“Maybe” is one option too many

When I’m planning an event, and I use a web service like evite® to send invitations, that web service offers three choices:

  1. Yes, I’ll come
  2. No, I won’t
  3. Maybe—I’m not sure

“Maybe” is one option too many. As a best practice, we should dispense with it, just as we should replace five-star rating systems with four-star ones.

The problem with five-star rating systems

Let users choose from five stars, and they nearly always pick three. Three is the little bear’s porridge, neither too hot nor too cold. Three is neutral—a safe place to hide. Even in the virtual world, where nothing more consequential is being asked than an opinion, many people would rather equivocate than commit.

But present these same users with a four-star spread and you leave them no cover. Two stars out of four is not neutral. Neither is three stars out of four. Any star rating they choose will reflect an actual opinion. There is no place to hide. When there is no place to hide, courage arises out of necessity. Force people out of the brush, and they develop the backbone needed to state an opinion.

The trouble with “maybe”

As data, “maybe” is as useless as a three-star rating in a five-star system—and as hypnotically compelling to users. “Maybe” is a button that begs to be pushed.

Maybe is a magnet for neuroses. It salves guilt complexes and incites passive-aggressive avoidance behaviors.

“Maybe” sometimes means maybe, but it can also mean, “I’m not coming but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Or even, “I plan to come but I reserve the right to change my mind at the last minute if something better comes along.” Some people even use maybe to mean, “I won’t make dinner but I’ll come for dessert.”

When you invite twelve people to a restaurant dinner via a web service, at least four will say maybe. Do you reserve a table for twelve? When eight show up and range themselves at opposite ends of the table (“because other people might be joining us”) you have an awkward table filled with gaps. The empty seats haunt the meal, suggesting social failure.

But if you call the restaurant at the last minute to change the reservation to eight, two of the maybes will show up, like ants at a picnic. They’ll have nowhere to sit, and they’ll blame you. (“I told you I might come.”)

How can you know what “maybe” means? In the context of a web service, you can’t. All you can do is phone people and ask whether they’re leaning toward coming or not—in other words, try to move them from a five-star three to a four-star two or three. If they’re the passive-aggressive type, they will continue to evade the snare of commitment. “I’m probably coming,” they’ll say.

What is the solution? Use web services that offer a binary choice: “I’m coming” or “I’m not coming.” If you can’t find such a service, build one. If you run a web service that includes “maybe,” offer an optional two-choice (“no-maybe”) version.

When demand an outright yes or no, people generally supply it. They only equivocate when handed the means to do so. Form is content.

[tags]design, usability, invitations, fourstar, fivestar, rating systems[/tags]