The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice
Decision Theory
is a diverse subject that attempts to research, analyze, and sometimes predict what decisions people will make when presented with certain choices. The simpler the choices are, the easier the decision is to make (and predict). Would you rather have $100 or a sharp stick in your arm? Not exactly hard to predict. Would you let me poke you in the arm with a sharp stick if I give you $100? Not quite as easy to predict.

If there are a variety of choices and they are equally desirable, the decision becomes more difficult to predict simply because the decision is based more on personal preference. Will your customer choose a blue one or a red one? It depends on what they prefer (although in the Western world, blue is generally a more popular color than red).

As a retailer, you want to be sure you offer enough variety to satisfy a broad spectrum of customers. However, the way you PRESENT that variety is critical because, when presented with too many choices, your customer may suffer what is known as The Paradox of Choice, a concept studied by psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less”. What happens is that, when too many choices are presented at the same time, a customer may become unable to make any choice at all. This could be from what is known as “analysis paralysis” in which they are constantly comparing, trying to figure out the best choice, or it could be simply that they are overwhelmed by the amount of input and cannot choose.

How does this relate to you and your website?

Simply put, fewer choices are better. A rule of thumb in User Interface and usability design for many years has been the “rule of 7”, which says that you should never give the user more than 7 choices on any one menu or page. If you do, you risk losing them. If you have 3000 items in your online store, break them down into categories and subcategories so they can be navigated logically. If you have 40 pages on your website, organize them into a logical hierarchical structure that will allow your visitors easy navigation that makes sense.

Here are some other quick tips and basic rules for not losing your visitors:

  • Lots of text on a page?
    Insert subheadings, pullouts, pictures, and other elements that will break the text down into shorter snippets. 
  • Rule of Reversability
    Always give your visitors a way to get back to the link they just clicked on within your site and we DON’T mean the BACK button. Navigation within a subsection of your site should be just as easy and logical as on the main page.
  • Rule of Least Surprise
    Sometimes in design it’s fun to do things differently, but if you want to be sure your customers do not get frustrated you need to make sure things on your website work the same way they work everywhere else on the web AND they work the same way every time. There is a time and place (and a good reason) for using the thrill of discovery, but your e-commerce website is not it. A corollary to this rule is…
  • The Rule of Bliss, also known as The Luxury of Ignorance
    This simply means don’t overload your visitors with things they probably don’t care about, don’t want to know, and won’t use anyway. Allow them the “luxury of ignorance”. Keep the focus on your primary goal and avoid adding “fluff”.

If your website is catering to Mobile users (and if not, why not?), these rules are doubly important. Mobile device users need fast, simple navigation that leads them where you want them to go in such a manner that they don’t have to stop and try to figure out what to do next. Mobile is where one-click purchasing reigns supreme! Make it happen and you will see definite, provable, and reproducible results.

What ways can you think of to make YOUR website more “user friendly”?


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