The agony of choice
We are being offered more and more choice, it plays to our love of freedom. Freedom to choose the things that are best for us. Freedom to buy things that no one else has, to stand out from the crowd and be different. But it turns out that maybe this of abundance of choice doesn’t actually make us happy.
Businesses increasingly have the data and tools to customise their products and services to the individual level.
Affordable 3D printers are now a reality and 3D printing is enabling all sorts of new business models, from personally tailored jewellery and furniture, to aviation engine components, to a working human kidney (although that last one is a few years off). Nokia have this week released design files that will let owners use 3D printers to make their own cases for its Lumia phones; and never more will the plumber have to disappear and come back tomorrow with the right part, when he can just pop out to the van and print one off.
Manufacturing companies will be offering tailored products with hundreds of choices of style, size, form, features, taste, fashion – all just for you.
And it goes way beyond printing. NikeID has been offering personalised trainers since 1999, and in 2001 custom chinos accounted for 40% of Lands’ End’s overall chino category within the first year of launch. Japan’s National Bicycle Industrial Company manufactures to order, within a day, to your choice of model, colour, components and personal measurements, and with your name stencilled on the frame.
The service industry is innovating in the same space, Ritz Carlton remembers your preferences and delights you by offering a room tailored to you around the world wherever you stay; banks such as Union Bank in the US and Barclays in the UK, through its Features Store, are offering customers the opportunity to design their own bank accounts. You choose which bits you pay for and which you don’t, and you choose how and when your bank talks to you, and about what.
But is it all a bit overwhelming? Is this choice putting people off?
A US employee retirement scheme experimented with the number of investment fund choices offered, and found that for every 10 more mutual fund options offered to employees, participation went down 2%, so 50 fund options got 10% less customers than 5 options.
Psychologist Barry Schwarz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, observed that when he first went to his local jeans shop where he’d always replaced his jeans, and for the first time was offered choice (tapered, boot cut, zipper fly, button fly, pleated, slim fit, stone washed, acid washed) he spent an hour choosing, walked out with the best pair of jeans he’d ever had, but felt terrible about them.
He had to write a book to work out why. He realised that the huge array of options had driven his expectation sky high, and the jeans he walked out with, although much better fitting than his usual pair, were way below his newfound expectations of perfection.
There is a message here.
Choice is a turn off. It can raise expectations so high that satisfaction actually drops, despite products improving.
How do you deal with this?
The software industry has a tried and tested technique with its pre-installation window, offering a choice of a “typical (recommended)” installation or “advanced”. It asks your permission to offer you the mass customised version - and then actively encourages you not to take it.
There is an implicit reassurance to the non-techy customer that they will get an installation that is configured best for them.
Consumers are attracted by the idea of choice but the vast majority don’t want it once they get there. So brands have to create the buzz around choice and offer the capability, but then somehow hide it once the customer turns up.
I choose to be confused.
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