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Quantum Quandary

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Quantum Quandary

It’s great to have choices, but having too many options threatens our ability to make a decision


January 29, 2018
This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Pro Remodeler.

You’ve invited 10 people to dinner. How many different seating arrangements are possible if you seat everyone around a single table? 

It seems like a simple problem, but you quickly realize the complexity when you try to solve it by trial and error. Start by seating yourself at the head of the table with Guest A to your left, followed by Guest B to her left, Guest C to his left, and so on around the table. That’s one arrangement. In a second arrangement, you stay put, but Guest A switches places with Guest B, while everyone else stays put. In a third arrangement, Guest A switches again, this time with Guest C. And so it goes until Guest A ends up on your right, at which point we start the whole seat-switching scenario with Guest B.

Finding the answer is easier using a formula you may remember from high school math class: n! (n factorial) = 10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. When you tap that into your phone’s calculator app you discover that, contrary to your guess of a few hundred or even a few thousand arrangements, there are actually more than 3.6 million possible ways to arrange 10 people around a table (3,628,800 to be exact).

I was reminded of this little math party trick by an article in which The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman describes his visit to an IBM lab to talk about quantum computing, a Star-Wars-like technology breakthrough that is poised to revolutionize computing power and enable us to solve what Friedman calls “big versions” of the dinner guest problem.

The Paradox of Choice

Quantum computers won’t enter the mainstream for 10 years or more, which is too bad because my wife and I really need one now to help us choose tile for our shower, lighting for our kitchen, paint colors for our walls, and all the rest of the n! number of products selections our remodeling contractor is waiting for. We are living proof that Barry Schwartz was right when he wrote in The Paradox of Choice that more is less. It’s great to have choices, but having too many options not only prolongs the time it takes to decide, but threatens our ability to choose at all. And while websites such as Houzz.com help homeowners to visualize products in context, they are not as useful as they used to be because the millions of project images posted online just add to the paralysis.

I don’t have the answer, but I know what has been helpful and what has not.

Online is not enough. We did a lot of research online, but website quality varies wildly. Many manufacturers are still just maintaining digital catalogs with poor photography, too few images, inadequate product descriptions, and site architecture designed for staff, not consumers. The best sites have a “compare” feature and a way to save stuff you find. Chances are, your clients’ search results will include aggregated product info on sites such as Wayfair and Amazon, which are often better organized and more informative than others. But they will raise client pricing questions that you should be prepared to answer.

We still need showrooms. Whether or not augmented reality becomes commonplace, it still helps to see products in person. Having your own showroom to display your favorite product options is ideal, but supplier showrooms for lighting, windows, and K&B products worked well for us. Our best experiences occurred when our remodeler directed us to speak with a particular person. Even better would be to accompany clients to the showroom.

Pricing matters. Because product selection is always a compromise between what clients want and what they can afford, you can’t escape requests for comparative pricing. The least expensive option doesn’t always win, but people need numbers to help them evaluate trade-offs. 

Until quantum computers are as commonplace as mobile phones, your clients will struggle with product selection overwhelm. Learn how to help.


written by

Sal Alfano

Executive Editor

Sal Alfano is executive editor for Professional Remodelersal.alfano@gmail.com, 202.365.9070

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