Information Overload is a common topic of discussions in the press and literature. It is also the subject of research, tools, and techniques. But there is also an important but related problem: Decision Overload.
Information Overload occurs when the information available exceeds the processing abilities of the individual or can be processed in the time available.
By contrast, Decision Overload occurs when the vast amount of available information makes it difficult to decide upon the correct course of action(s).
An example of Information Overload vs Decision Overload:
We were recently shopping for a new car. We had narrowed our decision down to a limited number of cars that met our key criteria based on features, cost, and size.
Through the power of the internet, we had a huge amount of information available to us. This included information from automobile manufacturer sites, car magazines, and enthusiast forums.
For any one specific make and model, we found hundreds of articles, reviews, and information. Some reviews were glowing and positive others neutral, and some downright negative. There was more information than any single individual was able to digest. And more information and new reviews were appearing on almost a daily basis.
This is Information Overload!
As we reviewed the vast number of articles, reviews, and comments, it became difficult to categorize, classify, and prioritize the information in a meaningful way.
Some of the reviews and articles heaped the car with praise.
Others were less enthusiastic.
And some were downright critical and highlighted issues and problems.
And sometimes information from one source would contradict information from another source.
I had so much information, that I struggled to sort out the relevant information to make a decision.
Which information and review should I trust?
And then there were all the individual comments on user forums.
Should I believe “JaneX9”, who stated this was the best new car in a decade?
Or do I trust “Joe88” who warned of a string of terrible issues and problems?
And there were more decisions to make...
Do we go ahead and buy the car now?
Or should we wait for the new model coming in 6 months with even better features?
And how did we reconcile what we were reading compared to our own observations?
This is Decision Overload!
So, how do you solve Decision Overload?
The first challenge with Decision Overload is determining when you have enough information.
There will always be more information you can gather, more research you can do, and more factors to analyze.
So, the first approach is to find a way to limit your research. This may be by focusing on a few specific sources or setting a time limit for your research.
In our case, we focused on reviews from a few key automobile magazines and consumer review sites. We also decided to ignore the thousands of "individual comments" in user forums, as there was just no way to verify their validity.
The second challenge with Decision Overload is determining how to make the actual decision.
One of the classic (and effective!) approaches to making a decision is to use a decision matrix.
List out the key criteria that you will use to make a decision.
Develop a rating scale.
Assign "weights" to your decisions (if required).
Independently score each potential candidate.
Total up the scores and compare the results.
In our case, we needed a new car soon (our current car was starting to experience ongoing mechanical issues), we had reasonable “trade-in” offers from the dealers, and we had a specific budget.
We also had a list of “required” features, wanted a dealership close to our home, and a strong warranty. We also cared about the look/style of the car, interior layout and cargo space. And then we had our impressions from the test drives.
So, we ended-up creating a simple decision matrix. We listed out 10 key decision criteria and used a simple 1 to 5 scale (from 1 = “terrible/hate” to 5= “love/great”).
Our Decision Matrix looked something like this:
Driving Features (Controls, Dash, Nav, etc.)
Safety Features (Airbags, Warnings, etc.)
Test Drive (Power, Handling, visibility, etc.)
Interior Comfort/Space/Cargo Room
Warranty (Years/extent of Coverage)
Perceived Quality (fit/finish/feel)
Reliability (Consumer Reports)
Cost (with all desired features)
We didn’t use any weightings, but simply added-up the rating scores for the 10 categories.
We completed this exercise for the 3 cars that were in our "final running" based on our initial research and shopping.
I did one ranking myself, and my wife did her own ranking.
In the end, we both ended-up ranking the same car well ahead of the other two, so our decision was easy and clear-cut. (PS: We are still very happy with the decision we made several months later and loving our new car!).
Many people confuse Information Overload from Decision Overload.
Although they are related, Information Overload and Decision Overload are actually different issues, with different causes and different approaches to resolve them.
Information Overload is a problem of too much available information within an unbound time-frame. The solution is to limit yourself to researching from only specific sources, and setting a time limit to your research.
Decision Overload is a problem of too many options without a formal decision criteria. The solution is to define clear decision factors, a rating method, and set a firm time-frame for making that decision.