Overcoming the tyranny of choice
Some time ago, Sue Gordon made a plea for us to add a “busy teacher” button to the Lazy Bee Scripts web site. This was essentially “never mind all that choice, just give me the script I want”. At the time I mocked Sue by suggesting that the real message was “never mind all that choice, just give me one of Sue Gordon’s scripts”. (Nothing wrong with that. She writes very well. If what you want is one of Sue Gordon’s scripts, then they’ll be absolutely perfect for you.) The difficulty with Sue’s suggestion is the amount of mind reading involved. On the other hand, her point is a serious one. Offering a hundred scripts is off-putting to someone who has time to look at no more than three. At the time of writing this, we are offering 2721 on our web site. That amount of choice can be overwhelming. (We even have scripts about the tyranny of choice. See the sketches Skinny Cap to Go by Richard James and, in a different style, The Coffee Shop by Ray Lawrence.) So we’ve implemented a new search engine called Find A Few.
Find A Few doesn’t work quite as well as Sue Gordon would like (it sometimes suggests other people’s scripts), but it’s as close as we’re going to get. It can be approached in two ways: firstly there’s a Find A Few option in the Search menu. In that case, Find A Few will start with no prior information and will ask questions until it reaches a manageable number of scripts (or none, if the customer wants something we haven’t got). Secondly (better in my opinion – but that reflects the way I would search) every time other searches or links lead to a list of more than three possible scripts, a Find A Few button appears which will allow the customer to narrow down within their current field of search.
Take for example, our wealth of scripts involving Cinderella. Currently, if you approach this via the Pantomime pages and the Cinderella link, you will get to a list of 43 scripts. Just above that listing, there is a button to [Find a Few] which will then ask questions to determine what manner of Cinderella you want. Our goal is to narrow down to no more than three scripts.
Are you familiar with the Guess Who board game? The object of the game is to identify a character from a field of 24 by eliminating those who don’t share particular characteristics (hair colour, spectacles, beards, moustaches, and so on.) The game has been around long enough to draw academic comment about how well it represents demographics. (It doesn’t. The original characters were created for easy grouping into overlapping sets; so, for example, it under-represents women, not least because the designers chose two forms of facial hair which are easy to represent visually, as is male-pattern baldness.)
The Find A Few search engine works in a similar way: it asks (largely) binary questions to reduce the number of scripts suggested. It chooses the questions by selecting characteristics that will (ideally) pick (or eliminate) half the remaining scripts.
In our Full Search engine, the customer chooses the issues that are important to them. With Find A Few, the computer chooses the questions. It may well ask something that the customer doesn’t care about, or hasn’t thought about (“Do you want a set with practical doors or windows?”) In doing so, it will exclude lots of plays that the customer would enjoy, but it does so to find the most efficient path to a manageable set of scripts.
All this is to offer the customer a small number of plays without trying to tell them what they want. (“People who bought Dig In for Murder also purchased a bottle of poison, a flash-light and a spade.”)