Paradox of Choice: Too much spoils a task

Choice is good, but too many choices is not. People quickly compare and choose from a few well-constructed links, but get frustrated and rapidly abandon pages with an over abundance of poorly differentiated links. The web is meant to offer choices but too often we see web pages designed with more choices than the average user can handle.

Barry Schwartz authored the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. He makes a clear case that too many choices lead to paralysis, poor decisions, and dissatisfaction. We see the impact in usability testing. Too many choices lengthen task completion time, or keep users from completing tasks.

The principles are based on research by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. In More Isn’t Always Better, Barry Schwartz describes the conundrum in their experiment about jars of jam. Consumers want a choice; grocers offer many; but adding more options gets complicated. In Iyengar and Lepper’s study, people who were presented a larger number of jams were one-tenth as likely to buy.

Good design carefully considers the range of choices at every stage of a task path. Knowing your Top Tasks (the key reasons people visit your website) helps you optimize the number of choices you offer along the way.

Here are the key places you can harm your user experience by offering too many choices:

When users search
When people use a search engine, half the time they will only scan the first three search results. They compare quickly and make a choice. If it looks like a search result has information that will help them, they click. But they also may miss a better page because it is too far down in search results.

If their search finds too many items, people may not click any, but instead too many choices will immediately cause them to refine their search further. On search results pages, people actively avoid too much choice. So make sure your key landing pages show up in the first few results. Know what words users type into search engines. Prioritize those words – identify your Customer Carewords – and use them in page titles, headings, and links.

“The impact of three choices (vs. two) is not a linear difference,
nor is the impact of ten choices five times that of two choices” Barry Schwartz

When users arrive at your site
When people land on your website, their goals should be supported by navigational menus, but too often they are distracted by too many choices. Prioritize with users what their most important tasks are, and only support those in navigational menus. Maybe your site has multiple databases, and you are tempted to offer different navigation for each. Yet, offering more than one model for navigation can pose too many choices. Users will try to right away size up what they can do when they arrive. Multiple navigational models or multiple hierarchies force users to compare the options. If the navigation is in different places, such as the left side, right side, and at the top, it causes more delay as users look around the screen at the options. If you offer more than one search box, keep it in the same general area.

“Clutter and overload are not an attribute of information;
they are failures of the design” Edward Tufte

When users can take more than one path
One result of too many choices in navigational menus is too many task paths. This often results from too many cross links and branches within second and third-level pages, as people click deeper into the site. Offering multiple paths to identical content seems like a natural way to serve a diversity of audiences. Unfortunately it doesn’t take very many path options before users feel like they are “going in circles” or sense that they have “been here before”.

People want to quickly scan, find the link relevant to their task, and click. If they encounter many choices they slow down and start to compare them. When people see several links that seem to promise the same thing, they spend too much time thinking about the difference between them, and often forget what they came to do in the first place. It is like having several helpful guides fighting for a chance to show the visitor around.

“Capability seems way more important than usability
…but in practice the reverse is true” Barry Schwartz

When users encounter duplicate content
Users get frustrated when they find redundant web content, especially if content is not well-differentiated, or if it is not cross-linked. Users quickly try to get a sense of a website as they accomplish their task, but may have difficulty if they discover slight variations of content in different parts of the website.

Usually duplicate web content results from poor coordination between web authors, or if sub-groups within organizations make slight modifications for their own purposes. Another reason content may appear to be duplicated is when information from different timeframes is offered. A calendar of courses from a previous year may be necessary for students of that year, but most people will get confused and frustrated as they compare search results or links to it and the current course calendar. If your internal search engine lists pages of similar information that changes through time (e.g. policies, laws, etc.), consider ordering search results by date. Hide less-relevant older content from being indexed by your internal search engine. Archive content that is beyond its shelf-life.

“There is no way that adding options
will do anything other than raise people’s expectations”
Barry Schwartz

When the overall user experience is toxic
Even if an optimal number of choices are offered at every step above, the overall experience of having to make too many choices can still make people feel overloaded, confused or lost.

Barry Schwartz contends that too many choices causes people to regret the choices they do make, to spend time comparing a choice they passed up, to escalate their expectations, and to blame themselves. You can help. Good design can help people feel effective and efficient. Keep your users’ task paths in mind as you manage the number of choices you present to them at every step – search, arrival, navigation, and destination. Plan for usability testing. Observe people doing tasks on your site, and see for yourself when users get hung up on too many choices. Identify your top tasks and measure how well your site supports them using appropriate Task Performance Indicators. Let us show you. It is more cost-effective than ever.

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