September 20, 2011

Bicycles and decision fatigue

First, homework: NYT article on decision fatigue (warning, it’s long). Done? Good.

I read this article and immediately thought about how it applies to something I deal with every day – that is, the myriad decisions needed to get a custom bicycle. Setting aside the decision to buy a bike in the first place, there is an awful lot that goes into the frame design (how should the bike fit? How should it handle?) but the parts and compatibility of said parts as well. There are numerous wheel, fork, headset, bottom bracket, and even seatpost standards to choose from – I could go on and on. Not to mention the fact that as the builder, I also have to make decisions about what to recommend, what size/shape of tubes to use, etc.

That’s a lot of decisions, and the research seems to suggest a couple of things:

-If you make all of the decisions about the bike at the same time, you’ll make good/thoughtful decisions on the early choices, but run out of mental energy to do the same for decisions that are made later in the process.

-Making decisions late in the day or on an empty stomach is probably a dumb idea.

-It’s easy to get talked into things the longer you spend on the process, and the more tired/hungry you are, especially if your job requires a lot of the same kind of decisionmaking (and most of y’all reading this are smart cookies, so I’m guessing your jobs require a lot).

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But science isn’t always intuitive. Taking that information into account, there are some easy steps that should help you (and me) make good decisions when designing a bike. I’m actually going to try to do this, too, so don’t be surprised if I tell you to call back in the morning!

-Do design work/decisionmaking early in the day and/or after rest or a meal. That will mean call me to discuss after a nice breakfast, or at the end of your lunch break – not in the evening or the middle of the afternoon.

-Don’t get caught up in minor details at the beginning of the process. If we spend a bunch of time discussing colors, or which height-adjust seatpost is best, that’s probably going to detract from the more important decisions, like what combination of seat tube angle/toptube length/stem length will put you in a good position to feel comfortable on the bike, or what trail number/chainstay length/BB height is going to ride the way you want. Here’s a quick list I came up with of priorities (comment if you disagree with the order, or have something I forgot to include):
1: Fit – BB/saddle/bar positioning.
2: Handling – positioning of wheels (front center, trail, bb height, chainstay length)
3: Frame rigidity/flexibility/strength – selecting appropriate tubes
4: Dropouts/brazeon configurations and parts compatibility (ie, direct mount derailleur? tapered steerer? through axle?)
5: For complete bikes, parts choices and backup options
6: Colors, decals, misc other details

-Make a list of priorities to discuss a day or two before making any decisions and prioritize them by importance. Then check them off in order and try not to deviate too much from your list. Of course new questions will come up and some will end up out of order, but a list is probably a good idea.

-If a discussion/decisionmaking session is going on longer than about half an hour to 45 minutes, stop and start again the next morning, or after lunch, so that you’re refreshed and ready to devote mental energy to the task again. If the process takes several sessions, that’s ok.

So, am I crazy to think a custom bike customer can actually end up with a better bike this way? You tell me, I personally think it’s worth a shot.