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The Dichotomy of Choice and Control

We humans love choice and control. We want to do what we want to do when we want to do it.


We're individuals. We don't like people telling us what to do.

“Lead. Follow. Or get the hell out of the way.”

“Don't tread on me.”

“I did it my way.”

Each is a way of demanding and celebrating choice and control.

But it's also true that we want to know what to do and how to do it. And we love it when people show us how to do what we want.

Just so long as we feel it's our choice to do.

As my dad used to say, “People don't mind change. They mind being told to change.”

And there's the dichotomy.

Have you ever shopped at IKEA? The store is laid out around a single, serpentine central walkway that forces you to visit every department in the exact order they prescribe. There's no other way to get around. It's not just their version of “my way or the highway.”

Their way is the only way.

Oddly, the store mirrors IKEA's product assembly instructions. Each of their do-it-yourself kits comes with comprehensive guidelines, a simple map illustrating the step-by-step process for building your furniture. They show you exactly what to do in exactly what order.

People seem to love IKEA's furniture, low prices, and do-it-yourself attitude. What they don't love so much is being told where to go and what to do. If you visit any review site and search IKEA, you'll find that the negative comments are all based around the Swedish retailer's management of choice and control.

There's that dichotomy again.

And it's not just retail. This same choice and control problem is among the most challenging elements of creating an online business, too.

For example, how do you make online courses comprehensive and linear enough to teach the subject, while still keeping them short and flexible enough to please your students?

How much choice and control your students are willing to cede, depends on their attention span and their willingness to be told what to do. Thanks to this, savvy know two different ways to please their customers:

  1. Provide more choices. YouTube (or, as my friend Dave Bricker calls it, “YouTube University”) is one great example. No matter what you need to figure out – from separating first and last names in Excel, to playing Dancing in the Moonlight in Eb on your guitar, to removing your own appendix – you'll find it there. And you're to jump from video to video any way you please, until you find the specific instructions and the specific instructor you like.
  2. Manage expectations. Instead of letting your customers grow bored and turn away, take a hint from the of Tik Tok and Reels and offer short, micro- segments. Quick, tasty segments that end before the viewer tires of them. That way, people don't need to watch too much and will get what they need before they turn away. And to make it even more compelling, just manage their expectations by adding a short subhead that says something like this: “If you want to the oil in your Mercury outboard engine, watch this quick, 2-minute video.”

In The Trendmaster's Guide, former vice president of trend, design, and product development at , Robyn Waters, wrote that the letter Y stands for “Yum, Yawn, Yuck.” The distance between the first word and the second two is a very quick illustration of the dichotomy of choice and control.

If Waters is right, and this is the continuum of responses your potential customers have to what you're putting out there, it's pretty clear that the only response you want in order overcome the dichotomy of choice and control is “Yum.”

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