How to reduce choice overload and increase satisfaction

If you offer many options to your customers, group them into smaller groups of decisions with similar attributes (e.g. color, size) and present them one at a time.

Thanks to extensive research in the early 2000s, most marketers and UX designers are aware that offering too many choices leads to ‘choice paralysis’ (people are less likely to buy). It’s less known that it also leaves people less satisfied when they do make a choice (short HBR article about this here).

This applies to almost any choice. Imagine receiving 4 interesting job offers vs only 1 of those offers. Even if you accept the exact same job in both scenarios, you will be more satisfied in the second (because you can’t have any regrets, real or imagined, over your choice).

Still, offering more choices means you can cater to more customers. Dialing it down too much could hurt your sales (imagine a restaurant menu with only 2 items: couscous or prawns. If someone doesn’t eat either they will leave).

Today’s tip provides a technique to limit the drawbacks of a large choice set while allowing you to reap the benefits.

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Previous tip: Launch a polished mobile app, not an MVP (All tips here)

Group your customers’ choices into smaller groups to make it easier for them

Impacted metrics: Customer acquisition | Customer satisfaction
Channels: Website/app | Product

Recommendation

When you offer more than a handful of choices, try to group choices into groups based on their attributes (e.g. size, flavor, a specific aspect of your product) and guide your customers to make one choice at a time. They will be more likely to buy and more satisfied with their final product.

Before they start down your guided decision path, give them an overview of what choice they’ll be making. Let them easily go back and make changes if they like.

Additional tip: you can use pre-selected default options to influence customers towards a specific choice. Learn how to use them in this context here.

Effects

  • We know from previous research that too much choice overwhelms us and decreases our satisfaction. A famous study in 2000 found that shoppers were more interested in a display of 24 different jams, but were only 10% as likely to buy compared to when there were only 6 different jams. What’s more, they were more satisfied with their choice when there were fewer options to choose from. In other words, large assortments attract more interest but convert much less into buyers.

  • This study found that when the same choices were taken one at a time, grouped by their attributes (e.g. color, cloth pattern of a suit), people were happier with their final product than when they had to compare everything at the same time.

  • If attributes in different groups involve significant tradeoffs between them (e.g. you can only select 2 out of 5 types of rims for your new car if you previously selected a certain type of tire), the effect is reduced and may even disappear.

Why it works

  • We experience choice overload when we have a large set of choices. We feel it even more strongly when we have to make choices at the same time that have different attributes and purposes. For example, when choosing a new car, we will decide whether we want heated side mirrors based on how often our hometown reaches freezing temperatures. At the same time, we will probably choose the color of the car’s interiors using a different approach (e.g. our favorite color).

  • When we’re overloaded with choice, we find it more difficult to make decisions and are more likely to either abandon or ‘just choose’ something. So if we do choose something, we are left with a choice we’re not sure we’re happy with and will have a worse experience.

Limitations

  • Choices should be grouped and ordered along a path that people would naturally follow (e.g. first choose the car’s exterior color then the color of the interiors). If many different types of customers would want to take different paths, this is unlikely to work and may instead frustrate them and backfire.

Companies using this

  • This technique is widely used in web/app design (e.g. travel sites, apparel).

  • While it’s much less used offline, some fast-food restaurants (e.g. Chipotle) and cafes use it.

Steps to implement

  • If you offer a large set of choices to your customers, think about whether you are helping them enough to easily make those choices.

  • Research whether you can offer one or multiple paths (e.g. start by the cloth type, size, or color you want) and then group choices into smaller decisions (2 to 5 at a time) with similar attributes.

  • If you offer limited choices, consider increasing your offering to cater to a larger set of customers. Implement the above to keep it easy to mentally process.

Study type

Lab and field experiments (of Tailor-made suits and Starbucks coffees), Switzerland

Source

Dorn, M., Messner, C., & Wänke, M. (April 2016). Partitioning the choice task makes Starbucks coffee taste better. Journal of Marketing Behavior, 1(3-4), 363-384.

[Link to paper]

Affiliations

University of Bern and University of Mannheim, Switzerland and Germany

Remember: This research could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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