In my current “between jobs” situation I’ve been catching up on a *lot* of reading – all those things I put into my ‘to read’ folder on the desktop. I’ve also started on the pile of books bought over the last year or so that have been left to their own devices, unread. One of these books is “The Paradox of Choice – Why more is less” by Barry Schwartz. I came across Barry on the TED site where he gave a lecture on the surfeit of choice in today’s society and the negative psychological impact this has on individuals. He focuses on physical and service-based goods (supermarkets, clothes, healthcare etc) but I’m sure this translates to certain online environments as well, especially longer-form video.

The message chimed perfectly with something I have tried to champion in my professional career – less can be more. Aggregators of video content, where my experience lies, are continually exploring ways to giveviewers a simple way to find content: search, automated recommendations, friend recommendations, ratings, programming and promotion and so on.

The primary thesis here is as follows: the more content you have to offer, the more paralysed a user can become in trying to find something relevant to them. In the online video universe this manifests itself in a similar way: by searching for and choosing a video to watch from tens of thousands on offer, I’m probably missing something ‘better’ somewhere else on the site. Maybe I should search a bit more before choosing? This calamity of choice can have such a negative impact that the user simply switches off – they may not be able to express why exactly, but the experience is not enjoyable, so why bother. It could be argued that Youtube defies this argument. I agree. But only because the ‘cost’ of choosing something is so low – the average video length viewed is 2 1/2 minutes. If it sucks it’s not that much time wasted.

Higher cost goods (think longer form video) tend to involve more investment in time and thought – you don’t ‘pop out’ to buy a car or a TV. Research, recommendations from friends and other sources are probed first. The same goes for longer form video – if I’m looking for something to entertain me for 30+ minutes then I’m more likely to do some evaluation first (current primetime programmes or movies excluded). This is no different to flicking up and down the channels on TV, but the choices on offer are magnitudes deeper.

Back around 2000 Telewest, a cable platform here in the UK, had a problem with usage on their VoD platform. They had 1,000′s of film titles, but viewers were failing to use the service regularly. Two approaches to the problem were suggested – better search and some UI tweaking, or a reduction in the number of movies offered on the platform at any one time, with content refreshes on a frequent basis. The latter option was chosen and usage rocketed. The viewer felt more in control. They were no longer presented with the equivalent of the bargain bin at the back of record stores, where there are 1000′s of CDs thrown into a box for them to rummage through. Rather, the VoD platform became a simple, well laid out storefront, where the casual shopper could see all the wares and each product clearly marked in terms of it’s potential to entertain.

I haven’t finished Schwartz’s book yet , so may update this a little when I do. I’m reading more than one thing right now – too many choices you see