When Designing for the Web, Less Is More

As a user experience professional, I am puzzled when I hear people say that web users want choice, or that the more options a web design gives people the better.  On first glance this might seem like an obvious and intelligent approach. Why wouldn’t people want more choice, especially in situations where there are many equally compelling options available? Shouldn’t more options help people make a more informed decision? Won’t it result in better decision making? The answer to these questions is a resounding NO.

Barry Schwartz’s well-regarded book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, addresses the upside of pursuing a strategy of eliminating excessive options when designing for people. In sum, his point is that too much choice results in decision-making anxiety, dissatisfaction and regret when one is buying a backpack, purchasing insurance or shopping for a new car. Schwartz’s thesis can be neatly summed in four key points about the effects of giving people too many choices:

1.    It Causes Decision Paralysis—For example, employee participation in 401(k) savings plans goes down as the number of plan options is increased (2% drop for every extra plan option).

2.    They Lead to Bad Decisions—This holds true even if someone manages to get out of the decision-making paralysis brought on by excessive choice.

3.      It Can Cause Post-Decision Anxiety—In the event someone’s choice is not satisfactory in any respect, they will regret their decision and persistently ask themselves: “Perhaps the other choice would have been better?”. This is that well-known feeling of buyer’s remorse that I’m sure we have all felt before.

4.      Are Good If—people know exactly what they want, there is one or very few changing variables, and the various options are easy to compare and contrast.

Think about this in terms of going out for ice cream. Everyone has a favorite flavor—mine is chocolate. When I go out with my family, I’m usually buying ice cream for three people. When it’s time to order, my wife and son both make their decisions (which 9 times out of 10 is their favorite flavor) and I get chocolate.

Very recently, at a Ben & Jerry’s, I ordered a chocolate ice cream and was presented with the question: “What kind of chocolate ice cream do you want?”

Now in my head the response was: “What do you mean? I want the chocolate kind.”

What I’d actually responded with was: “Well, what do you have?”

The response was absolutely mind-numbing: Chocolate Therapy, Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Greek Chocolate and, finally, Chocolate.

Now I was completely dumbfounded. At this point I felt as though I needed to become a sommelier of ice cream. Of course I wasn’t going to order plain chocolate; I’m a far more unique individual than that. But, as my family was with me, I didn’t have the time to taste all four flavors. So I self-segmented myself into the boring group. And I left feeling pretty bad about myself for having made what I felt to be the wrong decision.

While there is no bad choice when it comes to ice cream, that, unfortunately, is not always the case. When it comes to making important and high-consideration decisions like those we frequently deal with in health care, it is safe to say that the more choice that we give people the less likely they are to make an optimal and satisfying decision. As a rule, then, we should seek to give people a streamlined experience that informs them in a way that is not confusing or overwhelming and that directs them to choose a specific option.






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