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Are More Choices Really Better? 309

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the how-to-hit-the-off-switch-let-me-count-the-ways dept.
A. Bosch writes to mention that Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek software has a commentary that examines the need for choices in software. From the article: "This highlights a style of software design shared by Microsoft and the open source movement, in both cases driven by a desire for consensus and for 'Making Everybody Happy,' but it's based on the misconceived notion that lots of choices make people happy, which we really need to rethink." With software steadily becoming more sophisticated, are more choices really necessarily better?
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Are More Choices Really Better?

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  • Yes. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:12PM (#16953894) Homepage Journal

    Next question?

    Seriously though, yes, more choices are always better. However, the additional choices don't have to be easy to get to.

    For example, practically everything in Windows is configurable. However, in most cases the configuration is not exposed via a GUI. It's set to some default and you need to tweak the registry.

    The same is true of Unix, of course; you often need to go to the config file directly to accomplish something, even where a GUI is available. You can accomplish all kinds of wacky things editing Xresources files.

    But in both of these cases the full complexity is not directly exposed, so the user doesn't have to deal with it. On one hand this makes the software more complex and typically leads to bloat. On the other hand, this lets one tool accomplish many tasks without bothering people who don't use the functionality with its presence.

    • Delta thinking (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Harmonious Botch (921977) * on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:17PM (#16954006) Homepage Journal
      ...click...whirrr...whirrr..."I'm sure glad I don't have to solve all those hard problems like alphas and betas do..."

      The problem - if any really exists - is not the number of choices, it is the manner in which the choices are presented to the user. ( For an example of good presentation, look at the average browser's bookmark function. You can have a well organized database of thousands of URLs, all of which are easy to find. Yet if they were one long list, it would be incomprehensible. )

      The solution is not to obsess about the number of choices, but to think about the best way of presenting choices.
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        For an example of good presentation, look at the average browser's bookmark function. You can have a well organized database of thousands of URLs, all of which are easy to find. Yet if they were one long list, it would be incomprehensible.

        This is kind of OT, but I think bookmarks are an example of a shitty presentation, because I reached a point where I couldn't easily find my bookmarks. I had too many of them. The problem is that "good" organization of disparate content cannot be maintained in a simple

        • by jaweekes (938376)
          I would not mind having to tweak the registry, or an INI file, but please just document it! I hate having to search through 100 web pages just to find out how to turn off the damn balloon pop-up!
          • by drinkypoo (153816)
            I vehemently agree. Every single setting, configuration point, dialog box, check mark, and radio button should be documented. Few things cheese me off so much as opening up the online help only to find that it applies to a previous version of the program... but opening the online help to find that it is completely unhelpful is right up there.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        What about when choices are an alternative to a standard?

        Take Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD for instance, that's a choice that we'd be better without because you essentially have to choose which movie studios you want to limit yourself to or buy both sets of hardware. Alternatively if they removed the choice by creating a single standard for HD movies it would be a whole lot more beneficial for consumers.

        There's more then one TYPE of choice, it's not as simple as choices being either good or bad, you need to take
    • by TheWoozle (984500)
      Seriously though, yes, more choices are always better.

      O RLY? How would you like to die today? We have a lovely selection of slow, painful ways to die. Nobody has a wider selection!
      • Re:Yes. (Score:5, Funny)

        by Tackhead (54550) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:20PM (#16954060)
        > > Seriously though, yes, more choices are always better.
        >
        >O RLY? How would you like to die today? We have a lovely selection of slow, painful ways to die. Nobody has a wider selection!

        Slashdot Poll
        How would you like to die today?

        . Drowning
        . Burnination
        . Decapitation
        . Breasts!
        * Snu-Snu
        . Snu-Snu with CowboyNeal

        • Breasts is an option, yet Tackhead votes for Snu-Snu. Go figure...
          • by Tackhead (54550)
            > Breasts is an option, yet Tackhead votes for Snu-Snu. Go figure...

            If there are no breasts in your Snu-Snu [wikipedia.org], you're doing it wrong. Even on Amazonia, there's at least one breast to work with :)

        • I think Graham Chapman answered this question well in the movie "The Meaning of Life"
      • by Palshife (60519)
        O RLY? How would you like to die today? We have a lovely selection of slow, painful ways to die. Nobody has a wider selection!

        See, if I had more choices I'd choose not to die at all. Better!
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Moofie (22272)
        {izzard} I'll have the cake, please. {/izzard}
    • No (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MyLongNickName (822545) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:18PM (#16954028) Journal
      Seriously though, yes, more choices are always better

      False. It has been shown in numerous studies that more choices often cause information overload, and result in poor choices being made. I will cite two examples:

      1) Gov't Health Care - During the Clinton years, the idea of nationalized health care was bandied about. A majority of Americans agreed with the notion. How did the Republicans get it mired down and defeat. Besides Hillary leading the effort, the way it got shot down was brining three or four different models into the picture. Americans got overwhelmed, and opted for (f) None of the above.

      2) 401(k) plans. Want to reduce your participation rates? Add more investment options. Sure, your sophisticated investors might like it, but Joe Sixpack gets eyes like saucers when he sees forty-five options that he must pick from. Study after study has shown more options = lower participation.
      • Re:No (Score:4, Informative)

        by oneiros27 (46144) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:27PM (#16954264) Homepage
        Research [apa.org] has shown it to also hold true in sales.

        If you present users with too many choices, they're more likely to not buy anything. (one experiment was done by offering jams for sale, with either a limited number of choices, or a whole lot).

        The theory is that when people can't decide which is best, they'd prefer not to risk making a non-optimal choice, and so decide not to buy anything at all. (as opposed to software sales, which try to get people to not make the choice by buying the most expensive 'enterprise' version, so they don't have to decide which features they might need).
      • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:30PM (#16954316)
        If you choose the "wrong" health plan, you may not be covered for a critical operation. Too bad. You die.

        If you choose the wrong investment you may be broke when you retire. Too bad. You eat dog food and live in a box.

        If you make the wrong choice (and the more choices there are, the more likely that you'll choose one that is not the "best").

        If you choose the wrong pair of jeans, you take them back and get a different pair.

        If you choose the wrong pizza place, you complain and get your money back and go to a different pizza place.

        But none of that is applicable to TFA which just discusses the many ways you can tell your computer that you no longer need its services for the time being. Should it "sleep" or "hibernate" or "shutdown" or "lock"? Who cares as long as it is ready to operate when I come back?
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by cmat (152027)
          Who cares as long as it is ready to operate when I come back?

          Actually, I think that's exactly what the author of the TFA is trying to hit home. There are some times when multiple options are unavoidable. For everything else, there should be simplicity where mainstream software is concerned (and I would be willing to argue even specialized software can benefit from this mode of thought as well).

      • by toddbu (748790)
        For those that are not able to figure it out for themselves, there is almost always professional advice. I don't disagree that choice can be overwhelming, but there are times when I'm willing to ask somebody else for their opinion. I, for one, am happy that there are many options when it comes to health care. If I need something as simple as pain reliever, I pick the one that works best for my symptoms (Advil for muscle pain, Tylenol for just about everything else). What you're suggesting is that we jus
        • by pogen (303331)
          For those that are not able to figure it out for themselves, there is almost always professional advice.

          And an overwhelming number of sources of professional advice to choose among...

      • You know, I've seen those studies, plus the one a sibling poster gave about retail, and I really don't think they prove what people think they prove. It seems they're more showing the harm of choice presentation. Do you think, for example, that that "low-choice" 401(k) would revert back to the low participation of the "many-choice" 401(k) if they put a little note in it that said "Experienced investors my request access to additional options by talking to $PERSON in HR." ? Seems this "overload" problem o
      • Seriously though, yes, more choices are always better

        False. It has been shown in numerous studies that more choices often cause information overload, and result in poor choices being made.

        A vast overabundance of choices can be very confusing, sure. But I'll go one further and suggest that there comes a point where it is an outright waste of resources. You only need sufficient choices available to meet your needs. Tried choosing a CMS [cmsmatrix.org] lately? There are literally hundreds of them available, and they all serv

      • You're saying that because most people are stupid that having choices available is bad? You can't run society so that it's easy for idiots.

        I like having choices and investigating them to see which is best. What I don't like is choices that are supposed to be different but when you investigate they are really pretty much the same. Examples range from politics where I usually feel my vote doesn't matter because both canidates are creeps who are just out for their own benefit to the M$ Office vrs OpenOffice co
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        The problem there isn't the amount of options but rather their presentation. Look at cars. Honda doesn't say they'll sell you one of a few hundred models of new car, but if you go down and say you want a Honda Accord, or a Civic, or an Insight, they say, "okay, cool, do you want AC? Manual transmission? Floor mats? CD changer? Extended warranty?" and from customizing all those options, you have hundreds if not thousands of possible configurations.
    • But it's not just a software question. Sure maybe I can flip a setting in my config file so all my text is ROT13'd, including the config file... but then do I help them when they call for support? Software is not just a product put out by engineers, it's also a product which must be supported by someone, sold by someone, packaged, run on a computer (obviously infinite choices wouldn't run very quickly).

      Extra choices can add significant complexity, both to the code and sometimes to the usability... consisten
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        While this argument is valid, more choices are still better for the users... though they might make the developers cry.

        the last thing you want to do in such a program is to provide so many choices that the interface doesn't even look familiar any more.

        This has nothing to do with anything. Having the application look the same across platforms doesn't have anything to do with the amount of functionality you're providing, unless you don't provide it on all platforms, in which case, you have bigger probl

  • by 0racle (667029) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:13PM (#16953914)
    With software steadily becoming more sophisticated, are more choices really necessarily better?
    What does one have to do with the other? Choices are only good when all your options are simple? It's better to have one that works in a very complex, impressive manner then several that work better for different people?
  • Conversely (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tsanth (619234)
    Fewer choices are not necessarily better.
    • by toddbu (748790)
      I agree. I like how the author says that reboot could be gotten rid of and that you'd just flip the power switch. Obviously he has never remotely managed a machine.
    • Yes, but that's too obvious to need stating. The converse thought (that more choices can lead to a worse overall experience) is the one that actually surprises.

      Imagine going to the grocery store and finding three different brands of refried beans. Three is a small enough number that you could actually try out all available brands to see which one you like best.

      Now imagine going to the grocery store and finding thirty different brands, broken up along numerous axes (mild/spicy, regular/lowfat/lowsalt, stan
  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <.moc.liamg. .ta. .nhojovadle.> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:13PM (#16953918) Journal
    With software steadily becoming more sophisticated, are more choices really necessarily better?
    This shouldn't be an "Ask Slashdot," this should be an "Ask Your Customer" question. Because, like a lot of things, it depends. I'd imagine your average Slashdot user would love more choices, which is why the Slashdot interface is slowly expanding for subscribers--and also why Linux is so popular on this site. Seriously, name me one software project with more options than Linux. Hell, the number of distros alone should tip you off.

    That said, let's take the average American. Their head would explode if you started explaining all they could do with Linux. They'd probably rather be trapped in the movie Deliverance than be faced with building and configuring Linux from scratch.

    So don't ask me if more options are better because it depends on the case. I don't want my text editor to have all the bells and whistles known to man although I expect my process management suite that I use at my company to be able to interface with web services. Even though I prefer Emacs over MS Word, the next person my prefer them flipped.

    To recap, ask your customer. Ask your end user. Ask your mother if she'd be able to user your software (provided it's meant for the general public). But the last people you should be asking are members of the Slashdot community.
    • Recursion (Score:5, Funny)

      by DragonHawk (21256) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:30PM (#16954334) Homepage Journal
      "this should be an 'Ask Your Customer' question"

      So... people should be given a choice when it comes to the question of how much choice they should get.

      My brain hurts now. ;-)
      • So... people should be given a choice when it comes to the question of how much choice they should get.

        If your brain hurts after thinking about that, software developer might not be the best profession for you.

        One of the most successful pieces of software (in my opinion) out there is the Eclipse [eclipse.org] project. It's all about "meta" choices--that is, the choice to have more choices. Out of the box Eclipse is great for your average Java developer. I recommend it to novice freshman developers. Now, if you

  • YES. More choices is always better. Competition is always better than no competition. Unless of course you are talking about operating systems, which we all know Micr$oft is the only solution. For everything else, competition/choices is good.
    • by webrunner (108849)
      There are a few situations where more choices is worse. Format wars, for instance, where both formats are more or less equivalent but just driven by different companies.
      • by miyako (632510)
        Even in this case, more choices can be better. Take the BluRay/HD-DVD format war. Both formats are more or less equivilent functionally, so consumers in this choice get to pick the company (companies) they hate less to support. Sometimes choices isn't about choice in products, but in who supplies the products.
  • The next dvorak? (Score:2, Flamebait)

    by RingDev (879105)
    Joel is a smart guy. Scratch that. Joel is an incredibly smart guy. But must every single post he makes on his own web site be headlined on /.? It's not like his ego isn't big enough already. No need to stoke the flames of that fire.

    -Rick
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by jo42 (227475)
      What's a "Joel" and why should anyone, other than a very few people, give a wet fart?
  • To clarify... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Otter (3800) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:16PM (#16953992) Journal
    Since no one will bother to RTFA -- the "choices" he's criticizing aren't configuration choices (which is also a valid debate), but redundant (or basically redundant) ways of performing the same action via multiple routes.

    That said, the KDE and GNOME guys can return to ranting at each other...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by arun_s (877518)
      Right. The example he gives is of a dozen different options to hibernate/logout/shut down a computer in Vista. The screenshot really does say it all.
      I'm thinking of other places where his reasoning holds true, but I'm coming up with blanks here. I mean, I can close a tab in firefox by middle-clicking it, pressing Ctrl+W, clicking on the small X, or with File->Close Tab. They're all redundant ways of doing something but it involves different input devices and shortcuts, and each is equally useful for dif
  • If companies could work together developing cool apps then that would be cool, because then they could share ideas and integrate software. really is there a need to have thousands of different CMS tools out there that all do pretty much the same thing? And if they're using a standardised language like PHP, or Java then the platform support is wider. I think the reality is that while some companies are looking after their own interests this probably not going to happen. But they are starting to realise the
  • Need Logoff. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Jawood (1024129)
    FTFA: Once you've merged Switch User and Lock, do you really need Log Off? The only thing Log Off gets you is that it exits all running programs.

    I have multiple user accounts on this machine that I'm on now. One for my wife, one for me, and the admin account. Having different user accounts makes it much easier for keeping our documents, mail, and other progams that we use separate. It makes both of our lives easier if all she has to do is logon into her account and her email and other stuff is right there

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Bogtha (906264)

      Read it again, he's not arguing against multiple accounts. He's saying that if you can log in as a new user when the screen is locked, then you don't need to have an explicit "log off" button, you can just lock the screen.

    • He's not suggesting to get rid of switch user functionality - just that it would be available from the one generic option to get to the login window.
    • Re:Need Logoff. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by maxwell demon (590494) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @03:05PM (#16955084) Journal
      He doesn't deny that different users are a good thing (that's why he includes the "change user" into the lock mode). However I'm not sure how he imagines this combination to work. I see two possibilities:

      Either changing user from within lock first logs user 1 off, and then logs user 2 in. But then, what do you do if you definitively don't want toget logged out for some reason?

      Or the second user gets logged in while the first user's programs still continue running. But then, without a logoff option user 1's programs might unnessecarily continue to run and eat ressources from user 2. And no, rebooting (or power off and on again) might not be an option because user 3 might still have programs running which he does not want to have terminated.

      Of course, user 2 could just end all his programs before locking the screen, but he might not want to do all that work (and besides, there may be background processes running for him which he does not even know about).

      The problem is that he has fallen for the much to common fallacy that the opposite of the wrong must be the right. To provide as many choices as possible is obviously wrong, therefore he thinks the opposite, that is to provide as little choice as possible, must be right.

      What about the following rule?

      The right amount of choice is best.

      Of course that's a rule which isn't as easily followed as either "provide as much choice as possible" or "provide as little choice as possible", but doing things right is almost always a bit harder than just going to one extreme.
    • And, thanks to /. users for posting the importance of having user accounts for general use, this machine hasn't had any viruses in a couple of years.

      You misunderstand the security benefits of multiple users. It doesn't stop the machine from getting any viruses. What it does do is to stop viruses spreading from one user to another, and more importantly it stops a virus from corrupting the entire operating system.

      If you have never been infected by a virus with multiple user accounts, you probably wouldn't hav
  • I'll take this away from software and say that it really depends on the situation. Must I really decide between 15 different types of bran cereal, 20 types of toilet paper, 5 bathroom cleansers or 25 versions Office? Okay, the last one was back to software again.

    Just because we can produce multiple types of this-or-that doesn't mean we must.
  • What kind of a question is this? Yes, having more choices is better! The real problem comes down to how proprietary each choice is!

    In my many years of IT, I can't tell you how many times the place that I worked at was effectively forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade to the newest version of Microsoft Office because the other companies with which we dealt all upgraded to the newest version of Microsoft Office. Why? Because Microsoft's proprietary format prevented us from reading the
  • That's nothing! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JoeWalsh (32530) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:24PM (#16954202)
    I'm still waiting for the computer with one button: "Do What I Mean"

    Everything else is an abject design failure.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by maxwell demon (590494)
      I'm still waiting for the computer with one button: "Do What I Mean"


      That's a terrible interface. It gives you the option of the computer either doing what you mean (by pressing the button), or the computer not doing what you mean (by not pressing the button). Do you really need that choice? I don't ever want the computer not to do what I mean. Therefore the ideal computer has no button. It just always does what I mean.
  • Choices play into one's sense of individuality, be it choice of car, clothing, phone, wallpaper, whatever. To the extent that the choice makes a fashion statement relevant to the individual, it is good to have these choices available.

    Standardization makes things functional. We expect a phone to work more or less a certain way, regardless of any fashion statement it might make, because every phone we've used before it was worked more or less that same certain way. When fashion choices start impacting the f

  • Why do you want the power off? If you're concerned about power usage, let the power management software worry about that.

    4 reasons:
    - Services that might decide to wake up (this can mess up power management)
    - "Sleeping" still draws more power than no power; grab a "Kill-o-Watt" or similar device to try it yourself.
    - Heat. If you have any sort of ventilation problem (i.e., you're a home user), the excess heat can be noticable in the summer.
    - It's a laptop. Enough said?

  • by G4from128k (686170) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:26PM (#16954244)
    Software such as MS Word exemplifies the one-choice-for-all model of software. The result is bloatware when a single piece of software must support a diversity of users.

    We all agree that Word is 90% bloatware, but we can't agree on which 10% of functionality to keep.
    • by LWATCDR (28044)
      The answer is simple. Don't try to make one program fit every-one's needs.
      If you tried to make a single car that fit everyone needs you would have an SUV with a pickup bed on the back and it would have a thousand hp motor.
      It would do nothing well and cost way too much.
      Sort of like a lot of software.
  • There's your answer. What if that was all there was? Of course more choices are better.

  • by jgalun (8930) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:31PM (#16954350) Homepage
    Just enough time to post about it. :) Harvard Business Review carried an article within the last year which talked about the difficulty of designing simple products for consumers. One of the problems they found was that consumers always SAY that they want more features, but then IN PRACTICE are happier with products that are simple to use and do a few features well.

    This may seem common sense, but there was actually a study done to confirm this bias, and, frankly, common sense isn't always so common. That goes a long way to explaining why Apple is doing well again - Jobs is basically dictating how you use the computer, and although that does not seem like a good thing, most users actually appreciate the elimination of the extra complexity they don't need.
  • by ibbieta (31756) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:31PM (#16954360)
    I'm surprised that Joel does not reference one of his earlier rants about people wanting to feel in control. When the results of each decision is unknown then people start to feel like they are losing control and seek happier pastures elsewhere. When people fully understand the implications of a choice, they feel in control and are happier.

    A choice between "sleep" and "hibernate" is great when the person making the choice knows what each option does. Most people do not care and do not want to care. This choice is useless to them and even lowers their sense of control over their computer and thus their satisfaction with it.

    The trick is not taking away all the choices, like Joel is suggesting, but giving users control over what they want to control. Those that care can select their options, those that don't care get a fairly basic guess at what they want. Joel's guess for the power-off problem with laptops is fine but does not always work for me and probably lots of geeks. Hell, I want my laptop to suspend but keep the 3G network connection and there is no way to do that.
  • Depends (Score:3, Insightful)

    by grasshoppa (657393) <{skennedy} {at} {tpno-co.org}> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:32PM (#16954370) Homepage
    From the end user perspective, no. More choices are not better. The fewer the better. In fact, you will notice that an application that "just works" is highly sought after, instead of one that gives the user a never ending parade of choices.

    From a middle tier perspective, more choices are good; Let me, the admin, make the choices for my end users. Give me all the options in the world. Just hide them from the end user so they aren't confused by them.

    In a non-corporate environment, the vendors themselves have to play this role. But really, I don't see a problem with that.
    • by MS-06FZ (832329)

      From the end user perspective, no. More choices are not better. The fewer the better. In fact, you will notice that an application that "just works" is highly sought after, instead of one that gives the user a never ending parade of choices.

      Oh, sure... it starts that way - but then they discover mailing lists and want multiple boxes and filters, they start getting spammed and want a good spam filter, or they want to type up a newsletter and put it into three-column format, or whatever - the desire for simp

  • I quote...
    If you're in college, we also have a very cool paid internship program (last year's interns developed Copilot in one summer)
    Solid, well-designed stuff, eh? ("Copilot" is one of FogPilot's products)
  • by acomj (20611) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:35PM (#16954436) Homepage
    This scientic American Mind (an off shoot of scientific American Magazine) had an article by the Barry Schwartz, the man who's book if referenced in the article.

    -
    The Tyranny of Choice
    Logic suggests that having options allows people to select precisely what makes them happiest. But, as studies show, abundant choice often makes for misery

    http://www.sciammind.com/article.cfm?articleID=000 56941-1933-1196-906983414B7F0000&pageNumber=1 [sciammind.com]

    ---
  • You'd be surprised (Score:5, Informative)

    by killmenow (184444) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:35PM (#16954440)
    Actually, more choice isn't always better. Sheena S. Iyengar [columbia.edu] is a professor at Columbia University who studies choice and in particular, challenges the notion that more choice is always better. A list of her publications [columbia.edu] is available on her site. For those who believe more choice is always better, I recommend you read a few. In fact, I recommend you start here [columbia.edu] (pdf).
  • Ironic (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ruserious (910291) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:37PM (#16954472)
    Ironic, given that the screenshot he is showing has exactly two easily accessible options (lock and power down) and hides the rest away. Most users may or may not take a look at the other tucked away options in the drop-down/pop-up-box, and probably not worry about it again if they feel scared. So, for users who want less complexity there is already a very reduced choice of options. Is he then suggesting taking away options from power users? Really? B the same logic shouldn't notepad bet better than any IDE for doing programming, because it has less choice? And we probably want to do away with the command line for good, because there's clearly waaay to many options there. And the large majority of people already favoured the one-button mouse from apple very strongle, so much in fact, that apple never was asked for mice with more buttons, and most pc-users today buy and use one-button mouses.

    Now, clearly Joel (and me here) have oversimplified the topic so much, that the dogma "less is more" has led to absurd suggestions. The key for successfully applying "less is more", is to properly look at the context. For a computer that is used as an internetkiosk, "log off" is the only button you need, there reducing choice is helpful. For a laptop user it would be extremely annoying not being able to choose sleep or hibernate, because it is going to waste energy and reduce the time I'll be able to work on it. Automatic powermanagement is not an option, because it can't read my mind. The computer will always be in hibernate when I just don't have the time to wait for it to power back on, or it will waste energy in sleep, when I know I'll be away.

    I like to compare those options with my clothing options as a human. How would you like it, if somebody wanted to simplify things for you, and you only had two choices: naked (for sleeping), and fully dressed (for work). Want to take of the sweater because you have a shirt underneath? Tough luck, it was "optimized" away so you wouldn't have to worry about choices. Want to take off your shoes on the plane? Nope, either naked or fully dressed are your only options. Pretty silly - for most people, now of course there will be some people (those you are stressed out by clothing choices) that may feel a binary choice is progress, and good for them, yet that doesn't justify taking away the options from those who feel very comfortable partially taking some clothes off.

    The funny thing is, that Joel even acknowledges tht there are good reasons why people who are comfortable with the choices, and why they are necessary for some, yet he somehow implicitly argues that those people are overridden by the ones that get scared by the options. He never explains why, though. Which IMHO makes his argument/position look very weak.
    • I'm going to expand on a point you brought up.

      I use Notepad for programming. I write PHP, HTML, CSS, Javascript, Python, and occasionally C and Perl using Notepad. On Linux, I use vi. The reason has nothing to do with choice and everything to do with efficiency. There's little need for an IDE when I know the entire HTML 4.01 library in my head. Tools like Dreamweaver might help sketch ideas, but in the end typing it out by hand is actually faster than fucking around with a GUI.

      Joel is under the (false) impr
  • by amliebsch (724858) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:38PM (#16954504) Journal

    This is an unanswerable question, like "is more production really better?" Like every other rational question, it becomes a matter of marginal costs and benefits.

    Additional options are always better until the marginal cost (in researching/comprehending the option) becomes greater than the marginal benefit provided by the option. Thus, options with low marginal benefits and/or high research costs are not better, and other options are. For example:

    Which windowing system do you want?
    a. KDE
    b. Gnome
    c. Fluxbox

    This is an example where more options are probably bad, because each additional option has huge research costs associated with them - that is, it takes a lot of effort to find out exactly why a person would prefer one or the other.

    Which background color do you prefer:
    a. Light gray
    b. Dark gray
    c. Gray

    Here, more options is probably still not better because while the research costs are low, the marginal benefit to being able to choose a slightly different shade of gray are so tiny as to be outweighed by the effort of having to even answer the question.

    Choose a keyboard layout:
    a. US/English
    b. UK/English
    c. German
    d. French
    e. Russian

    Here is an example or more options are better. It's clear what the differences are, making research costs low, and the benefits to choosing the correct keyboard layout are huge.
    • More choice is always better, provided the system is not closed. In an open system, the poor choices are weeded out by selection. In the economic context, monopoly is closure and it inhibits or eliminates selection (e.g. a billion options in Word is fine, provided you are free to choose which options you select, up to and including the choice of using an alternative application).

      In the color example that you gave, consider the relevance of precise color selection for company branding. My company spent

  • More standrds compliant choices are better than fewer standards compiant choices. But if there are many competeing standard then we all lose. The Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD nonsense is indicative of how standards are all but compulsory in modern technolgies.
  • by Tweekster (949766)
    Most decisions involve only a few choices.

    Hundreds of options exist, but in the end, 2-3 realistic options exist and that is what is decided on.
    The rest fit a niche. When you need to fill a niche, that is when those extra thousand options are handy, but until then they are irrelevant for major decisions.
  • by jimfrost (58153) * <jimf@frostbytes.com> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @02:46PM (#16954622) Homepage
    I have a friend (this guy [rollthunder.com]) who starts off a class on GUI design by asking for a show of hands from the class.

    The question is, "Who here prefers a manual transmission car to an automatic?" I have been in probably a half dozen classes of programmers when he did this, and every time he gets about 50% of the audience to raise their hands. Privately he tells me that it's almost always 50%, give or take a couple of percentage points.

    After he gets the count of hands and shows that it's about half of the audience, he points out that the public as a whole (at least in the U.S.) prefers automatics to standards by a margin of at least 9:1.

    His point in doing this is to show that the kinds of interfaces that programmers like (lots of knobs for extra control) are not necessarily the kinds of interfaces that most people -- which is to say "the people who buy your software" -- want. The vast majority would prefer simplicity; in fact, they will pay extra for simplicity.

    Building in a lot of options makes about one tenth of the audience happy, but annoys or confuses the heck out of the other ninety percent. It is not good software design; it makes for more difficult training and much more difficult technical support. If you feel you must do it, it's best to hide these knobs in an expert mode ... but by and large you're better off by not providing a lot of knobs in the first place. Spend your time carefully designing your software so that you make the right choices so that your users don't have to figure out how to fix what you did wrong.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Tim C (15259)
      he points out that the public as a whole (at least in the U.S.) prefers automatics to standards by a margin of at least 9:1.

      And here in the UK, I don't think I've ever been in an automatic, nor heard of anyone who owns one; manual vehicles are by far the most common. In fact, I don't think you can even buy automatics, except by special order.

      I really don't think that manual vs automatic is a matter of preference, so much as it is a matter of what you're used to and what's available.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by brucehoult (148138)
      The US is not the whole world. Here in New Zealand there are about as many manual transmission cars as automatics, and the only reason that there are so many automatics (there weren't in the quite recent past) is that about 50% of newly registered cars are in fact used cars from Japan (becuase they are *cheap*), which are almost invariably automatic.

      Automatics have an advantage in places where you get stuck in stop/start traffic jams. Japan and the cities in the USA are like that. NZ isn't. Automatics h
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Idaho (12907)
      After he gets the count of hands and shows that it's about half of the audience, he points out that the public as a whole (at least in the U.S.) prefers automatics to standards by a margin of at least 9:1.

      At least, indeed, you mentioned "here in the US", as I'm sure that in most of Europe, about 90% of people would raise their hands when you asked them the same question, and also about 90% (if not actually 95% or more) do indeed drive cars with manual transmission.

      I don't know exactly why - are manual cars
  • Having choices and having a bad design are two completely different things. Use a layered approach to require intent in order to change minor or potentially dangerous options.
  • This is not about choices but about poor OS and UI design.

    WTF you need a "Restart" button for? You usually do not restart your machine from your own will. In Windows software updates, instalations and other stuff forces restart on you. Get rid of the need of restarting and you don't have need for Restart button. One choice left.

    Also the items are poorly organized. Loging out and switching to login screen are not POWER related, these are LOGIN related. The structure should be organised in other way (order do
  • With Linux I can pick and choose whatever I want and tailor the OS to my specific needs.

    Oh, sorry...the article's about Microsoft. No, choices are bad. More choices makes the OS more confusing and bloated.

  • Joel eliminates the choices and then cops out with:

    Inevitably, you are going to think of a long list of intelligent, defensible reasons why each of these options is absolutely, positively essential. Don't bother. I know. Each additional choice makes complete sense until you find yourself explaining to your uncle that he has to choose between 15 different ways to turn off a laptop.

    So the conclusion of the article is that non-geeks want to use computers, and Windows' UI isn't very suitable for such people.

  • Once again a universal answer is sought for, this time on the idea of choice. Sort of ironic. Or not.

    One place where choice has become Real Stoopid is with watch-type batteries. Why are there, like, 9000 types of watch battery? Some of them you need to take out a pair of calipers to measure a difference. Can't they standardize like their bigger cousins (AAA, AA, C, D)?

    And car headlight bulbs. I bought a 2005 Mustang last year, and went out to get a couple bulbs to have on hand. The specific bulb for the

  • by Hoi Polloi (522990) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @03:08PM (#16955134) Journal
    Devo - "Freedom of Choice"

    A victim of collision on the open sea
    Nobody ever said that life was free
    Sank, swam, go down with the ship
    But use your freedom of choice

    Ill say it again in the land of the free
    Use your freedom of choice
    Your freedom of choice

    In ancient Rome there was a poem
    About a dog who found two bones
    He picked at one
    He licked the other
    He went in circles
    He dropped dead

    Freedom of choice
    Is what you got
    Freedom of choice!

    Then if you got it you dont want it
    Seems to be the rule of thumb
    Dont be tricked by what you see
    You got two ways to go

    Ill say it again in the land of the free
    Use your freedom of choice
    Freedom of choice

    Freedom of choice
    Is what you got
    Freedom of choice!

    In ancient Rome
    There was a poem
    About a dog
    Who found two bones
    He picked at one
    He licked the other
    He went in circles
    He dropped dead

    Freedom of choice
    Is what you got
    Freedom from choice
    Is what you want
    (repeat)

  • Notice the confusion in the comments between market choice and *economy* in its most general sense: the system of differential value that drives decision-making and theories of semantic relationship. Each share qualities with games of partial information. Neither is sufficient to fully inform resilient HCI decisions.

    For information theory less is often more. For market decisions, more is more, given a metastasized domain of perfect information efficiency and ideal, rational actors. For real, interact
  • *sigh* (Score:3, Insightful)

    by chipster (661352) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @03:24PM (#16955388)
    /me clicks Apple icon in Menu Bar...
    • Sleep
    • Restart
    • Shutdown
    • Log Out
    That's apparently 5 less choices of action than Vista's. So go get a Mac and call it a day, Joel. Microsoft will never get a UI like Apple does. There's your choice.
  • ...than when you have more choices in sexual partners. To that end, use Linux. That is all.
  • I hate installation procedures that have the attitude "guess wrong, and we'll make your system unbootable, and no you can't get a hint".
  • At first blush, FOSS may seem to promote choice. Choice is definitely good when it comes to vendor accountability, in a marketplace created when only a few vendors can create software. But choice and //freedom// are different ideas. Choice is a series of selections on a menu; freedom is a pen and paper. FOSS doesn't always operate within a market context, despite what proprietary vendors would like you to believe.

    A mishmash of different communications protocols is not good; it works out better if we get tog
  • person != people (Score:3, Insightful)

    by djchristensen (472087) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @03:47PM (#16955872)
    I think Joel and most or all of the responses here miss the real issue.

    As a person, I don't want a ton of choices for different ways to do the same task. I want the system to work in the most intuitive way for me. If I never use hibernate, then I don't need to see it in a menu or on a button or whatever. I want the things I do most often to be easy to get to, the things I do less often to be easy to find, and the things I never do to be non-existent. And I don't want to have to go through some huge app like Word (or Emacs, for that matter) and customize every menu.

    The problem is that you likely have a completely different set of desires and habits from me. So the choices in an app or Windows or Emacs are not to allow a user to do something in multiple different ways, they're to allow multiple different users to choose the one way they like to do it.

    I was about to say that a good solution might be an app that "learns" my preferences and eliminates what I don't need, but then I remembered that this has been done to some extent in Windows and/or Office (sorry, I don't use Windows all that often to remember exactly). I find that I really hate that little arrow there saying, "hey, I've got a secret that I'm not showing you".

    In the end, I think most users (the set of users that are not highly technically savvy) just want simple apps that do what they need them to do without having to think too much. On that I agree with Joel.
  • automate choice (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Zork the Almighty (599344) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:01PM (#16956104) Journal
    The whole point of software is to automate tedious things, so if choice becomes tedious we should really try to automate that as well. Joel's approach is entirely correct: figure out what your users are trying to do, and try to offer options which relate to them. Exporting all functionality and leaving the user to figure out what all the options mean exemplifies design failure. It is essentially "no design". Slightly better is to provide sensible defaults, but the best designs focus on things the user thinks a computer ought to do and things the user wants to do (disregarding, sometimes, what the computer really does do). The whole situation reminds me of command line interfaces, where the user had to memorize a bunch of commands and options and put them all together in order to accomplish a goal. We have somehow recreated that mess in graphical form, with the added inefficiencies of navigating menus using a mouse. It's almost like a cruel joke has been played on the public. Just when computers look like they might become simple enough for anyone to use and are widely adopted - BAM! Take that suckers! Whenever this topic comes up I think of my Grandma. She is a smart lady and she uses computers, but she is also old. She has been around for a while, and she's not about to tolerate any more nonsense. Contrary to the stereotype she is not intimidated by technology, but she avoids a lot of it because her impression is that most of this stuff is designed by idiots who don't have a clue what they are doing. I hate to say it, but she's right. I think that when we talk about software that grandmas can use, it should be in this sense. Old people are not going to put up with this crazy crap the way younger people seem to do. It has to make sense, and it has to work.

"Indecision is the basis of flexibility" -- button at a Science Fiction convention.

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