Ze Frank

Ze Frank is one of the most interesting Internet artists. There’s a great retrospective of his work that he did as a TED talk. An early TED talk is equally entertaining if a bit dated. He’s also done two web series (A Show and The Show). And he did a fascinating interview about Social Media at the Paley center.


Fewer Choices Can Make You Happier

Give yourself fewer choices, you’ll be happier. You’d think that having the ability to choose would make you happier. Oddly enough, as shown by happiness researcher Dan Gilbert, having more choices often makes you unhappy as you can rethink the choices you’ve made. I wrote up a fictional debate on this topic on the value of choice between Malcolm Gladwell and Barry Schwartz a few years ago. The upshot of my fabricated debate is that a few choices are great; however, there is a point when too many choices become detrimental.


Take a Moment

We spend a lot of time running from place to place trying to get things done. It’s worth it to take a minute every so often to rebalance in the middle of the day. One Moment Meditation is a fun silly app to help do that. I also heard some good advice from Only Human on WNYC. They advise that before doing something important, like picking up the kids or going into an important meeting, take three minutes of silence to emotionally transition and prepare — you’ll get a lot more out of the experience. And remember that picking up the kids is actually an important experience.

Product Management Uncategorized

Are More Choices Good or Bad?

I’ve been following some of the recent research on how people make choices. The following summary represents two sides of an argument on whether or not more choice is a good or bad thing. In actuality, Malcolm Gladwell’s point of view is actually the standard thinking — that more choice is better. Barry Schwartz, the author of Paradox of Choice says that some choice is good but more choice isn’t always better. Below I present their views as a mythical debate on the virtues and vices choice.


I’d like to tell you all about the person who has added more happiness to the world than anyone else: Howard Moskowitz. Howard is the creator of chunky tomato sauce. A market researcher, Howard discovered that certain customers had fundamentally different tastes in tomato sauce. When Howard started his research the world thought that there was only one “best” type of tomato sauce that everyone would prefer. This was a platonic ideal of spaghetti sauce — that was captured in the old world methods of sauce (like Ragu). However, what he discovered was that people’s preferences were not focused on one universal platonic ideal but differed in three dimensions: regular, spicy and chunky. At the time, no one was manufacturing chunky tomato sauce and that’s exactly what Moskowitz’s client — Prego created.

Giving people the right kind of tomato sauce is like making them the right cup of coffee. If you ask people what kind of coffee they like, they will tell you that they like a dark, rich, hearty roast (but only 25-27% of people actually prefer that). Most of you actually want milky weak coffee. If we came up with a blend to coffee to suit everyone, the best score you can get is a 60 out of 100 on average. However, if we could segment you into 3 or 4 coffee clusters, you would move from a score of 60 to 75 or 78. The difference between a 60 and 78 is the difference between coffee that makes you wince and coffee that makes you deliriously happy.


I agree with the vast majority of what Mr. Gladwell has to say with one exception. Though some choice is better than no choice – more choice isn’t always better. This is a bit counterintuitive because in Western society we believe that freedom is good and more choice means more freedom.
However when I go to the supermarket today there are 175 salad dressings and that’s not including the 15 extra virgin olive oils and 42 vinegars I could mix together for customized Italian dressings. There are 75 varieties of iced tea, 230 soups and 40 brands of toothpaste. However, all of these choices don’t make people any happier — they actually make them less happy. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Paralysis: With so many options people find it difficult to choose at all. As an example, one of my colleagues examined employee engagement with employer sponsored retirement accounts. She found that for every 10 more funds offered, participation actually goes down 2%.
  • Opportunity Cost: With 175 salad dressings it’s easy to imagine a salad dressing that must be better than what you have chosen. When there are lots of alternatives to consider it is easy to imagine the attractive features of alternatives that you haven’t chosen. These untaken choices subtract from the satisfaction of what we’ve chosen even when we’ve chosen a good option. As the following cartoon suggests, you can never be happy if you’re always wondering if you should be doing something else:
  • Escalation of Expectations: In the old days jeans never fit right. They were stiff and painful and eventually if you washed them enough they fit all right. Today, I went to buy jeans and was completely overwhelmed by the options. I spent an hour trying on jeans and left with the best pair of jeans that I ever had. But, I felt worse, I wrote a whole book to explain this The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Going in, when I thought there was only one type of jeans, I had no expectations but with 100 pairs of jeans, I should be able to find that perfect pair of jeans. What I got was good but not perfect. When I compared what I got to what I expected I was disappointed. Today everyone expects things to be perfect and you can never be happily surprised – which is a shame.


In order to make customers happier, part of the solution is to reduce (rather than enhance) number of decisions an individual makes. Think about the freedom of going to a restaurant with a tasting menu. The chef makes the decisions freeing you from choosing what to order – not to mention choosing what kind of salad dressing to buy. It doesn’t have to be that drastic though – customers can be happy with customization as long as it requires relatively little work on their part. A good example of customization with little work is the Pandora radio application. You just tell Pandora the songs that you like and Pandora creates your perfect radio station.

However, businesses can only do so much to raise customers’ happiness. Marketers continue to bring out new and better products – trying to convince consumers that these new products and new choices will make them happier. While these new options may be slightly better, most of the time it’s at the margins. Consumers need to lower their expectations of new products and realize that even the most customized product only provides the core benefits of the product itself and maybe a little more. No matter how customized your dishwashing detergent is, it will never make you as happy as the woman using it in the television ad. Taking that mindset, customers can be happier by ignoring most of the choices and just focus on the few clusters that really matter – and realize that the other differences won’t be all that significant.

If you like this sort of discussion you should watch the videos themselves – they very good. Then you might want to listen to the radio program Radiolab on Choice as well as pick up Dan Arielly’s book Predictably Irrational.


Why Default Settings Matter

In a fascinating talk at the TED conference, Dan Ariely asks the following question, “What determines whether or not someone decides to donate their organs?” When you look at the data, there is a striking difference between two types of countries in the world. Some countries have an organ donation rate of close to 100% while others hover much lower — not reaching beyond 30%. What could possibly account for this difference especially among countries with similar cultural and ethnic heritage? Why would Austria be so much higher than Germany? Or Sweden be so much higher than Denmark?

Arielly points us to the paper “Do Defaults Save Lives?” by Eric J. Johnson and Daniel Goldstein. A default choice is the choice that a customer makes by doing nothing — e.g., always using Internet Explorer to browse the web because that’s the way things worked when you bought your computer (in fact, the Microsoft antitrust case in the late 90’s revolved to a large extent around these default choices.)

This startling difference in participation in organ donations is tied to how the question is worded at the DMV. In some countries, the question is worded “Check this box if you want to be an organ donor.” In others, the question is worded “Check this box if you do not want to be an organ donor.” If the question presumes that you will donate an organ, you will. As Arielly points out, it’s not because people are lazy, it’s because, the decision is so important that it is paralyzing for people to make for themselves. They shouldn’t have to choose what to do — someone should make the choice for them and “the sysem should just work.”

When the people at the DMV created these forms, did they realize that they were going to have the single most important effect on the state of organ donations in their country — certainly not. But that’s the point. To a large extent, the default behaviors that the designer created are those that will stick.

Certain choices, especially those with high stakes and low information are very hard for people to make. Let’s look at one product in specific that people need — 401(k) programs. Logically you would think that the more choices you gave someone on their retirement plans, the more likely they would be to join one of the programs. However, as a company adds additional plan choices the rate of participation actually drops because consumers don’t know what to do with all of these extra choices. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein talk about this paradox at length in their book Nudges. They discuss an innovative solution to the 401(k) problem with the “Save More Tomorrow Program.” The idea is that most people don’t change their 401(k) options once they join a company. Therefore, the plan should, by default, change your options for you. So this plan increases your 401(k) contribution at the beginning of each year, right at the time you get a raise. This is around the same time most raises are given out so people don’t feel like they are losing any money. The company does the “right” thing for you if you decide to do nothing. This is an example of nudging the customer in the right direction or in technical speak “Libertarian Paternalism.” It allows people to make their own decisions, but presents them with the best option for themselves as the default choice. It’s the equivalent of saying “You can have whatever you want with dinner but I’m serving skinless chicken with fresh vegetables.”

As product designers, we often expect customers to make the best choices for themselves given enough options. However, as we have seen, in many areas, people don’t choose what is best — they choose what is easiest. There are very few products that customers will engage with and learn how to use the myriad of features. If you still don’t believe me, take a look at this New York Times article on the relatively few applications downloaded on the iPhone. Remember that for the vast majority of consumers they won’t be changing their default settings, so make sure that the product works great right out of the box.