The Conflict of Choice

August 18, 2011

What kind of decision maker are you? Do you spend hours, days, or even weeks scrutinizing every possible option? Or, do you make of lists of requirements, then make a decision once you find something that meets those requirements?

In his book about making choices, The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less, Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz discusses these two types of people. In the book, he explains how the more options we have, the less likely we are to be satisfied with our decisions, especially if we are constantly looking for the best. Even worse for businesses, too many choices can lead to consumers making no decision at all.

I bring this up because it reminded me of a situation I have encountered a couple of times in the past few months regarding smartphones. First, I was trying to decide which phone I should get to replace my iPhone. Second, my girlfriend was trying to decide on purchasing her first smartphone. And finally, there was my friend who was also trying to decide on his first smartphone purchase after years with a Blackberry from work.

We all came at this from different perspectives. For me, I knew I didn't want to keep my iPhone, all I cared about was getting the best Android phone available. For my friend, he liked Apple products, so he wanted to buy an iPhone. And my girlfriend, she wanted a phone that would allow her to keep Sprint.

For me, it was relatively simple. I had experience with smartphones and knew what I wanted. I was trying to decide between three phones: the Droid, the HTC Evo and the Nexus S. Still, I spent a good two months trying to decide which phone was the right one before I finally bought a Nexus S. For my friend, again, he knew that he wanted an iPhone. And really, once you decide that, Apple makes it pretty easy for you. It is really just a matter of how much disk space you want. Once he decided the time was right to buy a smartphone, he went to store and bought it in one try. My girlfriend, however, had a far more difficult time.

Now, she did have her choices filtered in one small way. She knew she wanted to keep Sprint. So off the top, that eliminates options like the iPhone. However, there are still so many different phones that do something slightly different from the phone next to it which is slightly different from the phone next to that one. With well over 100 different Android phones on the market, how can someone with no firsthand experience with smartphones know which phone is best for them?

The fact is, they can't. At least, not in a way where they aren't forced to make tradeoffs. In the case of Apple vs. Google, Apple has an advantage in overall satisfaction in part because they make decisions easy. They limit the options and assume the responsibility for selecting products. For the most part, Google delivers several options through different hardware manufacturers and different wireless carriers and says, "You get to choose what is best for you?" Unfortunately for them, we really don't like making that choice.

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So how does this relate to marketing? Well, oftentimes we face a situation where we have to convince a consumer that our product, whatever it is, is preferable to other competitor products. But, how do you convince them through marketing that your product A is better for them than your product B?

A popular tact is to categorize your products. With phones, you might have the phone for people who use Facebook a lot. Or, the phone for people who text a lot. Or, the phone for people who play lots of games. While this might help, it forces people to make an assessment of how they will use the phone before they even buy it. For someone who has previous experience with smartphones, they might be able to make that judgment. But, for my girlfriend, she had no idea how she would use the phone.

Think about it from the perspective of selecting an Android-based phone. I knew what I wanted, basically. I have three phones that essentially did the same thing, with only small differences. Ultimately, I eliminated the Droid because I didn't want Verizon. So then I was left with the Evo and the Nexus S, again, two phones that do basically the same thing. So why did I choose the Nexus S? Primarily, it is because the Nexus phone is backed by Google. It is a "pure Google phone." Essentially, Google took on the responsibility and said, "Yes, this is a good product. We support this first above all other Android phones."

Now, earlier this week, Google announced the purchase of Motorola. This raises some questions about how the use of Android and phone hardware will evolve. Until now, Android was available on phones from several different hardware providers, with Samsung and HTC making "pure Android" phones. How many more Google-endorsed phones will be out there? One would assume every Motorola phone would be a "pure Google" phone. Have they just muddied the waters again?

Now, Google's main smartphone competitor is Apple and the iOS operating system. By comparison, iOS is only available on one device from one provider opposed to the approximately 119 devices from a dozen or so providers. Apple, in essence, tells its customers, "Look, we are experts about this stuff. Don't worry about this or that. We have made all the tough decisions for you. All you have to do is buy it and use it." Some might say Steve Jobs takes this attitude to the extreme and is completely dismissive of user opinions. However, this does appeal to a significant portion of people who don't want to have to learn every technical aspect of available products before making a decision.

Ultimately, we need to communicate this decision making process somehow. We need to help clear away all the information that isn't necessary for a purchase choice. We need to know information like, "Most people who purchase this phone, are very active in gaming and online social networking." That means information about business productivity may only introduce an unneeded element and muddle the situation. The more precise we are with our marketing, the easier the decision is for the consumer. And, more importantly, the happier they will be with your product.

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Jeff Francis is a marketing geek who would never refer to himself as a guru. He is that weird sort who enjoys watching commercials and analyzing communication strategies. He is also available for hire and would love to hear from you. So, head on over to the contact page and get in touch.


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