Tyranny of choice: What I learnt while trying to buy a new mobile phone

SmartphoneVivek Kaul  

Recently I dropped my mobile phone into a bucket of water. The phone worked for a while and then stopped working. Given that, I had been using the phone for nearly two years now, I thought its time to buy a new one. And this is where my problems started.
I have managed to stay away from using smart phones till now. For the last five years I have been using a dual SIM model from Samsung. Given a choice, I would have wanted to buy the same phone all over again, like I had done two years back. But sadly Samsung doesn’t make that model any more ( at least I couldn’t find it anywhere on the web).
Thus, started the journey to figure out which mobile phone to buy. Gradually, recommendations started coming in. The people around me took it upon themselves to make sure that I bought the right mobile phone.
But looking at the choice that was available I ended up being all confused. First and foremost one needed to decide on the price range. Then on the company. Then on the right model. And how did one do that?
With every phone having so many features, how does one figure out which one was the better phone? In fact, feature creep is a huge problem with modern day products. As Geoffrey Miller, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of New Mexico in the United States in his book 
Spent – Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour “This [i.e. feature creep] is driven partly by the need to make each new product model different from last year’s, but also partly by the consumer’s unconscious desire for a product that is right at the limit of his cognitive ability, and one that therefore functions as a credible cognitive display. The male buying them thinks those features can be talked about in ways that will display my general intelligence to potential mates and friends, who will bow down before my godlike techno-powers.”
The question is what about those people who just want to use a phone like a phone (i.e. make calls, send smses and probably take a picture or two once in a while). How should they go about choosing the right phone? And ultimately human beings have limited cognitive ability. It is simply not possible for them to analyse a product on every dimension and then make a purchasing decision. As Stefan Thomke, an authority in the management of innovation
 told me in an interview I did for Forbes India “We have been in many meetings where the entire meeting is dedicated to discussing more and more features. There seems to be an assumption that we are basically done when we can no longer squeeze more features into a product. Presumably assuming that the more features a product has, the customer actually sits there and counts the features, and that somehow drives our ability to price it.”
The consumers tend to simplify this problem by trying to look at one or two dimensions, which they think are important. Take the case of computers. Here people rely on the processor speed of the chip to make a purchasing decision. But is it the right criteria on which a purchasing decision should be based.
As Niraj Dawar writes in 
Tilt – Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers “Like any summary measure of a complex system, speed has its limitations: two computers with the same processor speed on their chips may perform very differently depending on the software loaded on the computer, the transfer speed of inflation to and from memory, its connectivity to the network, and many other variables. But most buyers leave these intricacies to experts and rely instead on the simple summary measure of speed.”
This is how consumer simplify the purchasing decision by looking at an irrelevant criteria. And what true about computers is also true about a lot of other products. As Dawar points out “For example, consumers evaluate digital cameras using the simple summary measures of megapixels, when in fact the megapixel has little to do with the quality of pictures taken by the camera. It is the size of the light sensor rather than the megapixel count that determines picture quality. Similarly, automobile buyers often rely on horsepower as a measure of the muscle of the car, when it is actually torque they are looking for, as torque determines acceleration, which is the sensation that drivers seek. Customers rely on threat count when buying synthetic bed sheets, but threat count is irrelevant in synthetic fabrics—it only provides a measure of quality for natural fibers such as cotton.”
Given these reasons I started looking for an irrelevant criteria using which I could figure out which mobile phone to buy. My search is still on. And as soon as I find one, I will go ahead and buy a new mobile phone. Meanwhile, I did the smart thing. I paid Rs 300 and got my mobile phone repaired. To conclude, let me quote what Thomke of Havard Business School: “We often talk about it as a quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. To make things simpler is very hard because that requires you to have a very deep understanding of what the user really wants. And once you have that deep understanding, you have the confidence. Mark Twain once said, if I had more time I would write a short letter.”

The article first appeared on www.firstbiz.com on February 7, 2014 

 (Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 


About vivekkaul
Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System , the latest book in the trilogy has just been published. The first two books in the trilogy were published in November 2013 and July 2014 respectively. Both the books were bestsellers on Amazon.com and Amazon.in. Currently he works as an economic commentator and writes regular columns for www.firstpost.com. He is also the India editor of The Daily Reckoning newsletter published by www.equitymaster.com. His writing has appeared across various other publications in India. These include The Times of India, Business Standard,Business Today, Business World, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Indian Management, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Forbes India, Mutual Fund Insight, The Free Press Journal, Quartz.com, DailyO.in, Business World, Huffington Post and Wealth Insight. In the past he has also been a regular columnist for www.rediff.com. He has lectured at IIM Bangalore, IIM Indore, TA PAI Institute of Management and the Alliance University (Bangalore). He has also taught a course titled Indian Economy to the PGPMX batch of IIM Indore. His areas of interest are the intersection between politics and economics, the international financial crisis, personal finance, marketing and branding, and anything to do with cinema and music. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com

2 Responses to Tyranny of choice: What I learnt while trying to buy a new mobile phone

  1. duaimei says:

    It was interesting to read about all of the irrelevant criteria wet use when buying different products.

  2. ravisuno says:

    the writer expressed his intellect by writing more about other topics than difficulty of buying a mobile phone.smart way of showing intellectual snobbishness

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