I recently borrowed an amazing book from a colleague: “The Psychology Of Everyday Things” from Donald A. Norman. This book is everywhere described as “seminal” and “important”, and it looks like I must be the last human being around that had never heard of it. This is the kind of book that is mostly stating the obvious, but it draws attention to something deeply important yet often overlooked until too late: usability. That changed the way I look at most of the objects I use on my day to day life, and it is quite entertaining.
But my post is not about usability, it’s about failing to notice upfront what really matters, and usability often falls into this category. Let’s start with some anecdotal evidence, if I look around me and list the objects I regret purchasing, I can put them in two categories: impulsive purchases and researched purchases.

The first category is about aggressively priced items and collector stuff, I can’t resist growing my collection of dust gatherers with antediluvian video game cartridges and mechanical calculators. No big deal, my girlfriend is doing an amazing job at keeping me away from flea markets anyway. But the second category is more concerning, those are things I have been looking for, things I compared with each other to be sure to pick the right one, yet failed to get right.

Who made me purchase that barely usable alarm clock? I carefully choose it amongst tens of similar clocks on display! I have read many articles about electronic agendas before buying mine, but I kept using my old notepad instead! And why did I choose that terrible cell phone? It is both the worse and most expensive phone I ever had! Could that be the evil genius of marketing at work? Not sure.

In order to make a better generalization I need more anecdotal evidence, so let’s look at objects I am really glad I purchased. Very little have been researched purchases, and I could only describe the top of the list as complete random or sheer luck. I could tell the contrived story of each of my best purchases and fill a book with it, none ever gets near a rational search.

And this could be generalized further to all kinds of choices I made through my life, it looks like the best opportunities are triggered by the unlikeliest of events. This starts looking like the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”, relating randomness to success while disregarding the cases where it leads to failure is what triggers superstition. But success is more frequent only because is it often easy to sort out the opportunities and avoid the bad stuff, and the results are better than expected because options were evaluated on their own merits and not compared to others.

I am implying that being unable to compare can lead to a better choice? Yup.

Back to my alarm clock. If it was the only one I could choose, my only options would only be to buy it or not. My only way of evaluating the device would be to examine the design and ease of operation. I would have noticed that the snooze button was ill-placed, that the alarm provided no feedback if it was set or not, and that the volume and tuner buttons were easily mixed up. I would have decided not to buy it and would have gone looking somewhere else. But if the clock would have been great I would have bought it and considered myself lucky that the only one on display was so good…

What happened in reality was that I had ten or twenty alarm clocks at my disposal. So I compared them. On price, tuner availability, CD playback, display size, whatnot. I focused on what was easy to compare, and feature enumerations are distracting.

I believe the art of making coherent choices and compromises is an important part of game design, software engineering, life, the universe and everything. And I keep realizing I fall for so many cognitive biases that I start to wonder if ever made a decision that was not dysfunctional in one way or another.

So all the rambling above can be summarized in one sentence: a large panel of options is a distracting illusion of control, so be sure to consider each option on its own.

I am no psychologist, so I probably got it all wrong, but it makes sense to me. Fell like sharing your thoughts or pointing me to good references? Go ahead!

(The ice cream van picture is under Creative Commons licence, credit goes here)