Toothpaste, toilet paper, white matter, and jam: Clues for better decision making


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Several years ago, my wife and I ran out of toothpaste in a remote part of small Southeast Asian country. We spent half the day trying to find a place that carried a halfway recognizable form of packaged toothpaste. It was more of an adventure than you might imagine. We ultimately found one unopened Colgate toothpaste box covered in dust in a small bazaar kiosk. In that case, we were excited and thankful. It didn’t matter much that the box was a bit dusty, nor that it wasn’t our typical preferred choice of toothpaste.

I remember coming back to the United States several months later, and going shopping for toothpaste once again. I found myself paralyzed in the aisle as I tried to make sense of shelf space that looked similar to this:

Img Source

Too many choices

I remember hearing a story about an elderly woman in post communist USSR who stood crying in the aisle because she couldn’t choose the right kind of toilet paper. (Much of her previous life was spent often waiting in long lines for just one roll of the only toilet paper she had ever known). The sudden presentation of varying sizes, patterns, colors, and prices were overwhelming the underdeveloped analytical part of her brain.

In the era of Big Data, I believe that we all represent that woman to a certain extent. How many times, from a personal or corporate perspective, have you experienced some level of stress or anxiety because of the amount of information you have to sift through in order to make the right decision?

We’re increasingly overwhelmed. When we type something into Google, we don’t want 4,456,761 results.

When we are making purchasing decisions, Google found in 2011 that the average shopper uses 10.4 sources of information to make a purchasing decision (nearly double the number of sources they used in 2010).

To illustrate the point, Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University, who has dedicated much of her life to analyzing the concept of making choices, ran a study by placing a free tasting booth in a grocery store.

First they offered 6 different jams. 40% of the customers stopped to taste. 30% of those bought some.

A week later, they set up the same booth in the same store, but this time with 24 different jams. 60% of the customers stopped to taste. But only 3% bought some.

*** Having too many choices made then 10 times less likely to buy. ***

To complicate matters even further, we now can get this information from a variety of screens, and devices. A recent study of a small sample of 20 somethings found that they switched media screens 27 times in an hour!

How many choices do we want?

According to Iyengar, “when humans are given 10 or more choices, they make bad decisions”.

Perhaps that’s why marketers have been trying for so long to get on the first page of search engines. Jeff Bullas shared the following results from an AOL study on search.

The first ranking position in the search results receives 42.25% of all click-through traffic
The second position receives 11.94%
Third position on the first page obtains 8.47%
The fourth placed position on page one receives 6.05%
The others on the first page are under 5% of click through traffic
The first ten results (page one ) received 89.71% of all click-through traffic.

Writers, content producers, and other media have long known that “Top 10? lists attract eyeballs and attention. People crave simplicity they can digest and manage from an authoritative source.

The typical American makes about 70 decisions per day. 50% of CEO decisions are made in 9 minutes or less, and less than 12% take more than an hour to make.

We collectively spend a alot of time not just trying to gather and analyze information to help inform the decisions we are making, but trying to absorb the information that comes at us unexpectedly, where we are not directing the stream of content.

But, this is taking its toll. found that “heavy internet users are 2.5 times more likely to be depressed and that they also suffer from a reduction in white matter in their brains (goo that transmits signals around the cerebrum) in the emotion, memory, sensory, and speech centers by 20%”

Enabling better decision making

Big Data brings with it a whole set of opportunities, but also challenges. According to IBM, 90% of the data in human history was created in the last 2 years. According to McKinsey&Company, that pace will be accelerating at a pace of 40% per year.

Design and creativity take an increasingly important role in the process.

From the hyperlinked article above:

Advances in technology – faster, more powerful,less expensive – are concrete and visible. Design is subtle, more subjective, more open to human interpretation. But, as our increasingly advanced technologies enable us to build larger, more capable, more complex systems, the role of design becomes ever more important. It is the only way to ensure that our technologies will help us deal with our increasingly hectic lives.

The challenge then for marketers, product managers, salespeople, customer service, consultants, advisors, designers of products, services, and experiences, and anyone else who is initiating or sustaining progress is to take all of this data and information, and translate it into an easy to digest, understandable, and insightful menu of choices for their audience.

Regardless of your industry, your customers (along with your executives, your partners, and other stakeholders) will likely resonate with the following statement.

“Help me make sense of everything that is happening. Help me know what to pay attention to. Surface a narrowly defined selection of the things that most closely align with my needs, desires, and jobs to be done. Help me evaluate quickly pros and cons of each decision, and then help me make the best decision.”

Organizations of all sizes that are able to center their focus on answering that call from their customers will thrive.

So, then, let’s get to work. But I’s much easier said than done.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Brian Vellmure
For more than a decade, Brian Vellmure has impacted hundreds of companies on their journey towards increased profitability through strategic customer focused initiatives. For more insightful thoughts and resources, please subscribe to Brian's blog by clicking here


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