Alfonso Morcuende

re-new Orleans


Choose your love. Love your choice

Photo by Gary J Wood

You’re walking down the street. A woman comes up to you and asks you to take a survey and answer a question. You have time, so you decide to do it. She is loaded down with a ton of folders and papers, so she asks you to hold the cup of coffee she’s drinking. The question seems easy: they’re going to give you a piece of paper with a brief, general description of a person on it, and the only thing you have to say is whether you like this person or not. You don’t have to think—just say the first thing that comes to your head.

Don’t be alarmed, but we have a very good chance of guessing what you’re answer is going to be. What the woman is conducting is a “Priming” experiment, in which exposure to a stimulus influences your response. But what is the stimulus and what is your response?

If you like the description of the person, it’s very likely that the coffee you’re holding in your hand is hot. However, if you don’t like the description of the person, it’s very likely that the coffee is iced. How is it possible that the temperature of a cup of coffee can condition our judgment when judging a person?

The feeling of heat is stored in your brain in the same place where the feeling of trust is stored. When we are babies, one of our instincts is to cling to our mother in order to feel her heat and not die of cold. That’s why this union between the feeling of heat and a positive feeling about another person is so strong. Feeling heat in the palm of your hand made the description of the person likable and appealing to you.

This post discusses our choices. How do we choose? How do our choices make us happy or unhappy? Are we free in our choices?.


Barry Schwartz and The Paradox of Choice

As professionals, we want to offer our users the best experiences. We want them to have everything within easy reach. We want them to be able to do a ton of tasks, and any functionality sounds is essential, in our heads, when defining an interaction. Let’s start then with what Barry Schwartz calls “official dogma”. We believe that maximizing freedom of choice maximizes user wellbeing. WRONG!

In this world we live in, the options offered to us have multiplied dramatically. To cite one of Barry Schwartz’s examples, going to a supermarket and buying a few simple cookies turns into a choice from among 285 different types of cookies.

Each and every one of our actions is based on choices. We choose the clothes we wear, the route we take to work, what we eat, who talk to and what we say to them. We even choose who we are and if the actions we take will be good or bad. We are in control of all of this, but because we freely decide, do these decisions make us happy? To Schwartz, not exactly.

“The assumption is that if choice is good, more choice is better. That’s not necessarily true.”

Barry Schwartz

Choices in industrialized societies have not made us freer or happier. The constant choices from among a huge number of possibilities paralyze us and make us dissatisfied people. Let me explain with an example:

Today is your birthday. In the evening, on your way home, you go into a cake shop to choose a cake that your family will eat at dinner. Last year, the cake was not very good, so this year you hope it will be better. As for the flavor, you can’t decide between chocolate, which you like, and mocha, which your girlfriend likes.

In the cake shop, you find: chocolate, mocha, chocolate with strawberries, mint chocolate, lemon, cookies & cream, mocha & cream, red velvet, custard, coconut, vanilla, French vanilla, carrot, banana, almond and on and on. After ruthlessly pestering the cake vendor with questions about his many cakes, you decide on the white chocolate cake. The party arrives. You eat the cake. It’s not bad. It’s good. It’s better than the one last year, but it’s not what you had hoped for, and frankly you are dissatisfied by it. What happened?

You started with low expectations:

  1. That the cake be better than last year’s
  2. Mocha or chocolate

Which led to:

  • Regret

    From among dozens of choices, you were not able to pick the best, even though you picked a good cake. You can easily imagine the possibility of a better choice, and what is happening is that this imaginary alternative captivates you more than your choice. This makes you regret your cake. This regret takes away from your cake’s taste, even though that cake met all your initial expectations. More options mean more options for regret about the choices you make.

  • The cost of opportunity

    Each bite you take of that white chocolate cake is a reminder of your bad choice; that is, you missed a chance which you won’t get back. The cost of a missed opportunity takes away from the satisfaction we get from what we choose.

  • Increased expectations

    With all these flavors available to you, your expectations about what your birthday cake for this year was going to be like increased dramatically, when at first, they were very low. Therefore, obtaining a flavor that is better than last year’s but not as good as your sudden increase in expectations makes you unhappy.

  • Self-incrimination

    When the cakes were just chocolate and the one you chose didn’t meet your expectations, there was no one to blame—there were no other choices. Now that you have a hundred flavors to choose from, and since you chose the wrong one, you are responsible for this bad decision. You are to blame.


The Consequences of the Paradox of Choice in Design

What we develop almost never has to be valid for everyone. Most of the time, it is geared for very specific users. In these cases, knowing our users well and designing a simple product or service that has few options, which are very concrete and work perfectly, is what we should try to do. In their book “Rework,” the founders of 37signals are clear on this:

We design them to be simple because we believe most software is too complex: too many features, too many buttons, too much confusion. So we build software that’s the opposite of that. If what we make isn’t right for everyone, that’s OK. We’re willing to lose some customers if it means that others love our products intensely. That’s our line in the sand.

37signals – Rework


The Magical Number 7, Plus or Minus 2

Okay, having a lot of options does not make us happier, but why is that? What makes it so? Well, plain and simple, we are limited in our ability to process information. Our short-term memory has the ability to process information limited to 7 plus or minus 2, that is, between 5 and 9..

We are bad at retaining data in our memories. Have you ever wondered why almost all the numbers you have to memorize have between 5 and 9 digits: your credit card’s secret number, telephone numbers, your ID number…

The first person to talk about the magical number 7 was psychologist George A. Miller in his study published in 1956 “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”. Let me give you an example of how this number seven operates in our lives:

Pongamos un ejemplo de como opera este número siete en nuestras vidas:

The Soccer World Cup starts this week. We run over to an electronics store to buy a big screen television. Think of all the information about each television we have to evaluate to finally make a decision:

  • Brand
  • Model
  • Price
  • Resolution
  • Screen Size
  • Type of Screen
  • Image Aspect Ratio
  • Image Brightness
  • Image Contrast Ratio
  • Horizontal Resolution
  • And a host of other factors that you can find in any technical data sheet

We believe that we evaluate all these variables for each of the TVs that we look at in the store and finally, after a logical process of evaluation, arrive at the best solution. WRONG!

Our short-term memory can only evaluate a very small number of pieces of information (specifically 7 plus or minus 2). After we exceed that, emotions appear.

Our emotions are there to help us make decisions. Our emotional baggage is nothing more than a cash register of prior decisions, an automatism that enables us to make fast decisions based on previous experiences. The last time you bought a television, it was a Sony. It was a good TV, and you were always happy with it. You watch the games with your friend John at his house, and he has a 42-inch television set. It’s fantastic. Your father always said that it is worth spending a little more money on things that will last a long time.

So, what happened, you bought the most expensive 42-inch Sony, and you barely even glanced at the technical data sheet.

The rational part of our brains is the part that thinks it’s in control, but our emotions are the ones that decide for us. Since the ancient Greek philosophers, emotions have had bad press when it comes to making momentous decisions; we’d prefer to think that all our decisions are justified in analytical thought.

Let’s see now how easy it is to cancel out this analytical thought which we believe we make decisions with.

We’re going to conduct an experiment. We need a group a people that we’re going to divide into two groups, group A and group B. The orders both groups receive are very simple: go to the first room. In it, you’ll find a paper with a number you have to memorize. Take all the time you believe you need to memorize the number. Once you’ve memorized it, leave that room and walk to the other room where you’ll have to write the memorized number down. Easy, right?

Group A will be given a seven-figure number to memorize, and group B, a two-figure number. The experiment seems easy, and it is easy. All participants get to the second room and say the memorized number without any problems, but the objective of the experiment does not lie there.

The experiment begins just when people leave the first room. A member of the team thanks the participant for their work in the study and as a reward offers them two possibilities: A cup full of fruit (good for your health, your self-esteem and your cholesterol) or a piece of chocolate cake (not so good for your health, your self-esteem or your cholesterol).

The following struggle is going on in your head: something good in the long term, something rational, like a cup full of fruit, or fast satisfaction, something emotional like a piece of chocolate cake.

We might think that the percentage of people who take fruit or chocolate would be the same among the participants in group A and group B, but this is not the case. The people in Group A with seven numbers stored in their memory mostly opt for chocolate, while the participants in group B preferably choose the fruit. Only seven numbers for memorization are needed for your rational decision-making part to be cancelled out. Your rational part is too busy storing a number, so the emotional part of our brain takes the reins and jumps for the sugar. This is not about denying the emotional part that we all have when it comes to making decisions. It is about how easy it is to defeat your rational part.


The Consequences of the Magical Number 7 in Design

EMOTION. Our projects have to have personality, or rather, they must convey emotions. These are short cuts our users can hold onto without going through a more complicated and expensive process of analysis. Feeling is faster than understanding. Regarding this point, I strongly recommend you read the delightful book by Aarron Walter “Designing for Emotion”.

It seems complicated, but it is one of the fundamental aspects of a good product. Here Aarron explains what personality he was trying to transfer to “MailChimp” when he redesigned it:

I created a Design Persona for MailChimp, and defined the personality traits as follows:
FUN but not childish
FUNNY but not goofy
POWERFUL but not complicated
HIP but not alienating
EASY but not simplistic
TRUSTWORTHY but not stodgy
INFORMAL but not sloppyv

Aarron Walter


You are not a rational being and that’s a good thing

To sum up, our rational part is overwhelmed by the options presented to us when making decisions. We respond automatically to these options via a database of past experiences called emotions. What comes now is the final twist.

If there is something that humans are not especially gifted at, it’s explaining why we’ve chosen what we’ve chosen. In one fun experiment, a group of women had to choose a pair of stockings from among twelve pairs. After they made their choice, they had to explain the reasons why they had chosen those stocking in particular. The women gave reasons such as texture, how comfortable they were and color. But, all the stockings were identical. The participants in this experiment created reasons for their choices.

What this experiment demonstrates is that our reasoning, at times, is nothing more than a creator of justifications for our emotional decisions. Our reasoning only cares about creating a story that sounds good and that justifies the reason for our choices—even if these choices are not based on objective data. As the article “Do we know what we like?” “we’re not Benin rational – we’re rationalizing.”

The article discusses an experiment by the psychologist Timothy Webber who invited several students to pick out a poster as a gift. The options included a Van Gogh, a Monet, and three cat posters. Wilson divided these students into two groups: those who had to dissect their choice (the analyzers) and those who simply picked out a poster (the non-thinkers). Fifty percent of the students who had to analyze their choice selected the cat posters, while up to 95% of the non-thinkers opted for the posters by famous painters. When they were asked a few weeks later about how satisfied they were with their choices, the most satisfied students were the non-thinkers who had chosen the paintings by famous painters; the group of analyzers felt more dissatisfied with their choice. The students who made an emotional choice without thinking were happier than those who constructed an intellectual abstract regarding their tastes over their emotions.

Let’s think for a moment about the implications this has for the world of Focus Groups. I’m not saying they are contaminated, but I do want to cast a doubt on them. If a Focus Group is not well designed, Focus Group participants will try to justify their responses and their tastes. They won’t be lying; however, they won’t realize they’re doing it.

Let’s learn to trust our intuition. After all, our intuition is based on past experiences. Let’s trust ourselves more as designers and worry less about the analysis. I think Steve said it best:

“people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Steve Jobs