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Could you be losing sales because users cannot make a decision? The chances are the answer is yes.

Fortunately, there is something you can do about it...

Those damned customers; sometimes they are more trouble than they are worth! On one hand they say they like choice, but when you give them too much they stop buying.

Choice paralysis is a well-known problem in retail. Numerous tests in supermarkets have shown that if you offer a customer too many varieties they are less likely to buy than if there are only a few.

Woman shopping in a supermarket

Africa Studio, Shutterstock

However, despite choice paralysis being a well-known phenomena, most e-commerce websites seem to ignore it. I come across too many e-commerce sites with:

  • Too many products in one category.
  • Complex ways of customising products.
  • An overwhelming selection of special offers.
  • Endless categories and sub-categories of products.

It is hardly surprising then that many of these sites suffer from dismally low conversion rates. Unfortunately, website owners often perceive this low conversion as a sign that they are not giving users what they want. This leads them to add even more choice, which results in still further paralysis. The answer actually lies in a very different direction and begins by limiting choice.

Limit the user's choice

In a now famous supermarket study only 3% of shoppers purchased jam when confronted with 24 varieties, while 30% purchased when given only six. Although the tenfold increase is interesting, what fascinates me are the people not exposed by the raw data. A good number of those 27% approached the jam section with a particular jam in mind. They knew what they wanted and went to purchase. However, the range of alternatives actually placed doubt in their mind.

Was their normal choice of jam the best option available? Should they try something new? These questions created enough anxiety to actually stop them purchasing.

Selection of Jams

fresher, Shutterstock

The lesson here is that choice paralysis is not just something suffered by those who arrive undecided. It can actually prevent a committed buyer from placing an order. Although this is a scary thought the answer is obvious, reduce your range of products.

On one level this seems counter intuitive, but on another it is an obvious response to the problem of choice paralysis. However, reducing choice is not the only response. There is also a need to clearly differentiate between the options available.

Clearly differentiate between choices

Choice paralysis is not just to do with the number of choices available. In fact it can be acceptable to offer a large number of choices where the differences between those choices is clearly defined.

Unfortunately the choices we offer often have significant overlap. Computer manufacturers suffer from this problem. When buying a computer, making a decision can be hard when the only difference between models is technical specifications. Most people do not understand the difference between 2GB and 4GB of memory. Apple does a great job at overcoming this challenging by reducing the choice and differentiating between their products.

For example, if you visit the Apple website you can easily compare different Macs and read a clear description about what makes each model unique:

Apple website: Which Mac is right for you?

If you are looking for something light then go for the Macbook Air, if you want something small go for the Mac Mini. Although they do mention technical specifications these are secondary to the simple descriptions.

However, don't fall into the trap of thinking this need to differentiate only applies to product lines. It also applies to navigation and product categories. Take for example firebox.com. What is the difference between the top level labels 'geek' and 'technology'?

firebox website navigation

Clearly differentiating choice has to apply to all aspects of your site from product range to site navigation. If you must have overlapping choices then you may wish to consider hiding less popular choices to avoid confusion.

Hide less popular choices

Unfortunately in the real world website owners do not always get to choose what goes on the website. We aren't in a position to slim down the product range or redesign it entirely so that products are more distinct. In such situations smoke and mirrors can produce the same effect.

Although you may not be able to remove the choices available to users, you can hide less popular ones to give the impression of a clearer choice.

We faced this exact problem when working on the Wiltshire Farm Foods website. They had a huge number of meals organised into an extensive list of categories. What's more, there was a real need to ensure consistency between the website and the printed brochure, so we had no choice but to keep the categories they had.

This left us with a confusing site structure. For example if somebody wanted to order a 'beef pie' did they look under 'beef' or 'pies and pastries'? Our solution was to hide less popular categories and focus the user on the most used forms of navigation.

For example, we knew more people navigated by 'beef' than 'pies and pastries' so we hid the latter. However, it was still available for those who wanted to see all pies. This approach gave the impression of a clearly defined choice without removing the additional options for those who wanted them. Of course, so far we have focused on users who have a fairly clear idea of what they want to start with.

What about those who are even less sure? That is where suggestions come in.

Make suggestions

When faced with overwhelming choice often the most effective way of encouraging users to make a decision is to suggest a course of action.

This well known technique is used by the vast majority of e-commerce websites in the form of 'special offers' or 'staff favourites'. However, although these suggestions go some way to alleviating choice paralysis they do not connect with users on an emotional level.

Just because something is on special offer or has been suggested by the staff, does not mean it is right for the individual user. After all, today's astute customers know these suggestions are more to benefit the retailer than themselves.

Amazon uses a slightly more convincing approach on its UK homepage with its 'what other customers are looking at right now' section. As humans we have a tendency to follow the crowd in new or unfamiliar circumstances and so will look to the choices of others for inspiration.

Amazon homepage

Although this is more successful than the 'special offers' approach, it still does not fully harness how we overcome choice paralysis in the real world. When faced with overwhelming choice offline we turn to friends and family for their opinion.

In particular we look to those who share similar tastes to our own and whose opinions we trust. Some ecommerce sites are replicating at least some aspects of this behaviour with sections entitled 'people like you bought'. This plays off of our inherent group mentality and goes a long way to overcoming choice paralysis. This thinking ultimately ends in enabling users to see what 'friends' are purchasing.

Facebook has already done some experimentation in this area. However, I suspect it will not be long before Amazon implement a social network of sorts on its own website. Although suggestions are a useful way of easing choice paralysis, sometimes it is possible to avoid asking users to make a choice at all. That is where good defaults come in.

Set good defaults

The best way to avoid choice paralysis is to avoid choice entirely. It is surprising how often we ask users to make decisions where we could easily do so. We tend to pass the responsibility of choice to users for a two reasons:

  • First, we become obsessed with edge cases. Even though we know the majority of users will make one choice, we worry about the minority who want something different. The problem with this mentality is that the user experience of the majority often suffers in order to cater for the whims of the minority.
  • Second, we believe that users want choice because that is what they say they want. However, research shows there is a difference between what we say they want and what makes us happiest. Giving the user choice may make them feel temporarily more in control, but ultimately they are more likely to suffer from buyer's remorse. 

So what is the solution? Am I proposing that we ignore the minority for the sake of the majority? Should clothes come in the single most common size on websites? Should computers not come with the option to preinstall Linux instead of Windows? Not at all. Instead we must default to the most common choice while allowing the option to customise.

Why make people choose between Windows and Linux when the vast majority is going to choose Windows? Set the default to Windows with the option to edit it if required. This principle applies not just to the selection of products but also to the forms at checkout. I have seen too many websites that require users to select from a number of previous delivery addresses when you could simply default to the last address used.

World Wildlife Fund website

Good defaults have the wonderful ability to reduce cognitive load on users while not taking away the choices available to them.

We are not vulcans

The underlying point that I am making in this post is that we are not hyper-logical vulcans. However much we would like to think otherwise, we do not make rational decisions. We do not carefully weigh the options and make a decision, especially when faced with overwhelming choice.

We simply do not have the mental capacity to do that on a conscious level. Instead we fall back on the subconscious, relying on gut reactions and emotional decision making. This often makes us feel uncertain and out of control. Sometimes this feeling is so powerful we would prefer to make no decision than make the wrong one.

With that in mind we need to make every effort as website owners to avoid overwhelming our users with choice. But what about you? What have you done to overcome choice paralysis? I would love to hear your advice in the comments below...

Paul Boag

Published 23 August, 2010 by Paul Boag

Digital Strategist Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or his personal blog Boagworld.

28 more posts from this author

Comments (15)

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Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

This is a really important post Paul. 

Choice Paralysis can be extended to all types of websites. I've visited many a Professional Services website and have been confused by a plethora of hyperlinks and the services they offer...

What's clear is that the more pieces of data - whether that's visual or auditory stimulation, images, written text and so on - we give people, the harder it is for them to make decisions. 

This is not because people don't want to make choices (they do) but none of us have the cognitive capacity to deal with too much information (at least at the rational level). 

Psychologists and Cognitive Scientists have known for some time about these limits. For example, there's Miller's Law and its famous '7 plus or minus 2' description of our Working Memory.

More recently, there have been a series of studies that suggest that no one can truly 'multi-task' i.e. give our brains too much information and they fail miserably.  

Unfortunately, whilst this scientific knowledge is well documented it has not yet permeated into web design industry. Which is why, as you describe, we end up with cluttered web pages and busy, busy ecommerce websites. 

The sooner web designers and their clients choose not to make their pages busy and confusing, the sooner their web visitors will make more of the choices they WANT them to make :)

about 6 years ago

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Jack

As always, it makes sense to K.I.S.S. - great article. Thanks!

about 6 years ago

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Spock

Hi, Good Article and right up my street right now. However, you mention Lynx (twice) and I am sure the word you need is Linux.

Seems you had too much choice!

Thanks for the article.

about 6 years ago

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Steve Jackson

Good read. I am reading Switch which also reminded me of eCommerce problems. You also might want to read Why We Buy (Paco Underhill) which backs up these ideas.

about 6 years ago

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Philip Wilkinson, co-founder at Keynoir

Excellent points.  In a world where anyone can publish information and we have so much data available at our fingertips - people often forget our brains only have so much bandwidth!

about 6 years ago

Clare Blunt

Clare Blunt, Sales and Marketing Executive at Web Marketplace Solutions

Excellent article on a topic that is often overlooked. Once again highlighting the need to think about your consumers as people rather than a conglomerate of buying machines. It's good to remember that with good web design comes good web conversion!

about 6 years ago

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

Customers like choice so its a great hook to get them engaged with your site/brand... tools like on-site search, facted navigation, target recommendations all help to then get users to the right product but some of the best sites hide the breadth and depth of inventory well behind well worked Information Architecture and offer the aforementioned tools and good navigation to drill down to products. The problem as you highlight is that whilst customers feel better when a site/brand offers them lots of choice, in reality they're only really interested in a very small set of products and may be better served by a niche site/brand but which doesn't have the same brand affinity as lets say an Amazon for example.

about 6 years ago

Vincent Amari

Vincent Amari, Online Consultancy at Business Foresights Ltd

Can you pass this article onto someone at Microsoft please? Far too many different versions of Windows, and most people are totally confused as to which version to buy.

about 6 years ago

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Tim Leighton-Boyce

The confusion can be compounded and paralysis increased when the choice of similar products is combined with a choice of alternative navigation routes and mixed categorisation. e.g Some products in both top navigation and left navigation, others in only one. Some categories duplicated in both, others not, and so on. Such an arrangement is a classic result of the 'edge case' situation you describe. We add more and more options in an attempt to cater for everyone. Either the visitor tries to take in them all and the result is paralysis. Or they only spot one of the sets of navigation tools and if they pick the wrong one they decide you don't sell whatever it as and they're off. Either way you lose the sale.

about 6 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Hi Paul, nice little piece.

A couple of things spring immediately to mind here: firstly, it really doesn't help matters when merchants introduce 'upsells' at the wrong stage in the buying process. This can quite often cause confusion and decision paralysis when a shopper has already made a choice, only to be presented with another option that 'somebody' suggests is better.

They'll likely want to understand who's suggesting it, and based on what - further decisions that don't really need to be made at certain stages that will compound the process.

Secondly, it may not be better for them though, and this is where tools like Smart Infosys or Answer Oil are worth their weight in gold as they help selection in the way you cite in the Apple example above, based on usage and context.

You're right when you say we fall back on 'gut feeling', and the higher ticket the item, the less likely a purchase will be where there's doubt.

Lots, dare I say 'most' merchants could still do much more around the product information/image/copy areas too, so when they do present lots of choice they give people the best chance of making a good decision. That in turn, needs to be backed up with a simple returns process and good written policy too.

about 6 years ago

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Bill

So, how does this affect sites like OpenTable.com, TopTable.co.uk, 5pm.co.uk - all restaurants sites where users are face with hundreds of offers and seem to cope fine? 

about 6 years ago

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Arleen Kari, Other at Other

Is my favorite topic to nice article. It was very interesting. It doesn’t apply to all of course like everything in life.http://www.courseworkpoint.co.uk/media-coursework/

almost 2 years ago

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Arleen Kari, Other at Other

Is my favorite topic to nice article. It was very interesting. It doesn’t apply to all of course like everything in life.
http://www.courseworkpoint.co.uk/media-coursework/

almost 2 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

John Unger, Blogger at Assignment Mountain

Yeah, I know form my own experience, more choices I have, more time I spend on decision, and there are less chances that I buy your product.
Actually, I 've seen couple papers regarding this topic at the http://www.assignmentmountain.com/

over 1 year ago

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Dawid Owsianka, UX Designer at Owsian

It is really complicated to choose if I have more than three options and time consuming. I used to read other articles on this topic at http://assignmentjedii.co.uk/

over 1 year ago

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