Keep it simple Stupid

It’s ten years now since the book ‘The Paradox of Choice’ was published – the central theme of which is that more choice does not always equal better decision making. Classical economic theory maintains that more choice is always better for the customer. But as is often the case, what might be true of homo economicus is not necessarily true of home sapiens. As humans, we’re not capable of meaningfully comparing our choices when there are large amounts available. In fact, bigger choice can actually make us less satisfied with our final decision – the more options we have had to reject to reach our preference, the more we suspect we may have made the wrong decision, and the less happy we are. Simple, straightforward choices between fewer items leaves us more likely to make a choice, and more satisfied with the choice we make.


So the typical supermarket aisle – with 28 different tomato ketchup options, or 228 air freshener SKUs – may not just be benignly useless, but may in fact be doing damage to a customer’s ultimate satisfaction with their shopping experience. Tesco were recently in the news for seeming to latch onto this phenomenon – they are reducing their SKUs by 30% to help people ‘baffled’ by the choice on offer (although whether there is a less altruistic motive around profit levels is up for discussion!).

Since its publication, the central themes of ‘The Paradox of Choice’ have of course been up for robust debate. But as consumer researchers, it is clear to us that consumers don’t engage their brain for every purchase – neither do they want to. After all, there are far more important things in life than what can of baked beans to buy. So instead when faced with mountains of choice, consumers default to heuristics – shortcuts to purchase – to help them make their decisions. We know how important NPD is, but we also believe that self-serving innovation shouldn’t be the default option for our clients who come to us with business issues around fragmented markets and decreasing market share. Instead, we believe investigating the heuristics and true emotional drivers around our clients’ brands, and coming up with strategies to capitalise on them, is at least as important as adding yet another SKU to the aisle.

A few days ago we were discussing this with one of our media clients – in these days of endless content options, what is the role for a traditional TV or radio channel? Are we, as consumers of content, happier now we have 70+ channels, or is the Fear of Missing Out making us feel like no matter how good the content we consume is, there is always something better out there which if we were just connected enough, or cool enough, we would be discussing round the water cooler? Will ‘channels’ as we know them even exist in a few years’ time, or instead will the media brands we now take for granted instead act as curators to and decision facilitators for the vast amount of content available?

It’s not just in our product and service decisions that the paradox of choice comes into play. Psychologists are conjecturing that the advent of online dating – particularly low involvement, high volume sites like Tindr – is negatively impacting our ability to maintain long term relationships. In the ‘old days’, the number of people you could meet was relatively finite. So you might find a person who fits you pretty well, and simply work harder to make that relationship last – after all, who knows when the next chance will come along? But now, a quick ‘swipe right’ will get you countless new opportunities to find the ‘perfect person’ – so perhaps those little annoying habits that we might have previously overlooked will send relationships to the scrap heap quicker than before.

We believe there are implications for research, too. Clearly, surveys that show vast lists and long grids run the risk of getting meaningless results (yet brands still hang onto their gargantuan brand trackers!). Who really compares items on 10, 15 or even 20 different characteristics? We believe that well designed, concise, simple surveys will give far more representative and useful findings than 45-minute monsters.

And in qualitative research, while workshop exercises such as brainstorms, projectives, and collages can be brilliantly effective, we believe too much research runs the risk of being over-complicated, designed to win projects with ‘clever thinking’, rather than with the consumer in mind. Sure, some consumers relish the kind of creativity we ask of them – but asking consumers to jump through hoops doesn’t always access their true behaviours and motivations. We believe research should be designed with consumer wellbeing in mind as much as our clients’. And often, this means taking a step back from the complicated methods that seem to be becoming ever more common, as every agency looks for a point of difference. At Razor, we love a creative technique, when applied sensitively, at the right time, in the right project. But above all we believe in using great moderators, speaking to the right people, and keeping it simple.