simplicity in design has been on many bloggers’ minds recently. And I’m not sure there’s a right answer. For each case, there will need to be a balance struck on the appropriate number of choices presented to the user at any point in time.

And, as usual, I end on a completely ambiguous point. No punditry here with a strong opinion and withering scorn for anybody that disagrees. It’s all about the conversation for me, the acknowledgment of different viewpoints, and the benefits and drawbacks of those viewpoints.

P.S. My laptop is on its way back to HP to get its backlight fixed, so I am going to be living computer-free for a week or so. No blogging unless I stay late at work as I am tonight.

One Response to “Design Choices”

  1. Seppo Helava Says:

    It would seem to me that the proliferation of choices is also what holds games like Deus Ex, or System Shock, out of mainstream acceptance, while a game like Doom 3 succeeds. After all, in Doom 3, there’s essentially only one choice – shoot. Because you don’t have the option of playing nonviolently, you can be *confident* that every choice you make (or rather, don’t), puts you on a path toward success.

    In games that give you too many options, you instead wonder, what are the *consequences* of my actions. Rightly so, I’d hope – if a game is going to give you a choice, it should have a consquence of some significance. But therein lies the problem. To understand the choice, you have to think about the consquence enough to believe that you’re making a *good* choice. That selection process is work – and that’s why, when you’re looking for entertainment, eliminating that work is positive, rather than negative.

    In the game I’m working on right now, the original writers made every line of conversation a choice. Aside from a whole variety of problems with the writing in the game (the Freeman Group is basically a bunch of illiterate buffoons – I had nothing to do with selecting them, and I hope that no one involved with TFG ever finds work again), it forces the player to make a coherent decision about how to respond without ever letting up.

    So, in my writing for the game, I had two major focuses – one was rhythm – trying to get people to talk like they do in real life, and the second was limiting the number of choices the player made to those that I’d given them enough information to make intelligently.

    The difference, in practice, is utterly staggering. (yes, I’m tooting my own horn – but saying you’re better than the worst writers you’ve ever seen in your entire life isn’t tooting that loudly, I hope.)

    The characters who have fewer choices, but more information, feel more real, are more “fun” and overall, are just more interesting to interact with, because the interaction *means* something.

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