Choice is good. Right?

We make lots of choices every day.

We live at a time when the global marketplace affords us access to an unprecedented range of choices. Be it choosing the food we eat or the car we drive; the phone we own or our next holiday destination; the course we study or the charities we support. There is an abundance of choice for each of these and for almost anything else you should desire.

How do you feel—really feel about this? Confident and relaxed, grateful for the variety … Or anxious and overwhelmed; worried about making the wrong decision and frequently reverting to safe, known options.

The paradox of choice

In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz cites several studies where reducing the number of choices available to test subjects increases participation. One of these involves a food store offering customers the opportunity to taste a new range of 24 jams. Where all 24 flavours were available for tasting only 3% of those who tried the jam went on to purchase a jar. When only 6 flavours were available for tasting, 30% of people who tried the jam went on to buy a jar. Evidently some choice is good.

Schwartz goes on to describe how too much choice can lead to psychological distress and result in a negative impact on emotional well-being over the long term.

The jam study produces an example of choice paralysis. Decision making increases in complexity when subject to a large number of options. The likelihood of experiencing stress, of feeling anxious and overwhelmed, rises too. Confronted with too much choice, many people stick to what they know, taking decisions that they know have been successful before. In the absence of a safe choice, indecision reigns: people often abstain—they choose not to participate. In this case they choose not to buy the jam.

Eating out

Typically restaurant menus have a large number of dishes to choose from. Think back to the last time you went to a new restaurant. When you picked up the menu, what did you look for first … familiar dishes? I suspect that many of you used this list of familiar dishes as a filter, simplifying the decision making process based on previous experience at other restaurants. You made a safe choice.

And if nothing on the menu was familiar, did you find the decision a little more fraught than you felt it really ought to be? It’s difficult to extract ourselves from this situation in a socially acceptable way, so we are forced into making a choice. That experience is stressful.

Finally, have you ever vetoed a good restaurant, because you looked at the menu in advance and nothing jumped out? If you answered yes, this is choice paralysis at work again. Rather than take a risk on ordering an unfamiliar dish that we might not like (but equally, we might like), we often choose to remove the need to make that decision entirely.

Moderating choice using design

The impact of choice is an important lesson for all designers. In the context of the web it means keeping navigation options, form fields, search results and product catalogues to a minimal, useful set. Reduction may not always be possible; however there are plenty of techniques for filtering and grouping options to create the impression that there are fewer choices to be made.

In today’s world of iterative web development, a measure of self-control must be exercised to maintain this simplified state in the long run. It is tempting to add one more feature or one more option with each new release. This only leads to what Fred Hirsch calls the tyranny of small decisions—where we progressively add just one more option to the mix and eventually find ourselves overwhelmed by choice. The result is a website that becomes bloated and loses focus; where customers may find themselves overwhelmed by choice, and so choose not to participate (or choose to participate with a competitor offering a simpler experience) … this is a much easier path to take on the web, than when already seated in a crowded restaurant with friends!

Maintaining a simplified structure of choices requires a two-pronged attack:

  • To sweat the details of all new features and content, making sure that they provide real benefits to both the business and the customer.
  • To regularly monitor existing features and content, and remove those that no longer pull their weight.

Ultimately providing choice is good … to a point.

Keep in mind Dieter Rams‘ principal that good design is as little design as possible. Applied here it should mean focussing on the essential functionality of the web product; and to avoid the burden of featuritis, which only serves to add complexity to the customer’s experience. The goal should be to use design to keep things honest and simple.