How Humans Choose

Before having my son, I had to buy a stroller. There are so many strollers. Big ones. Small ones. Folding ones. Different colors. Different designs. Ones that transform. Used ones. New ones.

I needed a stroller and the idea of picking the wrong one gave me anxiety. What if I spend too much money? What if I spend too little? What if I regret buying the wrong one because of some unforeseen requirement? I was paralyzed. Of all the experiences before having a baby, this is probably the most prominent thing I remember. To this day, it still gives me anxiety.

Unfortunately, decision paralysis is not specific to strollers. In 2000, psychologists Iyengar and Lepper did a study where they sold jam in a grocery store. First, they offered 24 types of jam. On a later date, they offered six types of jam in that same display.

What were the results? The larger display attracted more interested buyers but they were less likely to buy. When they did buy, it took them longer to choose. This is also known as Hick’s Law.

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Another lens through which to look at this problem is information overload. Information overload is the paradox that the more information and options we provide to our users, the more considerations they have to make, which actually makes it more difficult to make a choice. By providing users with more choices, product designers can actually make it harder on them, not easier, to make a decision and be satisfied with your product. With more possible choices, users are more likely to make mistakes and ultimately make decisions they’re less happy with.

Examples

cheesecake.jpeg

Source: Cheesecake

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Source: CodeAnalogies

The Emotional Cost of Information Overload

Hick’s Law and information overload may not seem particularly groundbreaking. Who cares if it’s the wrong jam? However, if you’re choosing from 50 Vanguard retirement plans, and you don’t contribute because you’re overwhelmed by the number of options, it could impact on your ability to retire.

Barry Schwartz, Psychologist, gave a TED talk on the paradox of choice. He alludes to this study and emphasizes the cost of too many choices. “Not only does this mean people are going to have to eat dog food when they retire because they don’t have enough money put away, it also means that making a decision is so hard they pass up significant matching money from the employer … up to $5,000,” said Schwartz.

Choice can also take an emotional toll. Imagine you’re at a restaurant, like the one we mentioned earlier. There are close to fifty items on the menu and at least 10 are something you’re genuinely interested in. After 15 minutes of consideration, you order a dish. How do you feel? How would you feel if that decision was between three options instead?

The more choices, the more missed opportunities to consider. And the more missed opportunities to consider, the more regret you feel.

How to Help People Make Satisfying Decisions with Product Design

Below are a few of my suggestions for preventing your customers from feeling the dread and confusion of information overload, based on my years of experience as a product designer at HubSpot.

1. Run weekly design critiques.

“We built a new feature. Let’s add it to the global navigation.” A teammate suggested this to me a while back.

Would our feature be highly discoverable? Yes. The global navigation is the most highly prioritized, most visible part of our entire product. Would it get a lot of usage? Because of the placement, our hypothesis is yes. Was it as important to our users as the other items in that navigation? Unclear. This was a new feature and we had no user research data and no behavioral data.

Will one more navigation item really impact our users that much?

Here’s the thing. I feel very protective of our customers. We know the majority of them work in small and medium-sized companies and wear many hats. They’re incredibly busy and it’s our job to advocate for them in these situations.

If I add one more feature to the navigation, it means I add one more decision for every customer. The same goes for any additional text, icon, button, link, color, field, or radio button anywhere in our product. It means a little more anxiety, a little more paralysis, and a little more potential regret on top of all the other decisions they have to make in their daily lives. What should they make for dinner? What should they buy mom for her birthday? Which pipe should they buy to fix the plumbing issue in their bathroom?

Our User Experience (UX) team takes pride in this value and we run weekly design critiques to ensure we hold each other accountable to changes we’ve made, and provide feedback where needed so no UX changes are being made in a vacuum.

2. Be thoughtful about how often people use your design

The truth is, we’re constantly striking a balance between limiting choice for our customers and giving them access to the things they need. Additionally, that balance varies based on how often customers use our designs.

When I designed for the content management system team, the majority of my users interacted with my designs once or twice a month. This meant that every time they went to build out a landing page, they looked at that design with fresh eyes. They had to relearn everything each time. Some forgot how to perform key actions.

In contrast, the majority of my CRM users (sales reps, sales ops, and sales managers) are in my product every single day, all day. Because they’re in my designs so often, they remember where everything is and they feel comfortable with more choices and more information. This is a stark contrast with the marketers who make landing pages once or twice a month. The more customers use a design, the more choices they feel comfortable making. Miller’s Law lays down this framework stating that the average person can only keep between five and nine items in their working memory, so I try to bear this in mind, along with my users’ professions and needs, when I’m thinking about or proposing product changes.

3. Analyze user data and feedback on a regular basis

To find the right number of choices for your design, one must look inward. Here is what I recommend:

  1. Pull behavioral data to understand 3–5 key user flows in each design. These flows should be the thesis of why your design exists. They are the critical paths for customers in this view.

  2. Get on a call or meet in person with customers and have them to walk through those key flows while speaking out loud. Include both new customers and experienced customers. How quickly can they make a decision? Do they seem anxious? Do they regret their decision? You may have given them too many choices. Are they impatient? Annoyed they have to go somewhere else to do what they need to do? Bored? Maybe you can add choices to your design.

4. Put in the work and do right by your customers

Analyzing the results can be time-consuming. It’s easy to toss a word in here, another color in there, and a feature in the navigation. What’s not easy, is reversing hundreds or thousands of lazy design decisions after your company has scaled. Don’t wait until your customers scream. Be good to them and do what’s right. Put in the work to make decision making manageable from the start and build a culture of it on your team by running weekly design critiques. Your customers may not thank you but you’ll sleep well knowing they have one less thing to worry about in their very busy, hectic lives.