Deciding how to decide: How to deal with overwhelming decisions in tiny house design.

Photo of tiny house interior bench area

How many design decisions can you spot in this photo? – Photo by Tammy Strobel

Recently at a restaurant, my partner Tammy had a difficult time deciding what she wanted to order from the menu. Her difficulty in making a choice reminded me of all of the choices that went into building and designing the tiny house. As renters, Tammy and I had always chosen the part of town we wanted to live in and let our feelings help us decide which apartment felt right. Once in the rented apartment we accepted the building as it was. We added creature comforts to fit our aesthetics and our preferences but we never had to consider detail of the infrastructure.

When designing the tiny house we were overwhelmed with choices that we had never considered before. What we focused on seemed to expand, and soon we had to ask:

Tammy quickly abandoned me. It was hard enough for her to decide what she wanted to eat in a restaurant much less deciding what furnishings would be permanently installed in our tiny home; and so it became my job to narrow down the options.

I enjoyed the challenge of design, but with the thousands of decisions that lay before me, I knew I needed help to strategize. I needed to decide how I would decide. “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz was a great intro to this topic and helped me understand Tammy’s decision paralysis. Jonah Lehrer’s book “How we decide” gave some me some fantastic insight and tools to use in making my decisions on tiny house furnishings. Both books cite research that finds:

  • The logical portion of our brain can quickly become overwhelmed once the variables (choices) exceed about seven.
  • We should encourage reliance on instinctual emotions for decision making (this mechanism can handle millions of variables)
  • It’s important to understand decision weaknesses. These emotional blind spots include things like loss aversion and normative social influence.

To simplify my choices I tried to listen to my instincts and look for examples while keeping in mind my logical needs and budget. Each area of the house had different needs so I tried to consider each area as a separate project instead of, for example, trying to find a lighting type that would be a compromise fit for everything. Also, I tried to relax a bit since perfect is the enemy of good. As humans, we adapt quickly to our surroundings and soon rarely notice the details of our routine environment. Further, nothing is permanent. If I really hated something or wanted to improve it, I could save some money and replace it the future.

I no longer take home furnishing details for granted. Next time you are in your home, a public building, or staring at tiny house examples, try to notice a few details. For instance, maybe consider which door handles were chosen and why. After going through the process of choosing tools and materials for the tiny house I can now appreciate the small details I find in other homes. I now pay attention to how things work and try to imagine the designer’s rationale. It’s a fun challenge, but Tammy still thinks I’m crazy. ;)

Microsoft Surface Pro, A User Review

Last spring my 7 year old Macbook Pro was increasingly showing signs of age. The hard drive was failing, the processor was struggling to manage new software updates, and things kept breaking. I’d done my best to keep my favorite tool running. I overhauled the computer when it needed repairs using the wonderful sites and for tools, parts, and instructional guides. I upgraded the RAM and the hard drive but this only delayed the inevitable. It was time to let this faithful companion go. I adopted my partner’s 6 year old Macbook (after she upgraded) and I kept this hardware alive with a similar strategy. Unfortunately this computer was also near its end and this Fall I decided it was time to upgrade. I don’t take upgrading lightly, but I had run out of options and I needed a new computing tool.

A lot had changed since my last upgrade. Last time, I replaced my Dell desktop PC with a smaller and lighter Apple laptop for portability. This time, even smaller and lighter touch screen “tablets” are being to dominate the market. Hardware specifications are great to reference but with so many choices it really came down to what I needed. My computer had taken on a new roles as a work tool, a communication tool, and an entertainment device. As such I needed multiple ways to interact with the device. Of course I could have purchased several devices to fill these needs, but as a simple living advocate, I value multipurpose tools that can do many things well. I really loved the simplicity of the touch screen interface but most of these tablet-computers were designed for entertainment and lacked the computing power and file management required for professional work. Based on this desire to have both of these features I decided to purchase a Microsoft Surface Pro.

Switching from a Mac back to a PC, much to the ire of friends. ;)

Switching from a Mac back to a PC, much to the ire of friends. ;)

The Surface Pro is a bit of a new medium being a hybrid between a tablet and an ultrabook laptop. For reference, the hardware specifications on the Surface Pro are nearly identical to Apple’s MacBook Air. I won’t list “specs” here, instead I find it more interesting to hear how someone feels while using it. A lot of the Surface Pro reviews have been lackluster mainly because, as a reviewer at the Guardian artfully put it, “…powerful, but too forward thinking.”  As folks have been using this new medium, and as the young software infrastructure improves, there seems to be a change in sentiment. Below is one of my favorite reviews describing this shift in perspective:

The windows 8.1 interface is a new one and it takes a bit of getting used to…but like this fellow, I find myself loving it more and more as I learn to use it. I really dig touch gestures and all of the ways I can interact with the device. I can touch, type, mouse-click, and use a stylus.

I wanted a tablet experience for my new computer after having so much fun with iPads and my iPhone. I loved the intuitive interaction of using my fingers and reading digital magazines on a tablet. However, I realized I still needed a computer because the iPad doesn’t have a mouse. Not having a mouse doesn’t seem like a big deal until you need to accomplish fine/precise tasks like editing text documents, and correcting errors on website forms. Keyboard arrows can only go so far in this area. Also the iPad is a bit limited when it comes to organizing files and computer processing power (editing videos or running apps/programs simultaneously). The Surface Pro handles both of these concerns very well and I love the split screen feature where I can view two or three programs at once.

The Microsoft doesn’t have a huge app store yet, however it is growing as a young platform, and it makes up for it with access to legacy windows programs. Anything that can run on a full windows desktop can also be run on this device. Also, since I already have an iPhone, I have access to many of the fun and creative apps that I would normally feel iPad jealousy over.

The new version of this computer (the Surface Pro 2) has addressed the main concerns of limited battery life, limited storage, and kickstand angle. It is indeed a bit heavy to hold in one hand at 2 lbs but I compensate for this by using a workstation stand I built and by cradling it with my legs and knees up when sitting. I find it amazing that just a 1/2 pound difference between the iPad and Surface Pro can make this big of a difference in hand fatigue. It is important to note however that in that 1/2 pound difference, this computer has the power of a full laptop and so it is a bit unfair to compare it to an iPad except to reference a relative “tablet feel.”

Although I love the genius idea of the magnetic keyboard “type-cover” I have held off mainly because of the price. Also, I’d love it if this keyboard had Bluetooth so that it could be detached and used wirelessly with my workstation stand. Microsoft does have a fun minimalist accessory for this problem right now. But, like I said before, it is pricey, especially when I purchased a Logitech wireless keyboard with touch pad mouse for only $29 or about 15% of the price of the Microsoft accessories above combined to accomplish the same task. I tend to not use laptops on my lap because of the bad ergonomics so a disconnected keyboard wasn’t a sacrifice for me.

The biggest perk that makes this tablet/computer stand out to me is number of ways I can interact with it. I find myself seamlessly alternating between touch-gestures, typing, and using the mouse without consciously realizing the transition. If you are curious to see these interactions I recorded a 5 minute screen-cast demonstration of the Surface Pro that you can view.

It seems funny as I write this but the stylus is another natural feature that I didn’t know I was missing until I had it. The stylus makes it easy to hand write notes in meetings, edit documents, and my biggest favorite: signing documents. One hassle I had in the past was trying to sign documents from an emailed file. In the past I would have to print out the form, sign it with an ink pen, scan it, transfer the scanned file back to my computer, and finally email it back to the sender. I tried signing with my mouse on a PC or using my finger with an iPad but it always came out looking like I was a kindergarten student first learning how to write. Now I can simply open the document, precisely sign it with my “pressure sensitive” stylus, and send it back instantly. Yes, Macs have a similar feature in the Preview app of scanning an image of a signature but it’s buried under several menus. The stylus makes it easy and it has opened up my imagination as to what else I could use my computer for like drawing.

I’ve been using my Surface Pro for about 4 months now and I love it. I highly recommend this computer to anyone looking to invest in a new computer. This new tool fit wells with the constraints of the tiny house and I find it replacing even more tasks than I had intended. Let me know if you have questions and I’d be happy to answer them.