Sheena Iengar is a professor at Columbia Business School who studies decision making. In a recent Ted Talk she explained the concept of “Choice Overload” and the fact that the array of options being presented to consumers creates paralysis for some. She discussed an experiment she concocted while in business school. She went to a high end California market, Draeger’s, which sold over 400 different types of jam. She and her colleagues set up a a jam tasting table. In some cases they offered tastes of 24 different jams, and in others it was only 6. Although there were many more tasters when the team offered 24 varieties, there were far more buyers, when the selection was just a half a dozen. The reason for this, she argues is that the narrower range of alternatives made for an easier buying decision, since it lessened the choice overload .Although all of her examples were consumer related, let’s face it business people who make services purchase decisions are consumers as well.
I couldn’t help but think about this when I fired up another project on Upwork recently. It is very daunting, when you put in the expertise requirements for a project, filter it appropriately and end up with 43 pages of potential consultants. Talk about choice overload! There could have been some very good options for me on page 11 or 31, but I didn’t make it past 7. I had the same experience on Zintro and Fiverr when looking for resources for other projects. In the latter case I persevered, in the former I gave up. I was a victim of choice overload.
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and professor at Duke would say this is bad decision architecture. By giving us so many choices we lose sight of the value of the decision. When the right structures are put in place to encourage us to make a decision we are more apt to make it. As such, many savvy behavioral experts have developed decision architectures to subliminally drive decision making. This is why many of us end up with too many email newsletters. The ones we don’t want are often in our inbox because we had to check a box to not receive them. The choice architecture was set up to help us unknowingly opt in.
Little did I know, though, that the Upwork folks have done their homework in the psychology of decision theory. The next day, I received an email pointing out the best two candidates for my project from that iniitial set of one hundred plus options. . As it turned out, I was waiting for a proposal from one of those folks, so the fact that the platform selected that individual was validating. The platform was impatient though, so offered up a person to help me make the decision. This Upwork resource knew more about how to secure contractors then I did, so the email said. They clearly were trying to impose a decision architecture that would help its users make the choice to buy, by providing that expert human voice.
I took that email message with a grain of salt; as someone who started a company 29 years ago to match contractors with resources, my guess is I had a bit more knowledge than any person Upwork could field. As such, I did not respond to that message. As such, I elicited the next step in the process; the next day I got another set of 3 perfect candidates from the platform. In the meantime, I was arranging to clarify the proposal by phone with the person I would be selecting, who was no longer in that perfect set.
At this point, I had to smile, because the bot that probably sent that message was acting very human, making the classic error of so many rookie sales people; It was talking past the close.