IBM Watson Tradeoff Analytics takes the guesswork out of decision-making

Weigh alternatives systematically with a dynamic tool that helps you make the best possible choice

Ateret Anaby-Tavor
Editor's note: this article is by Ateret Anaby-Tavor, Manager of Decision Analytics at IBM  Watson Group in Haifa, Israel

How do you decide what product or service to purchase? Some people research first; some let an advertisement or a salesperson convince them; others make a random choice. You may have sometimes felt a twinge of doubt, felt that maybe you should have given it more thought. It’s a tough job to systematically compare, weigh all the relevant pros and cons, and then confidently make the best possible choice with minimal compromises.

My team in Haifa developed Watson Tradeoff Analytics to help people make better, more educated decisions using formal methods. These formal methods are the techniques and tools we created to model decisions as mathematical entities, and include optimizations, graph algorithms, and computational geometry, among others. We initially developed the project inside IBM Research and it is now part of the Watson services platform -- open to developers and anyone who wants to use it inside their environment or applications.

“Behind the scenes” analytics: not just another comparison tool 

A tradeoff is defined as a balance, or compromise, between two desirable but incompatible features. Without a formal method of comparison, the outcome will probably be a gamble, because it’s hard to make sense of or even realize what we’re compromising on. This is especially hard since the decision is often made between multiple options. Choosing a car, house, financial product, school, or job candidate are just a few examples where there is generally no single choice that is best in every way.

For example, anyone can go to a website and compare cellphones by choosing criteria to get a list of models. If price is the deciding factor, you could just choose the cheapest from the list of options. But it’s not that simple. Almost every decision we make involves more than one consideration. Even if the price factor is important, will you just purchase the cheapest phone? Not likely. The screen size, manufacturer, camera resolution, color, weight, battery life, and customer reviews all matter to varying degrees.

No one wants to compromise more than they have to. The bottom line is, it’s hard to compare because each option has its own advantages - and sometimes they are at odds with each other. This is exactly where the Tradeoff Analytics tool comes in. It gives a visual and interactive representation of data so any user, not just mathematicians, can easily navigate choices to compare. The tool takes into account different objectives, and highlights the ones that you determine as most important.

Say you use the Tradeoff Analytics tool to search for that cellphone. You can define each one of the parameters that are important to you without thinking about potential conflicts. One click translates all that information into an easy to read polygon-shaped map. Rest assured that Tradeoff Analytics already filtered out the cellphones that are inferior in all your objectives. Now, all you have to do is scan your top options on the map, then click, compare, and decide.

Watson Tradeoff Analytics compares cellphone options

Each circle represents one of your options, with the parameters you’ve defined, translated into color-coded segments. The visual clearly shows which parameters are maximized and which are minimized based on your preferences. Lets look at the “price” and “size” objectives. On the map, price is dark blue and screen size is green, and we want to minimize price while finding the device with maximum screen size. You might see that one phone is better on the size criteria but it is expensive, and this is indicated by a big green slice (and a small dark blue slice) of the associated pie.

Another phone might fit the requirements of weight and price, but is less optimal in terms of screen size. The bigger the “slice,” the more that product answers that specific requirement, and highlights the trade-off when compared to another option. You not only get assistance on which phone to examine, the tool also offers the reasoning so you will never miss a valuable option. 

The beta version of the tool is now available, free on Bluemix for anyone to try. See our Getting Started guide, and try the demo here.

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