The Insighter

June 2009

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Neo Insight's e-newsletter on Customer Experience topics and techniques.

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Upcoming events

July 15, 2009 Social Media Breakfast – Ottawa, ON, Canada
July 19-24, 2009 HCI International – Human-Computer Interaction Conference, San Diego
Sept 12, 2009 TEDx – Toronto
Sept 15-16, 2009 IDEA2009 – Information Architecture Institute conference – Toronto
Sept 15-18, 2009 UX Week – Adaptive Path's User Experience Conference, San Francisco

The paradox of choice: too much spoils a task

Choice is good, but too many choices can be bad. 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 author of The Paradox of Choice 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. 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.

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 people find too many items, they may not click any, but instead refine their search further. On search results pages, people 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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Save 300 million page views by improving usability

Parents with kids in college are the target of some important usability improvements. In the U.S., at least 15 million parents and students apply for financial aid using the FAFSA form annually (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The U.S. Department of Education is in the process of reducing the length of this common task-path from 30 screens to 10 this year, having recognized that FAFSA is an onerous process.

This could become a great example of the impact of usability on top tasks. Multiply 20 screens saved times 15 million people. Even if every person only visits the FAFSA form once, this usability improvement will save 300 million page views, 300 million pages having to be read, 300 million authenticated events. Think of the impact to the economy of freeing people from 300 million frustrating moments so they can get back to their jobs or families. The economy could recover an equivalent of ten million hours of productivity lost. That would be more than 5,000 person-years. Compare that to how difficult it is to add 5,000 new jobs to the economy. The time is right for more usability projects that focus on high-volume top tasks. The impact of usability is right up there with other economic stimulus packages.

So we might wonder "Why did the original FAFSA task path require 30 screens?". The answer is: because the costs to 15 million users were never accounted for. For government websites as well as for commercial websites, the users' time and effort are almost never costed into any website business case. This is changing. The U.S. government has been influenced by Customer Carewords projects. A U.S. Federal Web Managers Council white paper "Putting Citizens First" says citizen productivity is the basis for assessing the impact of website usability on the U.S. economy. Many websites and organizations would benefit their users and themselves by adopting this approach. It is a step towards managing tasks instead of just managing websites.

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Building skills for managing top tasks

How do you organize a web team to support your users' top tasks? What roles and responsibilities are required on a web team? What skills should be developed? What professional development objectives should be set? How can dispersed teams leverage skills? How should their progress be measured? Managers of large websites are challenged as they steer their organizations to be more user-centred.

Building new skills to support users' top tasks requires a change of mindset. Web teams have been managing web content, but the mindset is changing to managing user tasks instead. Like seeing a Necker Cube for the first time – your mindset has to change for you to see a three dimensional cube instead of just lines on paper. Here we describe some of the skills involved as people change the mindset to a focus on top tasks:

Changing skills to manage users' top tasks


managing content:
managing tasks:

Writing links into paragraphs

Writing for the web

Writing informative documents

Editing to 15 words in sentences

Making key links easier to scan

Adding only text necessary to tasks

Writing good links, titles, and headlines

Editing down to the first 2 words in links


Authoring HTML

Being good at creating content

Authoring task-paths

Knowing when NOT to create content


Hits or traffic

Increasing time on site

Segmenting the audience

QA by web manager

Performance on most frequent tasks

Reducing the number of clicks or steps

Prioritizing top tasks for key users

Testing task performance with users

Organizing Structuring directories or branching Designing task paths and client journeys

Making home pages about you

Arriving at the "front door"

Writing "welcome" text, and about mission and vision

Putting text in the primary scanning area about what users can do on the website

Making home pages about key tasks

Arriving deep in the site, from search, etc.

Relentlessly focusing on users' tasks.

Putting key links in the primary scanning area that allow users to get right to their tasks

Differentiating Competitor analysis Comparative task analysis

Task Management is really an overall change of mindset. It changes the focus so web teams can focus the user experience on the users’ top tasks. It changes our work too, so you can focus your slim budgets on the really important things that end-users need to do.

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Customer-Centric Index

Gerry McGovern, in partnership with Neo Insight, is offering a Customer-Centric Index to qualified organizations – to identify strategic priorities of what's most annoying your customers. It is a unique 2-minute poll that allows you to focus your scarce resources on the areas where they will achieve maximum improvement and impact. Here are a couple ways to start:

Contact us soon. This is a limited time offer.

Watch the webinar (WMV: 19 MB: 23 minutes)

Quote of the month

“The essence of web management is observation …
... the future of the web is psychology not technology”

Gerry McGovern

If you have any comments on The Insighter, or ideas on usability topics you'd like to hear about, send us an email with your comments.

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