Choice is overrated. Customizability is very overrated.
A couple of months ago, I went to dinner with a colleague after work. 1 I enjoyed that meal more than I do most restaurant meals, and it wasn’t the food or the company — both great, for the record — that made the real difference. It was the correct amount of choice.
We had a prix fixe meal as part of Toronto’s version of Restaurant Week, which is called Winterlicious. There is apparently also a Summerlicious, but no current plans for a Bootylicious. I asked.
For the unaware: a prix fixe is a restaurant offering where for a set price, you receive a multi-course meal. For each course, you are presented with one-to-limited options and are not allowed substitutions of any kind.
This format makes things easier on the restaurant in a bunch of ways. Removing menu options allows the kitchen to focus on cooking the few dishes they are cooking very well. Managers get to source fewer ingredients and employ economies of scale in purchasing them. Waitstaff has fewer things to do or remember, and can focus on excellent service. It’s easy to understand how that efficiency translates to a better experience for patrons.
The prix fixe made my dinner experience better for another reason. Simply, there was less shit to chose, and therefore less shit to think about.
In sciencier2 terms, a prix fixe reduces the cognitive load of a restaurant patron. Consider the amount of customizability that goes into the ‘normal’ ordering process: as many as a hundred menu items, each with an associated price tag.
Weigh the cost-benefit on top of the desire. Do you want an appetizer? Maybe split one. Baked potato, steamed veg or fries? How would you like that cooked? What are the specials? That dressing sounds weird. Can I get it on the side? Do you have other dressings? Do you want a dessert?
Four choices went into that really enjoyable dinner: green salad or salmon thing, cow pig or vegetarian, chocolate or no, how much do I tip this guy. All of the thought saved went directly into enjoying myself. And so, dinner was excellent.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, to think that a customizable experience will lead to a better one. You know can’t make something that’s perfect for everyone, people are too complex for that. The solution? Give the user as much choice as possible, then they can tailor your app/service/story/dinner offerings to their exact specifications!
This will not work.
For starters, a vast majority of people don’t actually know what they want until they’re presented with the options. By pushing the full burden of choice and selection onto the user, you’ve made your menu or interface or service offering so damn complicated that considering and customizing it takes away from experiencing it, if they even get to that point at all.
It’s much more likely you’ll run into someone asking for something you don’t offer, or not finding/getting what they want out of it because they can’t find it (I’m looking at you, half-considered transmedia stories and ARGs). Then what?
On the other hand, you can’t offer a person no choices either. Without choice, you feel cheated, shoehorned into something you may not have really wanted. I didn’t walk into Biff’s and receive no choice in my meal whatsoever. I received limited, appropriate choice.
There’s no easy way to know what appropriate choice means. It depends on what you’re making and who you’re making it for.It involves knowing your consumers well enough to know which and how much to offer. It may feel like you’re tricking people, offering ‘fake’ or ‘meaningless’ choice, or else running the risk of not catering to a big enough audience.3
Err towards too little. Pick a few simple, obvious, impactful things. Allow a few options for each one. Make informed decisions about the rest of it.
Allow your users to tailor their experience in a way that is easy to grasp and enjoyable to enact. Give them the feeling of having a say in the seemingly ‘big’ choices, but not so much that the burden of making the experience enjoyable falls to them. Pre-set the little things, remove the burden of making (and guiding) those decisions.4
To wit: 16 or 32 gigs? black or white?
Disclosure: the original draft of this said “man-date with a friend I work with.” Revised to “dinner with a colleague” because propriety. Second disclosure: i’m trying footnotes out as a stylistic thing. We’ll see. It feels a little affected.↩
It’s totally a word.↩
This is not actually a risk in most contexts. Attempting to appeal to too broad an audience means undifferentiated, bland offerings. See: Avatar(2009), consumer banking, et. al.↩
Not to say that nothing should be heavily customizable—there are many experiences that MUST be complex— where the joy is in the customization. This is so rarely the case for consumer products and experiences, i’ll be ignoring it.↩