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Paralysis of Choice

If you're selling on-line, then having less choice could result in more sales

The paralysis of choice

The paralysis of choice and how to improve sales and customer satisfaction (...or less is more)

by Christopher Heng,



Some time ago, Barry Schwatz gave a talk at Google on "The Paralysis of Choice: Why More is Less". The talk was illuminating in that it dispels some myths about providing choices to customers. While the lecture was a general one on how providing choices affect decision-making and sales, I will try to show how the general principles help a web designer / programmer improve his sales and customer satisfaction.

Some General Principles on Providing Choices

Before I mention how the presentation impacts the webmaster and programmer, let me briefly summarize some of the salient points from that talk. Note that what follows is my own interpretation of his message, with my own words and clarifications, based on a vague memory of a video of the talk and coloured by my experience running It is by no means a comprehensive summary but merely a distillation of the points pertinent to this discussion.

  • When Customers Have More Choices, They Buy Less

    Many of us labour under the impression that providing customers with a wide selection of products of a certain type increases customer satisfaction. After all, we think, if we provide them with 200 brands of peanut butter, they are more likely to find a brand that suits their taste. Schwatz cites surveys done in supermarkets that showed the reverse. When customers were presented with a huge selection of brands of a certain item, fewer customers bought the item than when fewer brands were displayed. The wide selection led to a paralysis of choice - the customers could not decide which brand to choose. As a result, they went away without choosing any.

  • In Decision-Making, People Often Simplify using the Wrong Criteria

    Schwatz also cited a study that showed that when presented with many choices, where making a choice required juggling many complex criteria, people often subconsciously simplified the criteria by focusing on one. The criterion they chose was often the wrong one.

  • More Choices Leads to Greater Dissatisfaction Because Expectations are Raised

    When people have more choices, they expect more, because they expect that they will be able to choose the exact item that meets their needs perfectly. As a result, when more choices are given for a product, the chances of dissatisfaction with the product is higher. When no choice is offered, people either have no expectations or their expectations are lowered. I suspect they probably figured that since they had no choice but to get that particular item, it was unlikely to be perfect. They thus prepared themselves to accept a product that was merely "good enough".

Presenting Visitors and Users with Choices: A Webmaster's and Programmer's Perspective

How do Swatz's points, which are derived from the brick and mortar world, translate to the virtual world of the web? The points below are my own take on how we can use those principles to design a website that increases sales and end-user satisfaction. Note that many of the points below also apply in some part to the design of software, both online software, like web applications, and offline programs, like those that run on your computer at home. Hence they also apply to the programmer.

  • Reduce the Number of Choices and Decisions that End-Users Have to Make

    If your site requires people to make decisions or choices, you might want to see if you can reduce the number of choices you offer. I don't think you need to remove all choice and decision-making from the equation though - offering a few choices may be useful, since your end-users are likely to have some differences in needs or taste. However, offering, say 30 varieties of a particular product may be an overkill for most products. The people visiting your site are not likely to want to spend half a day reading different 30 product descriptions to try to distinguish between them.

    You should not make the removal of choices as a matter of policy though. Examine each of your products or services on a case-by-case basis. Remember that certain types of choices do not bewilder users. For example, if you are a commercial web host, you will probably offer several packages differentiated only in the amount of disk space and bandwidth they offer. The more expensive packages allow users to store more files and support heavier traffic. If the differences between packages is only a matter of scale, and this difference is clearly stated and easily understood by your users, the selection should not pose a great hindrance to them. Even in this case, though, you probably should not have too many packages on offer.

  • Provide a Product Comparison or Version Comparison Chart

    If you have a few varieties of a particular product, it is always handy to provide a product comparison chart. List the features of your products in each row of your chart, and indicate whether it is present or absent in each of the products you sell. For example, you might have a product comparison chart like the following, comparing Widget A and Widget B.

    Features Widget A Widget B
    Can sing and dance Yes Yes
    Can play the drums Up to 2 drums Up to 20 drums
    Can strum the guitar No Yes
    Can cook and sew In your dreams Yes
    Price Free You can't afford it
  • Select Useful Defaults that Apply to Most People

    In an interactive website or software, it may be useful to pre-select useful defaults that apply to most people. For example, where relevant,'s various wizards supply defaults which most people will want to use.

  • Simplify the Interface: Prune Unnecessary Options or Tuck Them in an Optional "Advanced Options" Section

    Sometimes it's not possible to remove options without crippling your product or service. In such cases, consider tucking away options which most people won't need in an Advanced Options section. For the average end-user or visitor who does not use the advanced options, furnish useful defaults. Your main section will then be less cluttered, which also has the advantage of making your site or software seem easier to use.

  • Avoid Paralysis by Making Recommendations

    One way to avoid paralysis when you provide many choices is to make recommendations. Ideally, of course, your recommendations should be based on what you think the end-user would want to use. Make some assumptions about the type of visitors that come to your site and what most of them want. Then recommend the particular product that you think will suit most of your visitors.

  • Avoid the Paralysis of Choice by Providing a Simplifying Criterion

    Alternatively, you can provide a simplfying criterion. The idea here is to avoid the problem of users using wrong criteria to make purchase decisions on your site. As Schwatz had observed, users tend to choose the wrong simplifying criteria when confronted with too many choices. We want to avoid that by giving prominence to a particular criterion which you feel is important. Highlight the importance of that particular feature above the plethora of other features.

  • Different Target Audiences Have Different Levels of Expectations and Competence in Handling Variety

    Finally, before you simply apply everything here as a blanket rule in your site or software, remember to examine your target audience and product. A site catering to a specialist audience must be designed differently from one catering to the general public. The number of choices you offer, the types of choices you offer and even the way you present those choices will differ depending on how competent your target audience is at handling those choices.

    Furthermore, not all choice is anaethema. Remember, what we are mostly dealing with here is choices of a particular type of product, such as 200 brands of peanut butter. We are not talking about choices of degree or scale: for example, you can't simply sell only size 6 shoes. Neither are we talking about choices of different products: for example, if you are a hardware store, you cannot say that you want to improve sales by reducing the choice of screwdrivers to only Phillips screwdrivers. A Phillips screwdriver is a different product from, say, a regular screwdriver.

Conclusion: Making More from Less

When confronted with too many choices, people are often crippled by the large number of variables they have to juggle to make a decision. Using some of the tips given in this article, webmasters and programmers can make their site/software more usable, improve customer satisfaction and perhaps even increase sales by avoiding this paralysis of choice.

Copyright © 2007 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.

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