System Design

Mitigating Choice Overload in System Design

In our previous post we considered the effect of Choice Overload on the conversion rate of customized products. Today we’ll explore how to mitigate this problem. Daniel McFadden, an economist at Berkeley, says (bear with me) that consumers find too many options troubling because of the “risk of misperception and miscalculation, of misunderstanding the available alternatives, of misreading one’s own tastes, of yielding to a moment’s whim and regretting it afterwards”, combined with “the stress of information acquisition”. Sounds like something an economist would say. All he means is that as your choices go up, making the wrong choice becomes more of a possibility. The “stress of information acquisition” simply refers to paging through 100 color choices in our hand bag example – trying to remember which one you liked on page 2 and how that color looked with the red strap. Sifting through all of these choices is a pain in the ass, but the user is compelled to do it because they naturally fear making the wrong choice. It becomes work. So what can we do?

  1. Cut. Less is more. Get rid of extraneous choices that add nothing to the experience and nothing to your bottom line. If I don’t expect (and don’t really want) a choice of patches on my handbag, it’s simply a distraction and should go. This takes some effort on the part of the manufacturer. Figuring out what is really important to your consumers is quite a bit harder than simply dumping everything you have in their laps. So be ready to do the work. It’s my personal belief that Cutting is the single best way to provide a custom experience that will sell. The rest of the techniques below can be thought of as mitigating the risk of not cutting enough.
  2. Categorization. Once you’ve cut all that you can, dividing choices into categories works wonders. In the handbag example you would take your 100 colors and separate them into something like “Muted” “Neon” “Primary” “Earth Tones”. A surprising side benefit of this is that consumers perceive the amount of choice as more satisfactory compared to one giant bucket of colors. Please note that categorization only works if the categories are highly relevant to the chooser and describe what’s inside. No categories like “Summer” that mean nothing to the user.
  3. Condition the user for Complexity – or, ease your users into the harder choices. As much as it makes sense, put the easier choices, those with only a few options toward the front. This will allow the user to establish some momentum, get used to your interface and build some excitement about the product prior to laying the more complex steps on them.
  4. Show examples. Having a starting point empowers people and will help them ignore choices that aren’t consistent with the picture they now have in their heads. Hmm, this lady works in finance and she made a green bag with a black strap, I think i’ll rock some variation of that. Now the consumer has direction and is less susceptible to Choice Overload.
  5. Know your audience. It’s been discovered that the British and Germans are more tolerant of complex choices with high numbers of options when creating customized products. Also, age seems to be an indicator – the younger you are the more tolerant you are likely to be of a highly demanding experience. So, if your demo is 60 year old Americans, give them an easy, tidy experience and they will award you with conversions.

Originally written while working at Akavit – used with their permission.

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