For better or worse, the periphery of your social circle would likely drift off without social media. For closer friends, every medium we connect through either supplements time spent in person or is a means to finding time together. As a supplement, socializing online and on apps can enrich our lives. However, in terms of enabling group decisions such as agreeing on get-together details, our tools haven’t advanced much. They’re still pretty bad.
Warped internet business-model incentive structures? Inherent limits to how much independent-minded friends are willing to cooperate? We’ve got ideas. We also believe we have a solution. To get there, let’s review the problem.
Coordinating friends’ preferences is hard
The leading complaint (or leader’s complaint) “Coordinating friends’ preferences is hard” is only a relevant problem in situations where it’s necessary for someone to assume an informal responsibility for coordinating their friends’ preferences in the first place. Unfortunately, in practice, this applies broadly to how most people make plans with friends using current tools.
It’s pretty uncommon for a group of friends to have a designated leader. Unless you’re playing out a zombie apocalypse fantasy, leading an ascent up a mountain, or it’s your birthday, friends usually only expect you to take full control over planning details if you’ll be hosting them.
Coordinating friends’ preferences is definitely someone’s chore when making a plan by email, text, or any other chat system. It can be a big challenge to tactfully arbitrate among different people’s availabilities and diverse preferences without being a bit arbitrary. If no one else steps up, the task of settling a conversation usually falls to whoever started it.
The need for someone in the group to coordinate the preferences of the rest is only obviated when the coordination aspect is built into the system itself — such as with a voting system, which, if well-designed, can take all the work and ambiguity out of integrating a group’s preferences.
However, the coordination task still doesn’t fully disappear, since current polling tools provide no objective endpoint, leaving it up to someone’s judgement call. Who decides if enough people have weighed in on a decision? How many of those invited can be left out for the sake of agreeing on a plan? Absent some mechanism in place to allow everyone in the group fair influence over that latter question, the actual moment of decision is at best messy, and at worst, contentious.
Too few participate in group decisions
This complaint illustrates a divide that not only degrades the decision process, but can ultimately damage friendships and cause resentment within a group. The root cause of this problem isn’t bad, lazy friends, it’s that group decision-making using current tools is a dysfunctional experience many prefer to avoid. We should try to empathize with both sides of this problem.
For those who commit to participate, it can feel like friends who are unresponsive or minimally-involved just don’t care enough to make the effort. When an intention to be considerate of everyone’s interests is blocked and rebuffed rather than appreciated, it can get frustrating.
Reducing the barrier to participation would involve making it clear upfront: 1) what the group is trying to decide, 2) what options are under consideration, 3) who’s in the group, 4) how much support each option has and from who, and 5) how close the group is to reaching a decision. Encouraging participation also means making it easier to indicate one’s preferences and suggest new options.
It can’t get any easier than sitting out the process and choosing to join or not after the rest of your friends have agreed on the details, so long as those details aren’t scattered and buried in a long reply chain, so that too must be possible for an inclusive experience.
More options make us less decisive
Freedom of choice is what you got.
Freedom from choice is what you want. — DEVO
If putting more options up for consideration mires a group in decision paralysis, the problem isn’t really too many options, it’s that the group doesn’t have a good method in place for determining their collective preferences for those options.
To determine collective preference fairly and accurately, a method that quantifies individual preferences for options is usually in order. In the smallest of groups and for the most inconsequential of decisions, just comparing vague qualitative individual feelings can sometimes suffice, but injecting more options into a planning conversation, when there’s no standard for comparing people’s preferences for those options, usually causes it to break down.
As an individual, you’re far more likely to experience decision paralysis (or at least be forced into strategic deliberation) if you believe that expressing support for one option means that you shouldn’t be allowed to support any other option. Getting stuck on thinking that this is the only right way to do things, which might feel natural if it’s the only system you’re familiar with, makes this a common point of confusion.
For most group decisions, the better approach is to just go through the available options and indicate which are acceptable to you. When each person selects whatever options they like, the option that works for the most people rises to the top. This method, called approval voting, is in contrast to being only allowed to select one option in plurality voting.
Too much messaging back and forth
As you’ll notice, the survey results in the above graph are all the responses from respondents between the ages of 18–34. As part of this cohort, we the authors feel that the problems reported here accurately (and acutely) reflect the difficulties making plans with friends we’ve experienced firsthand.
“Too much messaging back and forth” is an apt response on which to pivot to our complete data set — in which it becomes the dominant complaint at 32%, above “Coordinating friends’ preferences is hard” at 30% — and in which there is substantial variation in responses by age.
Perhaps expectedly, across ages, we see two factors increase: 1) a growing intolerance for making plans with friends on messaging-based platforms, and 2) a growing resistance to changing anything about how one plans, which would presumably include unwillingness to try new methods even if unhappy with the status quo. The converse of the second finding is that younger people are more likely to pioneer new social technologies.
Besides the age correlation, the levels at which people agreed with the top overall complaint “Too much messaging back and forth” were pretty high across the board. Other than the dim possibility of imposing artificial restrictions on how much participants are allowed to communicate on a channel (a quirky but likely misguided idea), the only way around “Too much messaging back and forth” is to center group communication in a different modality and stop relying on messaging as the primary medium for group decision-making.
Conclusions and solutions
Do people’s preferences already reflect this conclusion? We conducted a second poll to get a basic breakdown of decision method preferences.
It probably comes as no surprise that the main difficulties people face making plans with friends are a product of the main way in which they choose to make those plans: by talking, which includes communication by email, text, and chat systems. Why are we stuck in this catch-22? Are we all still in a bit of a sorry state when it comes to platforms that facilitate group decisions, or have some herds already wandered to greener pastures?
The inclination to talk things out is only natural. We’re a social species and we stand the best chance of remaining so if technology brings us together — online, sure, but also in-person — rather than sorting us into silos by identity and ideology. Talking is the the most universal implement in our social toolkit and any versatile platform for group decisions should include space for conversation.
However, the problems endemic to making plans with friends by piling up a stack of back and forth messages are real and they’re not going away. Coordinating preferences, lowering participation barriers, and enabling collective selection among multiple options are all more easily achieved with a voting system.
But voting doesn’t yet seem to be an attractive and effective enough alternative to achieve widespread use for casual social choices. In minor part, we believe this is because polls are often inserted into (and lost within) a stream of messages; the voting tool is typically an add-on to a chat system, when it could be the other way around.
In larger part, we think polling tools just aren’t that user-friendly, lacking features necessary for greater usability and wider adoption. Polls are for gauging opinion, a function that can bring a group closer to a decision, but they lack a mechanism for deciding, together, how many votes is enough. A voting system for group decisions should have a clear line beyond which an option becomes the group decision; a threshold the group could set collectively. Polls have nothing like that.
Some missing conveniences are relatively simple to add, such as being able to quickly see who supports each option, or highlighting all the options a friend prefers by touching their picture. A deeper improvement takes a conceptual shift: instead of bars and percentages (with one or more always at “100%”), in Sujjest we display competing options on a race track, a vote moves an option closer to the finish line, and the length of the track is in proportion to the number of decision participants. This makes planning with friends a bit more game-like.
Plans usually have multiple details, so why not let the group decide all of them? Sujjest is the first app to establish logical connections between related votes. When an option crosses the finish line in one race, only the preferences of those who agree to that decision will count in related decisions. For example, if a decision is made to meet up at 7, then only those participants who first agree to 7 will have a say in deciding where to meet. This makes it possible for you to invite any number of friends to decide any number of related details together, sequentially or in parallel, with zero confusion about who’s in agreement.
To make group decisions fast, fair, and fun, we’re putting these features together. If there are other features you’d like to see, or other difficulties you face in making group decisions that we haven’t yet covered here, we want to hear about it. For real.
Is one of your squad goals to expand your posse abilities? If so, feel free to share this with them. We’ll have a beta out soon! If you want to be one of the first of your friends on the app, add your email to our wait list at sujjest.com Tweets @sujjestion, email email@example.com, or comment here. Thanks!