Andy Crouch - Code, Technology & Obfuscation ...

Too Much Choice

Footpath Crossover

Photo: Unsplash

How many choices do we make on an average day? Depending on the source you believe, the average adult makes around 35,000 decisions a day. These cover the mundane what to wear and what to eat through to what job to accept and where to live. Who do you want to marry and do you want children?

Recently I have found myself overwhelmed by choices. I become consumed by the variations on offer and procrastinated for prolonged periods. I am not talking about at meal times or when I get out of the shower and have to choose what to wear. I am talking about everything above that from what to do on a free day off to purchases. I am talking about the architecture and code choices I make for applications I write. As far as booking a holiday this year it took about 3 months. I settled on many different destinations until I found somewhere more appealing. I have always tended to over think things but as I have got older there feels like more choices are available. In talking to my wife I believe that the issue is the internet and the ability it gives you to research your choices. Even when in a shop about to buy something I am on my phone checking for better options.

In writing this piece I am choosing what to add and what to omit. Three days I have been redrafting it.

I am not alone in feeling this way. There have been many papers and books authored on the subject. The research shows that people are unable to handle large choice variations. They are more likely to make a snap decision to avoid the task of wading through the options. Based on the number of options presented research has shown that a snap decision may work out the best. Tesco (the UK supermarket) is reducing its product lines by around 30,000 items this year. The reason? The realisation that its fastest growing competitor, Aldi, offered very little choice. Tesco at the start of the year offered an unbelievable 28 varieties of Tomato sauce. Aldi offered one. It appears that the buying public does not need a mixture of packaging and product sizes. They want a fair priced item. They do not want to have to stand and think about Tomato sauce. The want to pick it up and buy it and move on to more interesting things.

Having used Linux for close to 20 years I have found the choices it offers to be empowering and a distraction. Repositories of packages have allowed me to create and build software with ease. It has no doubt increased my productivity as a developer. It has also lead me to wast hours on trying distributions and desktops. Tweaking configuration files to get settings how I want them. Trying themes to rectify some, frankly, hideous UI’s. And then there is Arch. I love Arch as a distribution and it would take a lot for me to leave it. While I know you can install it from scratch in a couple of hours I can get lost in the wiki. It is so deep and offers so many installation options I have lost days to installing it. So many packages and configurations, so much choice.

This is all the polar opposite of Apple and their approach to software. One core application per task with two theme options out of the box. How many people that you know that own Apple gear tweak their UI or need to install many applications to get their work done?

“choose less and feel better.”
Barry Schwartz - “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less”

Words to adhere to but how to achieve it? I do not know but I am starting to look at each part of my life and the changes required. I have started by looking at the tools and environment changes I make to work. I have switched to Antegos for installing Arched based systems. I download the minimal ISO and have a Gnome based desktop (which I theme with Evopop) up and running in 15 minutes. This saves me a vast amount of time over installing vanilla Arch. Both my Windows and Linux environments are being scripted so I can restore them to a new machine quickly. I am working on cleaning up my dotfiles once and for all. I am limiting myself to one application per task. If I find a new application for a given task I am updating my setup and removing the old one. Considering I spend on average 10 hours a day in front of a computer this is already paying off time wise.

I am applying a new way of making purchases. I allow myself only one initial research session to select the best 3 options (based on requirements and price). I then make my decision based on predefined criteria and actually walk away from the internet. I found this useful recently as we have renovated the whole of our house. Before I would have lost vast amounts of time to selecting new furniture. To pick new items for 4 rooms I had it selected and purchased in 2 days. My wife is astounded and I have more time to do important things.

I am also taking the less is more approach with UI’s for applications I work on as they tend to offer too much choice. Look at Word from Microsoft or Writer from LibreOffice. The options and peripheral functionality on offer overwhelms users of the application. These applications should allow the user to focus on writing their content. This is why applications such as ia Writer or FocusWriter have such a good reputation, they strip the choices out. You have a screen to type text and you can insert tables and images. It is all you need to craft your prose. No distractions and no choices.

In rebuilding Open Energy Market’s core application I am looking at the options presented to the user. I am looking to strip away confusion and reduce the number of choices a user has to make. Do we need to ask this particular question? Can we default this pages values while providing a way that if they need changing the user can? The irony is that in undertaking this work I am presented with many options about the way to design it. I am back to having to make choices.