Why do tech companies engage in decision fatigue?

Research shows that technology is putting an incredible strain on modern life. It's called "decision fatigue," and, given enough decisions, it results in predictably bad ones. So why are gadget makers pushing our limits?

So you want a laptop, huh?

Which size? 13"? 14"? 15"? 17"?

Which model? We've got three for each size.

How about a processor? Storage? Memory? Upgrade, for just $60 more.

How about a color? We've got 15.

Need a mouse? How about a monitor? A bag?

In the late '90s, this was the most dynamic sales process in consumer electronics. It's the Dell business model, of course -- the idea that you can customize any computer system to your liking. In a bulging market of beige boxes, it was a revelation that you could log on to the World Wide Web, pick your system and it would arrive, customized, right at your door.

Hewlett-Packard, Sony and others soon followed suit, and the PC market spread like influenza in a submarine. The computer was finally a fixture in the home, like the television half a century earlier, and a growing World Wide Web would continue raise the stakes for consumers' attention by allowing them instantaneous access to products -- and information -- from around the world.

Since then, our now truly digital lives have been nothing short of an ongoing war for our limited attention. Sure, we're all busy and technology can be an incredible distraction -- for every person who says they can multi-task, I challenge you to read your work e-mail on your BlackBerry while juggling a ball -- but it turns out that there's a finite amount of it we can give before things go downhill.

Not just at a particular moment, like my juggling example. Rather, over the course of a day. And when we hit our limit, every subsequent decision slowly and predictably creeps toward the irrational.

A fantastic feature in the New York Times Magazine by John Tierney digs into "decision fatigue," the very real phenomenon that, as he demonstrates in the story, makes us utterly unable to continue making sound decisions after a relentless barrage of them.

And it's not just those major life decisions we're talking about, here: in a world where the average American consumer can have anything, the problem is that all those minor decisions during the day add up and hinder one's ability to continue making decisions later.

Tierney lays it all out:

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

It's a great piece and I urge you to read it. As I leafed through it this weekend, I couldn't help but think of the consumer electronics industry -- specifically, the laptop computer segment.

Last week's big news came from Hewlett-Packard: it's spinning off its PC business. The company wanted to renew its rivalry with Oracle, discard a low-margin, high-headache hardware business and find shareholder happiness in the lucrative business of selling services.

In a way, it's not surprising: the laptop computer continues to grow, but it's a mature market. Almost everyone -- and I use that glibly, because developing markets overseas still have a way to go -- has a PC of some kind now. Whatever's left is being scrapped over by existing players, and behind the entire industry is the uncomfortable truth that nearly every laptop carries the same components from the same companies. Aside from a little color and design, they're identical -- and so are their prices. With steep competition and no breakaway winner, it's no place to find significant revenues, except at enormous scale.

And the consumer has an incredible array of choices, albeit ones that are frustratingly similar. Years ago, the term "PC" was roughly synonymous with IBM, Dell, HP or Sony; now it's everything from Asus to Acer to Lenovo to Toshiba to Samsung.

Which processor? Storage? Memory? Color?

The decision-fatigued consumer: Just give me a damn computer, I don't care which one.

Apple has managed to avoid much of this. Sure, it designs some of its own components, spends more effort on fit and finish than most manufacturers and has strong, singular branding -- for sure, it's a large reason why the company keeps moving units.

But it's also a matter of choice, or lack of one. Apple consistently limits how many iterations of a product it offers.

Currently, there are two models of laptop (Air and Pro), five sizes (11" and 13" Air; 13", 15" and 17" Pro). Each size, save for the 17", comes with two options: a lightly-equipped model and a heavier-duty option.

In total, that's nine choices, spread across a broad spectrum of prices. There's only a little overlap, a little conflict. It keeps Apple's manufacturing costs down but just as well reduces the number of decisions a consumer needs to make to obtain a product.

Compare that to HP: there are five consumer laptop categories ("Mini," "Everyday," "Ultra-portable," "High-performance" and "Envy") with 3, 6, 4, 6 and 4 models in each, respectively. The models vary by size, and you can customize each one. In total: 23 models, discounting configurations and business-only product lines.

Compare that to Dell: there are three consumer laptop brands ("Inspiron," "XPS" and "Alienware") with 5, 3 and 4 models each, respectively. Within each of those models are several popular configurations (2-4) and the ability to customize further. In total: 12 models, discounting myriad configurations and business-only product lines.

Compare that to Sony: seven series, with multiple configuration options (4+) after that.

Fifteen years ago, a wealth of options was exciting. Now that laptops (or cameras or smartphones or...) are ubiquitous, it's paralyzing.

Making matters worse is the large amount of decisions we don't realize we're making. These add up over time. In the last 15 years, the Internet has been absorbed into almost every pore of our lives. With it comes access to information -- and manifold choices to get to an end result.

Take this casual but popular use of your smartphone:

  1. Which app? (Menupages.)
  2. Which city? (New York.)
  3. Which neighborhood? (Flatiron.)
  4. What type of cuisine? (Mediterranean.)
  5. What price range? ($$.)
  6. Are the reviews generally positive? (Yes.)
  7. What day? (Tonight.)
  8. What time? (7:30.)
  9. How many? (Two.)

In today's world, "Where should we go for dinner?" is a loaded question. Unless there's an answer already in the back of your mind, it feels like someone just placed nine doors in front of you, waiting to be opened.

It's not hard to open a door. But who wants to open nine of them?

In our digital lives, this feeling grows over the course of the day as we make many decisions -- some fueled by technology (Respond to e-mails, or sit in on this meeting? Report this story, or write another?), some not (Wear this tie, or that one? Go to the salad place for lunch, or the pizza shop?)

It's a wonder any of us are able to piece together sentences at the end of the workday. (Perhaps that's why "Happy Hour" is now a three-hour tour.)

The modern life is one rife with distraction. Technology has sped up the process, but as Tierney's piece demonstrates, we are discovering our limits. So why do consumer electronics manufacturers continue to test our willpower?

Why must I have several options for one price point? Just give me a damn computer, I don't care which one.

Tierney, again:

Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further). Like those dogs in the experiment, ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs.

The impulse to spend (buy!) vs. the likelihood of taking the safer, easier option (don't buy!). It seems like a precarious perch for a business to rest, whether you're selling tablet computers or enterprise software suites or toothpaste.

Choice and freedom are not mutually exclusive. Why are revenue-seeking tech companies making it so hard on their customers?