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Oversimplifying The Paradox Of Choice

Over the past few months, I’ve been hearing an oversimplification of the paradox of choice being used as a design critique. The comment goes something like this:

“If we give our users more than one option, they will get overwhelmed. So let’s remove all of the choices to keep things as simple as possible.”

They’re referring, of course, to a popular landmark study on “choice overload,” where shoppers were presented with either six or 24 varieties of jams. While more shoppers approached the larger display, those that viewed the half-dozen jam jars ended up making 10 times the number of jam purchases. The findings, presented by psychologist Barry Schwartz in a TED talk and published in “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” suggested that too many options could make it harder for an individual to make a decision and consequently lead to inaction.

But is more choice always bad? As consumers, we can all relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed with too many options at times (the shampoo aisle in the drugstore comes to mind for me), but the notion of “choice overload” always felt too general and somewhat at odds with my first-hand experience designing experiences for patients and healthcare professionals.

For instance, in one recent test for a disease education website, we observed a higher success rate when 10 links were exposed on a homepage compared to a version with only five links. The additional options, which were organized into thematic groups, made finding answers to questions much easier. Links were no longer hidden behind menus; they became obvious.

If we look at the most recent research in psychology, the paradox of choice isn’t an absolute. Research has actually shown that the context of an assortment plays a larger role than the total number of options. In meta-analysis from 2015, a group of researchers identified factors that can contribute to choice overload:

  • Options are formatted and presented in a random order
  • Options have a high number of features/attributes and the features are not easily comparable
  • Consumers are in a product-decision mindset vs. a browsing mindset, and may feel pressured by time constraints and/or the need to justify the purchase decision to others
  • Consumers do not have a clear preference in mind prior to making a choice

At a baseline, these factors are a great reminder that we should avoid the temptation to oversimplify findings from individual research studies. Results from a single study, regardless whether it was focused on purchasing jam or sweat socks, should not be accepted or applied as universal truths.

When it comes to the presentation of options in an experience, we can use our skills as UX and visual designers to display well-formatted options that make it easier for customers to scan, compare and understand the choices before them.

There is no doubt that in some cases we will be presenting options to consumers that may include a high number of attributes, which may or may not be easily comparable. Choice overload is more likely to come into play when someone is making a choice from a set of options when they are not well versed in the facets or meaning behind the data set. (Comparing and selecting a health insurance plan is a fitting example.)

So how do we get there? It starts with a user-centered design process. We need to continue concentrating our energy on uncovering authentic insights about our customers and designing experiences with their contexts of use and specific needs in mind. What are they trying to achieve? How much do they understand about the subject matter? What influences and drives their decision making process?

The only way to truly answer these questions is to talk to our customers early and often, and then validate that we are offering the right set of understandable and valuable options. For health marketers in particular, engagement with the consumer and staying focused on the goal of delivering positive health outcomes is essential to overcoming a fear of choice overload and reliably guiding the consumer through a suitable array of options for themselves and their families.


This article originally appeared on Chief Marketer