I spend way too much time choosing music as I’m about to work out. It’s not specific to music or working out. I’ve found in a variety of situations, and across a variety of technology services - looking for a restaurant in a new city on Yelp, doing research for work on Google - I spend way too much time looking for the right thing.
Most commentary on how people use too much technology focuses on open-ended, recreational consumption - Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, gaming. I’m talking about something different.
Utilitarian technologies, that are supposed to help find us the right thing quickly - companies like Google, Yelp, and Amazon, and more generally the search bar - have failed us. I want to explore exactly how this happens, why it does, and the effect it has on us.
The idea that more choice is always better is embedded deeply in our culture. Technological advancement has relentlessly increased the diversity of possible products across all fields, and seems poised to continue. We as consumers have accepted this steadily diversifying diet of products being fed to us by corporations. However, that more choice is always better is also accepted by the intellectual mainstream. It's taken as gospel by classical economics and psychology. Science fiction classics such as Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 imagine dystopian futures based on a lack of choice - of social status, and of information and views, respectively. Our current blockbuster film franchises, Marvel and Star Wars, continue to portray evil as centralized regimes with hordes of soulless, near-identical minions, and good as a decentralized, diverse, ragtag bunch of heroes.
However, it's becoming increasingly apparent that boundless choice is not just unhelpful, but harmful. This alternative view dates back to at least 1970, when Alvin Toffler in his bestseller Future Shock, one of my favorite books, defined the term overchoice. I'll quote Toffler directly: "...when choice, rather than freeing the individual, becomes so complex, difficult and costly, that it turns into its opposite. There comes a time, in short, when choice turns into overchoice and freedom into un-freedom."
In a groundbreaking study by Sheena Iyengar in the mid 90’s, grocery store shoppers encountered a tasting booth with either 6 or 24 jams. 30% of shoppers who saw only 6 jams at the booth later bought jam from the grocery store, but only 3% of those who encountered 24 jams later purchased. Since then, a growing body of research has conclusively established that - if there’s too much information, or choices are hard to compare, or the decision-making process is poor - more choices lead to worse choices and less satisfaction, a phenomenon known as choice overload.
If we examine the design of these utilitarian products, such as Google, Yelp, and Amazon, we find that they - intentionally or inadvertently - most definitely cause choice overload.
The Anatomy of Search Results
First, each of these tools provides a massive number of choices. For a long time, Google has been known for its "10 blue links" on its first page of search results. yelp.com goes further and shows me 30 options on the first page of results for (ironically) The Best 10 Restaurants near Willow Glen, San Jose, CA.
The number of organic search results is hardly the extent of the options our brains have to process. Along with the primary link to see more about the restaurant, Yelp search results each have another "read more" link, and some feature additional buttons - Find a Table, Start Order, and Join the Waitlist. Numerous ads, alternative searches, and filtering tools are also always present. Mobile apps enable even more interactivity, such as infinite scroll and horizontal scroll.
In short, our brains end up processing dozens to over a hundred choices - in seconds.
Furthermore, the sheer amount of information provided for each choice overwhelms us. Results often each have a large amount of information. On Google, the title and description of each search result are on average 219 characters long, which makes a page of search results hundreds of words long. Amazon is even worse. Each search result consists of an image, the title, the star rating, the number of reviews, and the price, along with optionally the original price, details about Prime shipping, third-party sellers, and many other details - 7-8 pieces of information per choice. The word count for a random individual product page was 2,666. Amazon product pages can have 75% more words than this entire article.
Our decision-making process is also non-existent when we use these tools. It’s stunning how Google, over a mere 20 years, has instilled into an entire planet of people the conviction that the search bar is the be all end all of knowledge-seeking. The mere presence of a long text input with a magnifying glass icon at the right means all questions will be instantly and correctly answered like a modern day tarot reader or Nostradamus. As a result, we instantly reach for our devices and open apps when we have a question or need, without mentally articulating exactly what we want. Our questions of these powerful oracles have become worse and worse. Amit Singhal, the former head of Google Search, once said "The more accurate the machine gets, the lazier the questions become.”
Combined with the massive number of choices and the vast amount of information on the screen, our thoughtless use of these tools leads to choice overload.
Engagement = Revenue
Just like the Facebooks and YouTubes of the world, whose motives for engagement are no secret, even these needle-in-a-haystack tools, which are supposed to help us find the right thing quickly, profit off of engagement. Google and Yelp obviously make money from ads, but subscription services also need people to use them frequently so they don’t cancel. Even Amazon Prime, seemingly the most utilitarian subscription service, really took off only when they bundled video - which is engagement.
And the more we use something, the more likely we are to continue using it, even if it isn’t doing its job. This year, Facebook had a consumer satisfaction index of 67, 14% lower than the airline industry at 73. Yet Americans still used Facebook (excluding Instagram) for 38 minutes a day.
Other “features” of these products also increase engagement more than they help us find what we’re looking for quickly. Take the 5-star rating system. The average rating of a business on Yelp in the US and Canada is 3.77 out 5, while it should be near 3 if ratings are well-distributed. We simply like seeing higher ratings left by other people. Another example is Google search queries with an objective answer known by Google, such as “time in New Delhi”. Google has actually briefly tested not showing any links and only the answer, but has reverted back to also displaying its usual search results.
Look, these tools are very powerful in many situations. Being able to find that video I watched last month about how Rwanda is becoming the Singapore of Africa, or check when a coffee shop closes, or quickly buy a reliable pair of shoe expanders, is great. I’m also not saying all features and imperfections in these products were introduced specifically to get us hooked. But certain aspects of these tools - which are supposed to help us find what we want quickly - and how we engage with them, make us use them more than required. This conditions us to use them next time, which leads to more revenue for these companies.
How It Affects Us
Searching for answers impacts our life negatively. For starters, it takes up a lot of our time - more than we expect. I’ve found that when I interrupt a task to find something - say picking music when exercising, starting to drive, or working - it always takes me longer than I expected. It also makes us feel worse. According to researchers, choice overload or overchoice makes us less satisfied with our decisions, less confident in our selections, and more regretful of our choices. Even more important than conclusive findings of researchers is our subjective experience. When I spend a while hunting for a song or restaurant, I feel anxious, and experience a sensation of constriction in my chest. I’m less focused immediately afterwards. How do you feel when you go down a search rabbit hole?
I want to conclude with a couple of thoughts. First, I don’t have any specific solutions to search more effectively. But I’m trying to generally use technology less, and more mindfully. For the past 8 days, I’ve been using non-essential technology for only 30 minutes a day - 30 minutes for messaging, reddit, articles, Google, music, videos, TV, podcasts. I genuinely feel happier. I’m more relaxed. I feel that less is going on, that I have time on my hands, and like doing more.
Second, I also work at a therapist online marketplace. We only have 10 therapists listed at the moment, but as we grow, we’ll have to very quickly make it easier for people to find the right therapist.