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Barry Schwartz — Less is More — Why Too Many Options Leads to Dissatisfaction

by Tom Johnson on Jun 16, 2006 •
categories: technical-writing

Barry SchwartzThis podcast with Barry Schwartz will absolutely change the way you view the options and choices available to you. Schwartz's basic premise is that modernity has opened up a proliferation of choices for us, from choices in the grocery store to choices about career, choices about companions, choices about electronics, and more.

Much of the hallmark of technology and science seems to be that it delivers us absolute freedom of choice. You are no longer limited to four kinds of salad dressing at the store. You can choose from about 170!

Instead or praising choice, Schwartz uses case studies and anecdotes to prove that an abundance of choice leads to uncertainty, mental confusion, and regret about possibly having made the wrong choice. As an example, he explains an experiment where 25 kinds of jelly were on display at a store's booth — lots of people came to check out the jelly, but few bought any. The next week, they put only 6 kinds of jelly on display — the result was that less people came by to see, but the jelly sold ten times as much.

What Schwartz says about choice has a strong application to the help content we write (although he doesn't enter into this realm). Think about the choices you present to your reader in the Table of Contents. Do you have 6 main categories, or 25? I believe that readers prefer 6, even if more topics are available. I used to think that the manual had to “explain it all, somewhere.” Now I think that mindset leads to uncertainty, mental confusion, regret about reading the wrong sections, and ultimately dissatisfaction with the help material. Less is more.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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