Opportunity Overload

As cognitive / usability researchers we have been interested in information overload for a long time. For me, at least since experiencing the info-whelm of an undergraduate, and realizing that it would only get worse. (And that was long before email!) As the online experience consumes more of our attention and with it our time, all of us notice the acceleration of overload. And with very little guidance from research, we are left with a range of practical time-management options from the Pickle Jar to scheduling your email. But none of these address the fact of information overload, which threatens to significantly diminish the value of the web and email. As demonstrated by the situation of too many choices.

Jared Spool recently posted (and podcasted) an interview with Barry Schwartz where they discuss his book and the recent line of research into “choice overload,” which starts off with the Iyengar and Leeper Jam Study:

“… that showed when you present 30 flavors of jam at a gourmet food store, you get more interest but less purchasing than when you only show six flavors of jam. All of a sudden, it became an issue, or at least a possibility, that adding options could actually decrease the likelihood that people would actually choose any of them. More and more, because of that study, people have actually tried to study it in the wild, in the field, by getting companies to vary the variety that they offer and tracking both purchasing and also satisfaction. So that’s starting to happen, but there are not very many papers that are actually published on that. This whole line of work is only about five years old.”

There may be a common phenomenon underlying choice and information overload. Neither of these surfeits of stuff are problematic unless we’re interested, unless there’s an opportunity. Since information is neutral until deemed interesting, information overload is not problematic until we admit ever-larger boundaries of interest and attention. When we overwhelm short term memory and task attention, we’re forced to stop and change the focus of attention. The same with choice – I don’t care whether there are 5 jams or 30 unless I really want jam. Otherwise, like the overload of celebrity stories in the public media, the overload is easy to ignore.

Once we evaluate email and user experience with the concept of opportunity overload, the angle of insight shifts from technology itself to the idea of value. While 90% or more of all my email I could ignore, I also have extraordinary opportunities presented by way of this communication channel. Not only most of my consulting projects, but collaborations, new tools, great ideas to work with, answers to questions I did not think to pose. Its opportunity “push,” with the Web as opportunity “pull,” a nightmare of opportunity overwhelm if you let it.

As a research issue this interests me as it entails hermeneutics (individually and not externally interpreted) and economics (as in the cost/value of opportunity). We attend to the extent we are emotionally engaged with the perceived value of the opportunity represented by a choice (a product or a message in an email). But attention is only the intial draw. There are significant cognitive requirements demanded in processing the value (what is this worth to me? How cool is that?) and choice (Which one do I want, or is it worth my time to evaluate further?).

To finally make a decision may require additional learning (which one really is better? do I know enough to choose this opportunity? What are the costs in time and lost business/opportunity?). It may require communication (who should I ask about this? Wouldn’t Nick want to know about this?) Next thing we know, the day is gone!

So nobody except Miles the Marketer seems to be onto opportunity overload. (And Miles means to make you money, and I don’t, so go there if you want marketing opportunities!)

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