Burnout : Too many choices, too little time

Niblettes asks an excellent question in his most recent post titled "The disposable experience",

This raises an important question for designers: is it our job to
merely accelerate experience consumption, or is it to deepen and enrich
experience connection?

Well, niblettes, I hate to say this, dear, but yes, Virginia, your job as a designer is indeed to accelerate consumption – ‘experience’ if you will, in today’s ‘Experience Economy‘ or call it product, service or information.

I hark back to my favourite soapbox, that of planned obsolescence, first instituted in a big way back in the fifties, and begun earlier. Quoting my earlier post,

When marketers deliberately introduce obsolescence into their product strategy.
The marketer’s objective is to generate long-term sales volume by
reducing the time between repeat purchases. In a highly competitive
industry, this can be a risky strategy because consumers may buy from competing producers. There are also ethical considerations.

What’s interesting is that this was written in an earlier time – when it was considered a risky strategy. But in the two or three generations since then, what has happened is that market has evolved into the disposable economy so well articulated by niblettes. In fact, it can be directly traced to this concept, first laid out, with valid concern, by Vance Packard, in The Waste Makers. In that book, he went on to interview the leading industrial designers on the day, Lippincott, Loewy and others, on their concerns regarding the ethics of such a strategy in product development. Today, there are no such questions. This is not to say that it is the lack of ethics of the designers themselves or of industry, after a couple of generations, it is not easy to recall a time when products and services meant something. Or is it? To quote niblettes again,

I don’t listen to music the same way anymore. I don’t know many people
who do. When I was a kid all my music was on tape and I didn’t have a
lot of money to throw around. So getting new music and listening to it
took a lot of time and effort. This time and effort meant listening
carefully to each track, listening to whole albums at once, and
listening to the same albums over and over again. It was like
developing a relationship.

Yet, we all know that ultimately, all transactions, are nothing more than relationships, and the best ones are developed, over time. One point that I would raise here, is that of "burn out" – the burnout that is implied in the entirety of niblettes’ post. In a conversation recently with Anaezi Modu, we discussed the concept of ‘too much choice’ – one that was also brought up with great emphasis by Andrew Zolli at the recent Design 2.0 event. Anaezi said that it’s a researched fact that when human beings are faced with too many options, too many decisions or choices, they go ‘blank’ or ‘freeze’ or refuse to make a decision at all. Since we’d both experienced societies with far fewer choices than those available in developed markets, my experience being more recent, it was an interesting concept to explore further.

Without getting into details, I had seen numerous other developing markets, including India’s protected one prior to arriving in the United States 8 years ago. Having worked in the field of integrated marketing communications – field promotions, events, launches, trade shows et al, I thought I knew what ‘noise’ in a market place was, but I was wrong. In my first six months, I had two distinct experiences that drove home to me just how noisy and crowded and laden with choice the American marketplace was – the first was the first time I went to buy a ham sandwich. I mean we are talking a simple ham sandwich here, or so I thought. But no, it meant undergoing, what to me, was a virtual interrogation of the variety of bread, cheese, filling, condiments, flavors etc till I was almost weeping with fear of saying the wrong the thing or asking for the incorrect combination and wanted very much to shout "Can I just have one goddamn slice of ham between two pieces of bread, PLEASE?" I mean, the UK isn’t backward, but they don’t drive you crazy at the counter, they just hand you the ham sandwich.

The second experience was at Comdex Fall 1998 in Las Vegas. Enough said. Now, my point is, that perhaps it is time to come back to fewer choices, fewer options, SKU’s, variations etc especially in tangible products. While niblettes case of music makes a similar point from a different angle, my contention is that all of this arises from a few decades of an increasingly rapid rat race – another choice, another pattern, another variation, more more more, until, you know what, I don’t care anymore. I’m just going to grab the first toothpaste I see. This is the backlash to the origins of planned obsolescence which evolved into ‘unthinking ephemeralism’ and a fruitless, relentless drive to offer more choice. Oh wait, that’s called ‘continuous innovation’ now. Or is it?

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves what would happen if 80% of the choice in each product category suddenly dissapeared? Following Pareto’s Law, you’d lose 20% of your customers – or would you? What if they had no choice? Just like they didn’t in the recently protected markets of India and China? They’d take what they could get. And like it! Ok, ok, I’m turning into Henry Ford here, but he had a point about the colour black, he did.

And lastly, just to touch upon a previous topic where I was looking at the need for new business models developed for the evolving web, to turn the concept on it’s head, this practice of ever increasing choice, ephemeral or fleeting experiences, disposable lifestyles – is it an inappropriate attempt by the tangible to attempt something best left to the virtual, where it is indeed possible, with far less cost and effort to have a product (My Google, My Yahoo, My desktop) for each person?

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3 Responses to Burnout : Too many choices, too little time

  1. I think quality trumps the desire to constantly flit from brand to brand.
    Any Ecco fans out there? When I lived in Iceland I started wearing these shoes. They are an excellent example of a slow brand relationship. These Danish shoes last forever. The sheer quality of the product trumps my desire switch. I’m sure there are many product categories where this is the case.
    I like your “Buying a sandwich 101” bit. I’m a native born American, yet whenever I return to the States after an extended stay abroad that is the first thing that hits me. My God the choice! And the associated sense of abundance.
    -Doug

  2. niblettes says:

    An April 2004 article from Scientific American talks about this exact issue: the tyranny of choice.
    http://tinyurl.com/zrrmq

  3. niti bhan says:

    Quality does indeed trump the desire, but that’s the point I think niblettes is making, do we stay around long enough to discover the ‘durable last forever quality’ ?
    thanks for the link

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