Friday, September 14, 2007

The Right Number Of Choices

My buddy Paul reminded me that there are many hours of provocative free video (and audio) of talks at the TED Conferences. TED, if I remember correctly, was organized by Wired Magazine types to celebrate those who make robots, write bleeding edge books on the business best seller lists, or have gone to MIT or started companies with significant number of employees who went to MIT. I'm no expert, I'm not rich, not famous, not a Thinker or Doer, and thus not likely to appear at one of these conferences. I do think and do, but in my own way and usually not in front of an audience.

My buddy Paul told me that he watches an occasional TED Conference at home on the TV, through ITunes, his Mac, and their TV peripheral - a pleasing low-cost experience, if you don't count the cost of the hardware and internet bandwidth. You do not need this hardware or even ITunes to watch them, but it is easy. If you are using ITunes, go to the ITunes Store and search for "TEDTalks", then subscribe to this and download what you want. Otherwise some talks are on YouTube, and they are accessible of course from

I remember watching Theo Jansen talk long ago and show videos of his kinetic sculptures which are very much like large mechanical tumbleweeds crawling along a beach. Fascinating. Paul suggested I check out the brillo-haired Malcolm Gladwell author of "The Tipping Point" and the cartoon reading Barry Schwartz author of "The Paradox of Choice". Both have something compelling to say about our (product) choices.

Gladwell spoke at TED in 2004 about choices and why there are many permutations of different kinds of food products produced by a given company.

Gladwell says that as far as products go, there is no one best choice as far as human preference goes. If I make my own pesto, as I was doing while watching the video podcast, I am hopefully making what I think is the best pesto. But others may have their own best tasting or optimal version. (Note, audio-only is sufficient for this podcast, as there are no pertinent visuals, so you can make pesto for about 20 minutes while you listen.)

You see, if we simply average together all our preferences, then we'll end up with average tasting pesto. Nobody is truly happy with what they get. It might not have the right amount of basil, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, pine nuts, or Romano or Parmesan cheeses. But if we allow perhaps 3 or 4 varieties of pesto, then perhaps people will have the best dining experience meeting their preferences, provided of course they purchase and are served the one best suited for them.

This is not obvious, but makes sense to me. It also explains why you can get a Subaru Outback, which I have, which has a very high SUV-like suspension and a Subaru Legacy which is virtually the same car with a lower sedan-like suspension. Those who are used to driving at what I consider a normal altitude, low to the ground, could never consider high suspension, would never buy it, and might never be happy with it if they do. I took a chance, and am glad I did.

Barry Schwartz who gave a TED Conference in 2005 has an alternate but not opposite point of view. (His talk requires the video, although, if one existed, a Power Point presentation would do.) Through some thought provoking provoking thoughts (the proceeding was not a typo, but more of a tongue twister, so you might consider going back to the beginning of this containing sentence and read it again. Apologies for this digression.) and well chosen New Yorker-ish cartoons, Schwartz points out that too many choices give us paralysis and also leave us disappointed with the choices we eventually make.

Schwarts' ideas are not incompatible with Gladwell's thesis. Together the problems with too few and problems with too many choices explain the variety, the size, and the overwhelming and unpleasant experience at visiting the cereal aisle at your local supermarket.

Conclusion: most of us might be happy with just a few good choices. For me, a tea drinker who rarely has a coffee, a company like Starbucks has it wrong with their coffee menu, but of course they have too successful for this to be true. Dell may be a better example. They have dozens of product lines and under each you can get many options. Even the number sale items in their paper catalogs of their stock models number at two dozen. If you shop with them online where you can configure your system yourself, and you add in all the options, you easily get millions of permutations. Many times have I put together a system and abandoned my electronic shopping cart. Some of this is the nature of the PC industry, which allows you to put almost any components in a system. But Apple Computer got it right as far as choice and satisfaction goes, since for example their computers (here I simplify things) and even IPods usually come in three varieties: small, medium, and large. By the way, it is also clear that several best sellers and doctoral theses are probably hidden in the New Yorker cartoon archives.

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