Alexander and the Paradox of Choice

Tanisha F
January 25, 2024

There’s a new audio listening app on the block. Hardly surprising given the surge in demand for audio and visual content as people churn though entertainment during unprecedented amounts of leisure time. We’re consuming more than ever and we’re doing it at pace.

The app I’m talking about is called Alexander and it caught my eye for precisely this reason: there’s almost nothing on it. Just 15-20 lovingly curated audio pieces that you might ordinarily find in the pages of a Guardian long-read or a human interest piece in the New Yorker. Each one is thoughtful, well produced and features an all-star vocal cast with Helena Bonham Carter and David Tennent setting a high bar.

Like many others I’ve spoken to, I often find myself feeling a sense of fatigue, scrolling through seemingly endless options on video and audio streaming apps. The thing that surprised me about Alexander was just how liberating it was not to have a wide selection of options offered to me.

Does infinite choice equal infinite pleasure? Not according to the paradox of choice. This is the marketing psychology principle coined by Barry Schwartz, which supposedly accounts for why, when given too many choices we become overloaded, triggering feelings of confusion and distress. Brands often use a ‘good, better and best’ tiered proposition to counter this. Instead of overloading customers with every possible variant of a product they present a middle ground offering, the ‘better’ that will suit a median of tastes. Beneath this they present a stripped back more aggressively priced option, and above it a more premium option.

“Does infinite choice equal infinite pleasure? Not according to the paradox of choice.”

Consider the original iPod proposition of the noughties. The iPod nano was the hero product. Sleek, decent memory, with touch wheel song selection, i.e. the ‘better’ option. What it was better than, was the iPod shuffle. Limited memory, no ability to select songs and very small but attractively priced and still an iPod, for those looking for an entry point to the brand. At the top of the pyramid was the ‘best’, the iPod classic. It came with mammoth memory, bespoke colours – a premium option for someone with the money to support their taste level. A status symbol that told people that music mattered to you. A prime example of good, better and best in action. Enough choice to help customers identify the key product specification differences for their budget but not enough for there to be distress. Apple have always been acutely aware of the paradox of choice and used it to their advantage – a double whammy of minimal design and pared back product offerings with big impact.

We spend our working lives making decisions which we weigh based on risk and potential consequence. Perhaps in our leisure time, we don’t want to make decisions. Perhaps we’re seeking permission to eliminate the burden of any responsibility that comes with decision-making and which is so incongruous with relaxation. To use another example from Apple, Steve Jobs’ ubiquitous uniform of black turtle-necks and Levi 501s, was not unintentional; he wore the same thing every day allegedly to reduce the amount of choices he had to make in the space of a day.

If you still doubt the tyranny of too much choice, consider this: Netflix just added a ‘watch anything’ button. If selected, it chooses a film or television show at random, using their algorithm of what a user is likely to like based on previous selections. It’s proving surprisingly popular.

As for Alexander, it’s likely that when they are no longer as nascent they will continue to add to their library of audio offerings, eventually splitting down into genres or similar. For now though, I have enjoyed having the choice removed from my leisure listening and I’ll be keeping an eye on how the titans of streaming curate their ever-expanding bounties of content to keep it accessible to users.

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