Choice Overload and Complexity

Not too long ago, when I wanted to buy a carton of orange juice, the primary thought on my mind was the brand. Now, when I locate the brand I like, I have to also think about high, low or no pulp. Do I want it to have additional calcium and vitamin D?  Do I want it blended with mango or banana or pineapple?

See for instance this online store. It can take me several minutes in the store to make up my mind. Do this with twenty different grocery store items, and I can feel cognitively fatigued. I call this choice overload.

When I get behind the wheel of a new rental car, and it is an unfamiliar model, it can take me 15 minutes to figure out all the many controls and features. In the book Living in the State of Stuck [1], I relate how Theresa, with Down Syndrome, would drive her friend Maggie, in a power wheelchair, all over the US. She did this safely and with confidence. Could someone with Down Syndrome safely and confidently drive one of the many vehicles today with all their fancy features? While many of these features are nice, they are not necessary and they can add to driver distractibility and frustration.

Too many choices, too many features, add complexity and confusion to our lives. Today, if you are a person who wants new assistive technology (AT) and information and communication technology (ICT), you will be faced with myriad choices that need to be made in obtaining the best match with your needs and preferences.

On the flip side of the coin, there are people living in resource-limited environments with much less choice and available products. Regardless, AT/ICT providers are essential guides to helping users select among the supports and products available to them.  Be they various and diverse, or narrow, the key is to select supports that are most likely to result in the user’s success. These providers are also key to ensuring users receive the training they need to optimize benefit from use.

Unfortunately, it remains the situation that we are accustomed to thinking about product usability, but not as often about product useworthiness and what the person gains.  Even though the broad AT/ICT field is interdisciplinary and values integrated teamwork, we tend to think too little about the overall user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) with the product, as well as the product selection, match and service delivery process.

Tools have been developed to help with making choices – for example, in the book Assistive Technology and Other Supports for Brain Impairment [2], a chart is provided to compare smartphones by style, operating system, features and manufacturer.  But one first needs to know where to go to obtain these charts. Assistance is needed to navigate the “marketplace” and narrow down the choices.

The ENTELIS Consortium is an international and interdisciplinary partnership who aims to make available a wide range of resources about AT and ICT. ENTELIS knows that the comprehensive assessment of the user’s needs and preferences, expectation of benefit from use and subsequent realization of benefit, can greatly reduce AT/ICT frustration and non-use of obtained supports. We strongly emphasize a comprehensive UX/UI approach in the document Towards full digital inclusion: the ENTELIS Manifesto against the digital divide.  You can help ENTELIS achieve its goals by reading the ENTELIS Manifesto here and then endorse it and disseminate it as widely as possible.  In this way we will truly have accomplished a global collaboration to bridge the digital divide.

Post of the month (March 2016). By Marcia Scherer, Entelis Partner IMPT

(1)Scherer, M. J. (2005). Living in the State of Stuck: How Assistive Technology Impacts the Lives of People with Disabilities, Fourth Edition. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.  
(2)Scherer, M.J.  (2012). Assistive Technologies and Other Supports for People with Brain Impairment. New York: Springer Publishing Co.