The size of a menu and the quality of the food served is almost always in direct relationship. Smaller menus equal better food, larger ones less so. There is a freedom in fewer choices that we humans seem to enjoy. We’re more frustrated with more choices and sometimes it leads to us making no decision at all.

“What am I missing? If I keep searching, perhaps I’ll discover the perfect meal.”

decisions website developers make

When the five-star restaurant presents you with the exquisite meal that they’ve prepared for you, there are few or no decisions to make, and you can sit back and relax. In restaurant terminology, a “table d’hôte” (table of the host) menu is a menu where multi-course meals with only a few choices are charged at a fixed total price.

Giving good choices but fewer of them puts the onus on the creator of the good or service rather on the consumer to distinguish the value of all the choices.

The restaurant with the ten-page menu is not helping their customers find the best food. They are giving their customers a job to complete before they can eat.

Website Design Choices

Too many choices can also be a problem in website design giving your visitors too many options to choose from resulting in them feeling paralyzed in what to do and choose.

Perhaps they have come to your website to learn more about your company and are simply looking for the “About Us” page. But your website header is cluttered with options like “Our Story,” “Our Vision,” “Our Mission,” etc. While all of these can technically explain more about you and what you do, they actually present the website visitor with a confusing set of options that are ultimately unhelpful in their search. So, it is very common in this situation that they in fact don’t select an option and instead leave your website completely.

Knowing this, you should always aim for a sweet spot when deciding upon how many options to offer. One of the most referenced and quoted studies on this subject is by famed cognitive psychologist George Miller in his paper titled, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” As the title suggests, it’s argued that the human brain performs best when making choices that have around seven options to choose from (plus or minus two). With this, seven is the essential middle ground to consider when exploring choice paralysis in website design – with five being the minimum amount and nine being the maximum amount of options to display at any one time.

You are the expert on your business and on your website. As the “chef,” it’s your duty and pleasure to guide your visitors to the best stuff. Don’t give them work to do when they come for a visit.

A Few Basic Principles

Keep in mind a few basic principles when designing a user interface. And, yes, a web page is a user interface.

– First of all, try to limit your variations of a product. If you sell hats, don’t make 50 identical designs in slightly differing shades.

– Group things, categorize them, and make it easy to search for them by their characteristics with a filtering system.

– Try a simple test with a few people not familiar with your shop and get them to try and find a specific product. See how long it takes them.

– Remember the 7± 2 rule: Keep things in groups of no more than nine items, preferably closer to five.

– When building menus, keep them uncluttered and spacious.

– Never assume that more is more. The phrase “less is more” really does hold true in a lot of circumstances.

– Any delay in decision-making can prove damaging on an ecommerce site because it tends to result in users giving up.

– Choice paralysis isn’t just limited to product selection. Users can be equally paralyzed trying to choose between navigational elements such as product categorization. They are forced to think too much, and they give up.

What Then Can We Do about Choice Paralysis?

The obvious starting point is to reduce the choice. Limit choice, limit choice paralysis.

For example, you could display the best selling categories of products, while hiding other groupings under something like a “more” option.

Remember, you know far more than your potential customers about what products are popular, and what will most likely please them. Help them to select the best and give them other choices, but keep them limited.

But there is another factor at play here. Our inability to make a decision is not just about the number of choices. It is also about how clear those choices are from one another.

Make the options distinct

The more options, the more similar they often are and the harder the decision. Even a choice between two items can be difficult if those items are incredibly similar. The difference is too subtle.

When you try to preorder a product on the Amazon mobile app, you see two buttons. One reads “preorder now” and the other “preorder today.” “Preorder now” goes straight to checkout while “preorder today” adds the item to the cart. However, this difference is not apparent and leads to paralysis.

But what do we do if the choices are inherently complicated? What if we are unable to reduce the decision further?

Break down the choice

Some online transactions are, by their nature, complicated. Maybe you are buying a car that involves a plethora of choices about everything from paint color to financing.

The solution to this challenge is to break down the choice into more manageable chunks. A series of smaller, better-defined decisions is easier for us to process.

For choices involving many factors, break down the decisions into steps and provide guidance.

That said, we still need to keep the whole process as simple as possible. That’s because we want to encourage users to make a decision quickly.

Encourage fast decision-making

We have all experienced the feeling of overthinking a decision. We reach a point where we can no longer see the choices clearly, and even when we do make a decision we are not happy with it. The longer we take to make a decision, the less confidence we typically have in the outcome.

As a result, we want to encourage users to make a fast decision. The faster somebody can make a decision the less likely they are to suffer from choice paralysis and the more likely they will go away happy.

One way of achieving this is to make the decision a “no-brainer.” You can do this in a variety of ways, such as by using price. A low cost will allow for impulse purchases, which users typically make on the spur of the moment. But another possibility is to offer an outstanding return policy. In both cases, you are reducing risk.

Make the choice with good defaults

We ask users to make a ridiculous number of choices that are entirely unnecessary for the majority of users. That’s because we become obsessed with the minority cases.

Even though we know the majority of users will make a particular choice, we worry that other people might want to choose something different. For example, we show all our product categories even though 80 percent of customers purchase from the top three. Or, we display an entire country list when the majority of people buy from our native country.

The problem with this approach is that the user experience of the majority suffers to cater to the minority. That’s not just bad for the experience of users; it’s terrible for sales.

Some flight booking sites automatically add a default number of passengers and dates based on common selections.

We can apply this principle to everything from delivery addresses to credit card information.

Don’t make users select these each time. Instead, default to the last one used.

Good defaults can reduce cognitive load on users, while not taking away the choices available to them. That’s a powerful tool for overcoming choice paralysis.

Take the time to look at your analytics and find the pages that have a high exit rate. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if those pages require users to make a choice that they were not prepared to make. Fix those, and it could make all the difference to your conversion rate.

A global team of digerati with offices in Washington, D.C. and Southern California, we provide digital strategy, digital marketing, web design, and creative for brands you know and nonprofits you love.

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