Psychology of Choice Guiding Product Design

How we make decisions is a very interesting topic, and one with much research and literature written about it.  Many findings may seem counter-intuitive but make sense once you think about them more carefully.  Below are a few things to be aware of about how users deal with choices when designing products.

Choice Overload – It may be unintuitive to many, but people have a hard time choosing when there are more options rather than fewer choices.  Many designers, marketers, and manufacturers try to give consumers as many choices as possible, hoping to provide the perfect product for every user.  However, studies have shown that users will consistently choose to make no choice rather than try to choose one from many options.  This is called choice overload.  In general, people would rather have a handful of choices, even if none match exactly what they’d want, rather than dozens of choices that may include a few favorites.  When designing products, it is important to keep this in mind.  For example, if you provide a list of categories to browse, show the user roughly 7 choices, not 20.

Thinking man and question mark. 3d rendered il...

Avoiding Wrong Decision – People tend to be more worried about making the wrong decision than they are with making the right one.  This means that when comparing potential choices, they look to see if one choice is obviously better than another.  If they find that, they are far more likely to take that choice than usual because they know they are at least not making the wrong decision.  For example, if someone is given the choice between a 7 day trip to Japan or a 7 day trip to China, then they may have a tough time choosing and it’s basically a 50/50 decision for them if they don’t have a preference between the two countries.  But if they are given a 3rd choice as well, a 6 day trip to China, then they choose the 7 day trip to China far more often, because they know they at least didn’t choose the worst option.  The 7 day trip to China is definitely better than the 6 day trip to China, so it’s the easy choice that guarantees they did not make the worst decision.

When designing products, if you have a path you’d prefer most users to take but still want to give another choice for those who have a strong preference, then consider making it easy for users without a preference to choose the preferred path rather than get stuck not knowing which one to choose.  You don’t want users to leave your site because they got stuck facing a hard decision.

First Impressions – When people are exposed to something, they instantly get a feel for if they like it or not.  It is possible to overcome this first instinct, of course, but only if they stick around long enough to learn more about it and gather more data.  If a user lands on your site and they don’t see what they expected to see, then they are likely to hit back and try the next site in the google results.  Experts in a field have better instincts than the average user, but you shouldn’t expect the majority of your users to be experts in your product, like you are.  Usability studies, where you have people come in and use your site while recording their impressions, are very valuable for this reason.  You can gain insight into what the average user, not the expert, thinks about your site or product when they first see it.  If you cater your site to the advanced users, then the rest of your traffic may not understand the benefit you are providing and dismiss the site as a poor solution for their problem before they give it a chance.  Instead, you should tune your site to cater to the average user, while providing the tools for more advanced users.  That way you can convert more of your traffic, and then can attempt to convert those users into power users by surfacing the advanced functionality that you provide.

An important thing to keep in mind is that people generally ‘like’ the familiar.  So if your product or service is very different from the conventional offerings, you may get poor feedback from market research simply because the respondents equate different with bad.  You need to adjust for this and may need to adjust how you frame the research in order to get a true sense of whether your product is truly bad or just different.  Getting a minimum viable product out into the market to get real users trying it out and tracking their actual behavior with a different product offering will be more useful than market research on a paper prototype where users are inclined to dislike unconventional products.

To read in depth about the above topics and more, check out Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (Tipping Point author) and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz.

2 Responses to “Psychology of Choice Guiding Product Design”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nicholas P. Nicholas P said: Psychology of Choice Guiding Product Design […]

  2. TomPier says:

    great post as usual!

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