Balancing Choice

I’m on a plane to SF (for a third week in a row) re-reading parts of John Maeda‘s The Laws of Simplicity. It’s the kind of book you get more out of the second time around.

One of the observations is that saving time & effort by eliminating the need to choose is a powerful way to simplify an experience (third law). For example, I’ve switched to using an iPod Shuffle on flights because it offers the shortest path to music in my ears. I’m saving the time looking through thousands of albums and dozens of playlists. I’m also saving the potential frustration of picking which few dozen out of 40,000+ songs I’ll listen on the six hour flight.

In the physical world, consumption choices have steadily increased. In the digital world, they have skyrocketed. Despite search engines and a plethora of vertical portals, is has become increasingly more time-consuming to find exactly what we are looking for. Hence is it no surprise that businesses are spending increasingly on technology and marketing to convince us that we don’t need to think about choices. From personal shopping to online product recommendations to “automatic” content generation for our social network profile to auto-generated entertainment channels, we are letting software decide what we like.

On the flip side, eliminating the need to choose can get dangerously close to eliminating the need to think. The pleasure of simplicity can lead to a reduction in critical thinking (we complain about the masses being led by the media) then grow into apathy (few people are excited about voting in dictatorships) and in extreme cases can be downright dehumanizing as proven time and time again by atrocities committed by people who later claim they didn’t have a choice.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Amazon’s recommendation engine will dehumanize Internet shoppers. The trick is in the balancing of choice (complexity) with lack of choice (simplicity). This, not surprisingly, is another law in Maeda’s book.

Who does the balancing when it comes to online consumption? I see a somewhat unsettling shift where consumers increasingly cede this right to recommendation software whose ultimate goal is to optimize the P&L of online businesses. On average a business profits when its customers are happy but at the margin ad targeting systems, recommendation engines and services such as Loomia and Aggregate Knowledge (both of which I know well and respect much) are focused on the short-term P&L goals of their customers and not on your personal satisfaction because you are not their customer.

Which brings an interesting question: is there an opportunity for a personalization/recommendation service whose true customer (not user!) is the consumer? I believe so and have started talking with entrepreneurs about this.

About Simeon Simeonov

I'm an entrepreneur, hacker, angel investor and reformed VC. I am currently Founder & CTO of Swoop, a search advertising platform. Through FastIgnite I invest in and work with a few great startups to get more done with less. Learn more, follow @simeons on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn.
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One Response to Balancing Choice

  1. “i’m on a plane reading a book about simplicity”

    well there’s your problem right there – there’s no simplicity in the world you’re inhabiting regularly.

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