The CEO of a major Airline recently stated that a-la-carte pricing of flight upgrades (such as extra baggage, preferred seating and food) is better because Americans demand “choice“. I remember my knee-jerk reaction: “Yeah – and they are choosing discount airlines that don’t charge for what was once part of the bargain.” It turns out that people all over the world like options from which to choose what best fits their needs and budgets. But too many choices complicate the issue. The challenge of too many options (too many health insurers and too many types of plans) is a driving the Health Insurance Exchange movement in which one intent is to simplify the choices to a handful of plans so people can compare “apples to apples” from different carriers. In this model, each insurer who wants to participate conforms to the prescribed mold in which each level has matching economics: Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, or Young Adult Plan.
Choices are intrinsic to basic Computer functionality deep inside the silicon paths and registers of processor and memory chips. Choices are important to software as well with endless combinations to IF – THEN – ELSE logic-based choices. Even these very primitive capabilities of computers are important to our analysis, as logical correctness and processing performance and speed can make or break our implementation approach.
Understanding Context Cross-Reference
Click on these Links to other posts and glossary/bibliography references
There is a cognitive–behavioral phenomenon associated with this question of choosing among options: “the paradox of choice.” In addition to choice, people need convenience. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a “Convenience Store” as opposed to a department store, or a larger grocery store, is that the small convenience store has many common things you need, but offers fewer choices. There is a threshold at which choice becomes the enemy of convenience. The cognitive aspect is that we weigh the pros and cons mentally before deciding what to buy. The feature-benefit matrix takes shape in our heads for many such choices. It turns out that our heads have finite capacity for constructing matrices on the fly. So we often use strategies like forming brand preferences, responding to the appeal of the label (often meaningless), or using rules of thumb such as “don’t buy the cheapest or the most expensive.”
Rules and Strategies in Cognition
These strategies and rules pile up in our minds and show up in our behaviors, rational or otherwise. The way we each see the world, including these strategies, rules and behaviors, is our personal “context“, and it differs for each person on the planet. Learning about a persons “context” is the formula for love, hate and indifference. Fortunately, despite the near infinite variety in different people’s perspectives, the world is OK because there are often many valid solutions to most problems. The “smart” devices that become our best helpers will be the ones that can learn each person’s strategies, rules and behaviors (representing their wants and needs), and adapt to them in most cases, advising them against unwise decisions only when the choice appears to have real penalties. Such a device or program becomes both a helpful friend and adviser.
A class of systems I have studied, designed and built is called “Decision Support Systems.” I’ve used a combination of a knowledge base of facts and rules that enable the computer to infer the best choices based on the facts. Expert Systems are a class of decision support systems that shelter users from too much data and too many choices by teaching the system about the domain language, it’s facts and the inference rules used to make good decisions about problems within the domain.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about our brains, then soon about the automated electronic brain (or mind) that makes our devices more useful. Expect further information on systems designs later on.
Click below to look in each Understanding Context section