Infographic Of The Day: The Insane Choices You Face At The Drugstore

Your local drugstore offers a cautionary tale about what happens when innovation runs amok.

Just 10 years ago, getting something for a headache or a cold at the drugstore was a simple enough affair: Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen? No longer: Drugstore aisles are now an eye-melting maze of choices, with products advertising everything from time-release to gel-caps to flavors to different dosages. I half-expect to find tooth-whitening Tylenol, one day soon.

But despite all the decision fatigue this induces, I’ll bet this infographic will come as a shock. Created by the OTC drug startup Help Remedies, it lays out all the options for headache pills that you typically find at the pharmacy:

[Click to enlarge]

At first sight, you might assume that this is merely an illustrative chart—that all the branches are simply hypothetical choices that one might face. But the chart, in fact, has real data in it—it just happens to be done so tiny that you can’t easily read the actual drugs on offer:

This, of course, is by design: The infographic is, after all, an advertisement for Help Remedies, a company which offers single-use packets at drugstores labeled simply with your symptoms. (I.E.: "I have a headache" or "I have allergies" or "I have a blister") Still, the chart does tell an interesting story about what innovation can do to a market at large.

Each of the myriad offerings laid out, whether its gel-caps or something else, was intended to produce a slight edge on a tightly packed, insanely competitive store shelf where virtually identical products can be found just an inch away. As drug makers compete for more and more differentiation, what you get is simply overwhelming. An innovation process that started with the original intention of offering better products leads to an overall product experience that’s horrible.

You can spy that trend in all manner of industries: Just think about what buying a computer was like 10 years ago. Or what buying a smartphone is like today. Even if you choose what brand you’re interested in, you’re faced with myriad choices about options and add-ons. It’s exhausting. Apple, of course, was probably one of the first companies to realize that endless options didn’t actually make consumers happier: They’re product line offers very few options, especially compared to someone like Dell, for example. Help Remedies works on the same idea. You’ve got to wonder: What other industries could benefit from a radical simplification?

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  • Cinthia Montagner

    Hi great work. Would you have similar design for other conditions, like Type 2 diabetes?

  • Cinthia Montagner

    Do you have infographics like this for other conditions - like diabetes?

  • christo

    Random coloured dots? Really? This approach might be great for the time poor Twitterer and information skimmer who can't see past the pretty pictures. A great idea to show complexity of choice, but badly executed.

  • Jff

    I hope choice wouldn't be taken away from me.  As someone who has allergies almost every day, all pills except benadryl have stopped working.  I love having choice!

  • Towdun

    Decision fatigue? In theory if I was stupid enough to consider all of the many options available then yes perhaps I'd have 'decision fatigue'. In practise however, I just buy the cheapest paracetamol. Anybody who has enough time to whine about 'decision fatigue' probably deserves to have it, if it even exists.

    The info graphic above must have been part of a presentation to potential investors, I see no other reason for its existence!

  • ScottDWitt

    There's a very interesting article on decision fatigue in the NY Times:

    Here's an excerpt describing the behavior of people selecting a German luxury car, notice the part about manipulating the order of choices to increase the final purchase price (by 1500 euros on average).

    "The car buyers — and these were real customers spending their own money — had to choose, for instance, among 4 styles of gearshift knobs, 13 kinds of wheel rims, 25 configurations of the engine and gearbox and a palette of 56 colors for the interior.As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2,000 at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer."

  • TM

    For the reasons listed by others, this graphic is awful. I felt compelled to comment for emphasis.

  • Esin

    This is a very very clear and simple article. Dear Cliff Kuang, thank you for making a strong point in a clear form. What I really liked was that you have suggestions and clear examples from different fields. 
    Have a nice day. 


  • Ethan Decker

    This is not an infographic: this is art. This is an ad. How is it not an infographic? 1. It's designed to be illegible, set in 0.0001 point font. At least the Compact OED came with its own magnifying glass (I still own a copy from 1971). 2. It's got drugs listed 5 times each down different pathways (AFAIK--I couldn't read the damn thing). 3. Its choice architecture isn't based on actual shopper behaviors, unless those shoppers are Rhesus monkeys. 4. The circles, which could've carried meaning in 3 dimensions (color, size, and placement) are placed decoratively around the image like ornaments on a tree.

  • Mcnally Interiors

    All those returned Peace Corps Volunteers can relate to "choice paralysis" upon returning to the US after service in developing countries...... as you mentioned - too many choices are exhausting and wastes time.  

  • Hamish MacEwan

    Am I right in thinking that the "choose by" level makes this an order of magnitude (~, 9x) larger than it needs to be?

    In any case, despite the risk of paralysis by analysis choice introduces, better too much than too little.

  • AC Peoples

    Advertising to the rescue. This is where brand & price positioning combined with word of mouth recommendations and previous experiences should narrow the field substantially. Mix in some behavioral economics theory related to choice architecture like, studies that point to choice scenarios where product differentiation is low and volume of choice high, the products situated right below the most expensive and right above the lowest cost are the favorites. Finally, toss in a few studies about the consumer’s feelings then consequent, overall effectiveness of generics drugs and the shelve feels more like 7-11 than a Walmart Superstore.

    Am I giving advertising and behavioral econ theory too much weight? Could it be that I am blinded by the industry that supplies my paycheck?

  • Kaylor Hildenbrand

    Oh no - I see a couple of typos of my own - now, that is going to give me a headache...

  • Kaylor Hildenbrand

    Having choices is good.  We are not a one-size all fits society.  However, creating line extensions that are only there for the sake of establishing a presence or that don't offer meaningful differentiation within a brand can be annoying and confusing to consumers.  This example also highlights the importance of effective and clear communication via package design.  I think HELP Remedies might be onto something, certainly appealing to a segement of consumer who appreciate having choices laid out in simple black and white, away from the clutter and noise of the crowd.