Satisfice is the Spice of Life

2 minute read

I was getting my Information Science degree when I learned about “satisfice” — a sort of combination of “satisfy” and “suffice”. It was in the context of building human-centered systems (computer programs, apps, that sort of thing), and it described the sweet spot where users tend to land in choosing an acceptable enough option when faced with a variety of options.

What I really appreciated about this term was that it recognizes that acceptable options are not the same thing as ideal options — and the distinction is important. An ideal selection among many options assumes that you the user might have perfect knowledge about a situation — that in selecting an item, you’ve been able to weigh cost-benefits, externalities and second-order effects, and all that other exciting rational-consumer-economic framework talk.

A concrete example; selecting yogurt at the grocery store. You know your favorite flavors, and even some brands, but you’re not really committed to a particular product, so you’ve got to make a game-time decision in the diary aisle. You scan the dozens of choices — greek yogurt, various sizes, some with fruit mixed in — it’s bewildering. You pick one that mostly matches and you move on. After all, yogurt is one of the first things in the first aisle, you can’t possibly afford to deliberate here!

You didn’t review all the various options, drawing up pro/con lists, thinking through the value-add of getting the larger size and thinking through how quickly your household goes through a tub of the stuff, and then what flavors other household members would appreciate, etc. You just found something that was close enough to the direction of being correct, made the choice, and moved on. It was good enough to meet most of the criteria.

That’s satisficing in action.

It’s an important concept think about not only when it comes to decision-making in our shopping habits, but in how we make all sorts of decisions, big and small. It can help us to move past ‘analysis paralysis’ and move on to other things.

It’s also important to think about when you’re on the other side of the decisions, as you’re building apps or systems or crafting public policies — it’s important to remember that users or beneficiaries will often choose the “good enough” choice over the ideal choice, particularly when time is on the line. Ever created a too-long survey and realized that the last 50% of the responses are straight-lined just so they could submit?

That’s satisfice.