December 31, 2007
Photoshop & “The Paradox of Choice”
Shopping for strollers this weekend (oh yes, it’s getting to be that time), my wife and I found ourselves adrift amidst dozens and dozens of similar models. Multiple cupholders, detachable Cheerio hoppers, quick-release "infant inserts," heated leather-wrapped winches with built-in fondue pots (<–okay, I only wished for that last one)–it all makes your head swim. God, how do you make The Right Choice™?
Finally I said, "You know, if we walked in here and there were only one stroller, we’d probably say, ‘Looks great, we’ll take it.’" And with that, we chilled out, made a choice, and walked out happy.
This is just one example of the bafflement people face on a daily basis. Whether it’s 175 kinds of salad dressing or 6 million possible stereo combinations in a single store (both real examples), says psychologist Barry Schwartz, this "infinite choice" is paralyzing. According to the TED Web site that hosts his entertaining and enjoyable 20-minute talk on the subject,
[It's] exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them, and blame our failures entirely on ourselves.
His example about buying jeans ("I want the kind that used to be the only kind!") is particularly dead-on: "All this choice enabled me to do better… but I felt worse." Why? Because choice raises expectations, and "With perfection the expectation, the best you can hope for is that stuff is as good as you as you expected."
I think about this issue with Photoshop all the time. For years I’ve argued that the problem isn’t that people can’t accomplish something; it’s that they think there must be an even better way to do it, and that they’re therefore failing to achieve perfection. Thus they can get better results while feeling worse.
So, what can we do about it?
A simple response is just to hide things, offering "simple" and "advanced" modes, or the like. Photoshop does this in a number of places, via menu customization (try the "Basic" workspace) and More/Fewer Options buttons in dialogs like Shadow/Highlight. The thing is, this doesn’t work all that well. People just say "Show me everything." Why? Because no one wants to be the guy who drops three grand on an SLR, then leaves it in moron mode. No one wants a Ducati with training wheels.
A better solution, I think, is to make Photoshop more task-oriented. We need to help people bring forward what’s needed, when it’s needed, and put it away when it isn’t. We need to emphasize best practices–showing the constellations among the stars. The Photoshop team can’t do this on its own: we need to help users blaze their own trails, then share the solutions with others. We group these ideas under the heading "Lighting the Way." Instead of offering unlimited choice, or putting irritating constraints on it, we’ll work to provide just the right choices most of the time.
Finding the balance is no easy challenge, but that’s what makes it fun.
- In "Challenging the Apple Archetype," Cameron Moll argues for letting people customize their user experiences. Rather than assuming that "Father knows best," we should help people tune things to taste–within reason. He envisions "The LEGO archetype."
- In the NYT, Janet Rae-Dupree talks about how "Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike"–and the problems that can result. "I have a DVD remote control with 52 buttons on it," says author Chip Heath, "and every one of them is there because some engineer along the line knew how to use that button and believed I would want to use it, too."
- To dig a bit deeper into Schwartz’s ideas, see also his article "The Tyranny of Choice."
PS–I sometimes have to chuckle when people talk about the complexity of Photoshop, or any professional software for that matter. Sometime I should post screenshots of what features look like while in development. A dialog like Shadow/Highlight might have literally 50 or 100 control points that can be used to fine-tune the settings. ("I’ll give you something to cry about!" ;-)) Much of the work in developing the app is to boil that complexity down to something workable–maybe four or five controls that offer the most bang for the buck. The trick is to make things "as simple as possible, but no simpler." ("A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.")