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Why Choice Overload Can Hurt Marketing and Usability

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October 20, 2022

Ever walked into an ice cream shop and felt paralyzed by the endless options?

Even if you’re a bona fide chocolate lover, the choice can feel overwhelming. Should you choose plain chocolate or chocolate swirl? Double chocolate or triple chocolate? Chocolate peanut butter or chocolate fudge brownie? Chocolate chip cookie dough or coffee chocolate chunk?

While most of us agree that choice is a good thing—and a core part of living in a democracy—choice can also bring downsides. Many of us don’t realize it, but choice represents a delicate matter when it comes to website design and usability. Weaving in too much choice can turn away customers, clients, and members. Ironically, providing too few options can do the same.

This is the so-called paradox of choice, a key phenomenon in marketing psychology that our team of UX specialists, marketers, designers, and technologists think a lot about at Astriata. What does it mean? Why does it matter?

Understanding the paradox

As the ice cream example demonstrates, the paradox of choice is the classic “kid in a candy store” analogy, where a kid walks into a store and can’t choose from the dozens of options available. Do I want caramels or chocolates? Gummies or hard candy? Bubble gum or mints?

In this analogy, options are both a good thing and a bad thing, allowing the kid to find and buy the “perfect” piece of candy, while requiring time and brain power (or cognitive load) spent weighing options and contemplating what to buy.

Herein lies the paradox, explains Barry Swartz, the psychologist and Swarthmore University professor who coined the term and wrote a 2004 book on this phenomenon, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More. “As the number of choices we face increases, freedom of choice eventually becomes a tyranny of choice,” Swartz writes.

Swartz believes we live in a world of endless options. Case in point: his local grocery store carries more than 100 salad dressings (not counting the 10 extra virgin olive oils and 12 balsamic vinegars he could use to make his own variety). And when he ventures to the mall to buy new blue jeans, his simple excursion turns into an elaborate tutorial on slim fit vs. relaxed fit, button fly vs. zipper fly, and two-tone vs. stone wash. What does he discover through the experience? He comes to realize that his new, relaxed fit jeans feel better (the upside of options), but he feels worse (the downside of options).

“Choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them,” Swartz explains. “It can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can … lead to decision-making paralysis.”

Managing “choice” in marketing, usability, and design

Making decisions about choice in your marketing, usability, and design efforts doesn’t happen easily. After all, your options are nearly endless.

How can you apply Swartz’s insight in ways that aument your business and attract and retain members and clients? For one, you can follow Hick’s Law by limiting the number of choices you present to users on your website, across your other digital platforms, and in your print collateral. Research shows, for instance, that you only want three to six items in the navigation bar of your website—more than that can lead to choice overload and indecision.

Similarly, strive to include only a single call-to-action (CTA) per webpage. For example, if you want people to reach out for a free consultation, then don’t also have them sign up for your newsletter and share your post on social media. Too many clickable links create clutter, which can derail your main intention.

“One of the most common offenders in terms of clutter is the over-placement of social sharing icons,” says Aline Lin, the CEO and creative director of Astriata. “Although social sharing icons are important and can contribute to your social proof, you don’t need them on every single page—you want to use them sparingly, in a way that doesn’t interfere with or detract from your core objective.”

This is where design can make a real difference. “A strong designer who works in tandem with your marketing and usability team can find ways to integrate things like social sharing icons in unobtrusive yet effective ways,” Lin says.

As you work to engage your users and create a more user-friendly website or app, keep these two principles in mind, and don’t miss our animation series, “Psychology, Design, and Usability.”

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