Magic Numbers

Last night I watched Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk and found myself fascinated by his theory that having too much choice can lead to a paralysis of decision making. In his one example, employees are asked to choose a retirement fund. When asked to choose from 50 funds, the rate of participation drops by 10%, suggesting that too many options confuse or overwhelm people.

“You offer 50 funds, 10% fewer employees participate than if you only offer 5. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow. And then tomorrow.” “And then, of course, tomorrow never comes.” — Barry Schwartz, 08:40

Apple’s Magic Numbers

This got me thinking about Apple. Their product line is tight. It doesn’t serve everyone, but it serves its target well. If you decide to be an Apple customer, you have a limited choice in hardware, but an expected overall level of quality. No matter where I go to buy an Apple product, I have a perceived idea of the product’s quality, price and functionality. Whether I choose a MacBook Air vs. a MacBook Pro isn’t a polarizing decision. The differences between them are slight and mostly distinct to my personal preference. I can leave with either one and feel good about it.

Photo by Tim Scharner on Unsplash

PCs, on the other hand, are vastly configurable and vary in price from store to store. If you know what you’re looking for, customizing and choosing a PC is a joy — allowing you to configure everything from the brand and model of your video card, right down to the manufacturer of your processor. Which is great if you know about video cards and processors, not so much if you don’t care. As an affluent PC user, I never really knew if I was getting a great deal or not, or whether the PC I had built was the absolute best it could be. Did it matter? No. But it delayed how long it took for me to come to a conclusion, and when I did, I was never sure if I had made the right choice. Apple, whether they know it or not, is capitalizing on this aspect of buyer’s psychology.

Other Magic Numbers

Robin Dunbar (Dunbar’s Number) suggested that there is a cognitive limit — roughly 150 — of relationships a person can have without sacrificing quality of each individual relationship — or more specifically — the ability to retain memorable, meaningful relationships.

This is also true of large companies as well. In the book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell details a significant cultural change in progressive companies. In one example, Gladwell talks about tech firm W. L. Gore & Associates, who found that their products and employees suffered when too many people were grouped together in their plants. The solution? Limit each plant to 150 people. Quality, productivity and employee morale were all positively effected by this seemingly insignificant change.

Magic Numbers & Psychology On The Web

So, are there magic numbers dictating success on the web? If you’ve ever been to a website and couldn’t find what you were looking for, you know the answer to this question — yes!

When creating a strategy and design for our client’s products, we try to understand the audience that our client is talking to. Knowing your audience is important because you must understand their needs, concerns and how they might be feeling when they use your app or visit your website. Here are a few questions we might ask:

  • Does your company or organization market itself as a solution provider? If so, you may want to keep your content succinct and easy to digest. Your audience may be people who are short on time, overwhelmed and frustrated with too much choice. You can best your competitors by making your choice the easiest one.
  • How much time will you be able to dedicate to updating your web site? Give your audience a reason to come back. Update often but try not to overwhelm your users with too much content. Also, every piece of content you create is also content that will need to be maintained. Optics are important — when content rarely changes, your users and potential clients may perceive it negatively. If you won’t have a lot of time to maintain your content, keep it simple and try to automate as much as possible.
  • Are you an experience company? If you’re Apple, you’re an experience company. You make the hardware, software and marry them together to form an experience that people want to pay for. As an experience company, you may want to sell the experience more than the individual parts. When people look to your web site or app to help solve their problem, they will be glad to hear you’ll cover the details in your approach.
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