Option overload: How filters can help you focus

remote with tv screensI don’t understand how to work TV anymore.

Without cable TV at home, the service dizzies me with endless options every time I stumble across a Comcast remote in someone else’s house. Channel after channel scrolls before my eyes, yet it’s impossible to find anything of interest. After some searching, I always arrive at ESPN. Though ESPN is a rare treat I don’t get to watch much, it’s still impossible to not feel regret with my decision. With hundreds of channels available, surely I am missing out on something great?

Complexity is one of the hallmarks of our modern age. We have thousands of TV channels, hundreds of flavors of spaghetti sauce, and a seemingly infinite array of websites to browse. Though this variety fills our each day with new possibilities, it also fills them with difficult choices. Filters can help us make these choices more easily and with more confidence so we can get back to thinking on more important things.

Complex decisions

“I can’t find anything to watch on TV because there’s too much to watch on TV” is a pretty first-world problem. The stakes are so low that it’s ridiculous to get frustrated. While still a first-world problem, the stakes are much higher in a smartphone purchase decision. The wrong smartphone can mean two years of awful experience with one of your most-used tools.

The variety of devices available at any cell-phone store is unbelievable. I am amazed that anyone without tech expertise can enter an AT&T Store or Best Buy and cut through the noise to make a confident purchase choice. Consider a display full of new handsets. Where a Digital Trends phone reviewer would see dozens of distinct devices, each with unique traits, I see a mass of very similar objects. How could I possibly find the phone that’s right for me? The idea of walking in to such a store unprepared fills me with dread.

Some may rely on a salesperson’s advice to guide their purchase. I lean toward suspicion. Is this salesperson paid on commission? Does this person actually know more than I do? I may not get honest, informed advice from someone with a financial interest in my purchase. If you are similarly wary, a salesperson’s presence can be more discouraging pressure than helpful assistance.

So, where do you go for the advice that will let you make your decision with confidence?

Adding information

I distrust salespeople, and I often second-guess my own instincts. I do, however, trust certain reviews and the “wisdom of the crowd.” This is the biggest reason that I’ve taken so many purchase decisions online.

I adore Portland’s Powell’s Books, but I find it as maddening as it is amazing. Talk about possibility anxiety: Powell’s boasts an inventory totaling more than four million new and used books and a main location that fills an entire city block. However, I sometimes regret purchases from Powell’s. I might choose books in the store for superficial reasons: attractive visual design, fatigue from the number of options presented, or worst of all, the desire to not walk away empty-handed. Seldom can I choose based on a book’s utility, which is difficult to gauge after brief review. The result: difficult choices, and, for me at least, buyer’s remorse.

amazon search sorting options metadataWeb vendors can offer tools to parse complexity that meatspace retailers do not. At Powell’s, I choose a book based on information I derive from the book itself. Amazon.com, on the other hand, adds meta-data — reviews, similar choices, and, most-importantly, user ratings — that allow me to purchase with more confidence.

Amazon’s filters pare down the millions of items they make available and help me choose more easily and with more confidence. So, though visiting Powell’s is a very pleasurable experience, I do a lot more of my book-buying online. I hope this isn’t sticking it to Powell’s too hard, though, because it really is an amazing place.

Filters of all kinds can help us choose with more confidence. What other filters do you use to guide your actions?

Other filters

Brand loyalty is another useful filter. Positive experiences with a brand can guide future purchase decisions. I’ve had really good luck with the Samsung TVs, so I’m more likely to look at them in the future. Opting for a single brand reduces the complexity of my TV purchase decision significantly.

Though many malign my Apple fandom, my preference for the company’s products reduces complexity in a second way. Picking out an Apple device is relatively simple. First, determine the form factor best for your needs. Second, purchase the model in that form factor with the most power that you can afford. Third, you’re done. Easy, right? A less-complex purchase decision is also less prone to buyer’s remorse. Because there are fewer choices, there is less regret for not pursuing a different option.

apple store macbook air choicesReduced complexity has also been beneficial for Apple and its developers. Apple’s control of its hardware and software has been a major advantage during the company’s return to prominence — so much so that Microsoft will now pursue a similar strategy with its Surface. Application developers have fewer variants to worry about than their peers working on other platforms. This is especially true when developing for the iPhone, as the Android ecosystem seems increasingly splintered. A less-complex hardware ecosystem is one of the main factors that allows Apple to deliver such high-quality user experiences.

Reducing complexity has been a competitive advantage for Apple. Could it be an advantage to you as well?

Why it matters

Steve Jobs’ famous adoption of jeans, a black turtleneck, and a pair of New Balances as his consistent garb demonstrated his interest in reduced complexity in his personal life, as well as his work. I’m sure aesthetic had something to do with the decision. Especially during his more-gaunt years, he often looked to me as though he’d stepped out of the future. But I also like to think that it’s because he knew that he had a limited amount of attention, and wanted to focus that attention on more interesting choices. He had things he wanted to get done and a finite amount of time to do them. Therefore, he made one decision about clothing and, after, stuck to it.

Spending less time on less interesting choices gives us more time for the things we really care about. Next time you’re bogged down with a decision, consider: Is there a filter that can guide that choice? If there is, use that filter, make the choice, and move on. There are more important things to do.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


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