Apple has always had a poor reputation among hardcore Android and other high-choice users. Their main narrative goes something like this:
I don’t need someone to tell me what’s best for me. I’m quite capable of thinking for myself, thank you. Just give me the maximum number of options, and I’ll build my own optimal experience.
It’s a respectable argument, but it seems like pursuers of the best experiences are heading in the opposite direction.
We all know choice is important. Nobody wants to have zero options, or to be told exactly what to do. It’s human nature to want some measure of control. But another idea, which Apple has benefitted significantly from, is the concept of curation.
Apple has had for a long time a basic message implicit in their hardware and software:
We are a team of experts obsessed with giving you the best possible computing experience. It’s our job to build products with the ideal configurations enabled out of the box, so instead of tinkering you can focus on living your life.
You can argue with the philosophy, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Apple has become the most powerful brand in the world by doing a good job of making important decisions for customers. What I find interesting about this is how it relates to other industries and experiences.
Think about restaurants.
Think of a restaurant where you can order or walk up and get anything you want. What kind of quality popped into your mind for that food?
Now think of a restaurant where when you sit down they tell you what is being prepared for that day or evening, and they give you only one or two options. What kind of quality did that evoke?
The answer is that the buffet is usually associated with bad food. It’s Golden Coral. It’s Walmart. It’s maximum choice but minimum quality.
And if you go into a 5-Star restaurant, where the chef is famous and it takes months to get a reservation, they tell you what you’re eating. And it’s the same with small custom restaurants in places like San Francisco and New York City: they make what they make that day, and when it runs out it’s gone.
You don’t walk in and order what you want. You walk in and get what they’re serving. The cost is much higher, the line is around the block, and people can’t wait to tell their friends that they ate there.
Then there’s the buffet or Megamart down the street where you can get whatever you want, whenever you want. They have steady traffic, but nobody’s getting religious about the experience.
And now that brings us to Apple Music.
Curation involves experts taking on the burden of creating sublime experiences for the consumer in a way that would be prohibitive to do themselves. And now they’re basically doubling down on the curation concept that has worked so well for them in hardware and software, and bringing that to the music experience.
Here’s the choice Apple is presenting us for music:
- Here’s every song you could possibly want. Maximum choice. Good luck with building your optimal music experience.
- I know you don’t have time to manicure the millions of options available to you, so don’t stress it. Click on your favorite genre and you’ll hear what our experts have taken hours preparing for you.
But it’s actually even better than that, because they’re giving you #1 and #2 simultaneously. By making the entire Apple library available to you and having the option to listen to the curated lists or the radio show, you’re getting the advantages of both approaches.
What does this show us?
Here’s how I break this down into discrete points.
- Choice is a mandatory component of human happiness, but if it’s worshipped above experience it can become a detriment
- Most users are time and attention starved, and are looking for expert-managed experiences that remove the burden of setup and selection, e.g., restaurants, technology, music
- There is a balance somewhere between choice and curation that is ideal for each person and each medium, but in general I think the trend will towards curation over choice
I think people want to have experiences, not manage them. Curation allows for an elegant division of labor, where one group creates the content, another group curates it, and then the user consumes it.
I think Apple is right to take this approach with its music platform, just as they were right to do it with their hardware and software.
The problem is that if you ask someone, “Hey, do you want more choice or less choice?”, most will definitely say they want more. It’s hard to convince people, and even ourselves, to let someone else manage an experience for us. It’s hard to let go.
But I think the more people experience this concept of relaxing and letting someone else delight them, the more we’re going to see this curation model take hold—especially in the industries where the experience is the product.
- There is a type of user—usually young—who is reluctant to relinquish any degree of control over an experience, and I believe this attitude is detrimental to their ability to enjoy things. I think this type says, “Let me control every single aspect of this.”, and the better approach says, “Surprise me with something delightful.”
- There’s also another type of user who is something of a curator themselves, and in that case the craft is just as important as the output. So maximizing choice for someone like that is not a detriment but instead part of the experience. The problem is too many people think they are this person, and obsess over minutia, when instead they should just relax and let someone else drive.