It’s a basic American right to choose — we want to choose french fries or mashed potatoes with our meal, our salad dressing, our clothing, our partners, our lifestyle. To be robbed of choice is tantamount to prison – even when it comes to minor things like paper or plastic bags at our grocery checkout. But, can there be too many choices?
Research shows that the human brain can handle only a finite number of choices at once without losing track of what was already presented – if I remember correctly from a research presentation, I think the ideal number was six or seven – and choices beyond our limit causes what I call “choice paralysis”. One study cited on the American Psychological Association’s website states:
“Chernev reports on four studies where he finds that the bigger the assortment, the harder it is for people to choose, except under one condition: when they enter with an articulated preference. In that case, they often choose what Nobel Laureate Herb Simon, PhD, first referred to as a “satisficing” option: the first decent choice that fits their preference as opposed to exhaustively scanning all options until finding the perfect, or “maximizing” one.”
Think about your own Encounters with Choice
If you don’t believe that too much choice is paralyzing, consider what you think is the most popular flavor at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor – despite the 53 flavors of ice cream (changing daily) the favorite remains – are you ready for this: VANILLA! We are creatures of habit and not up for that many choices when it comes to testing our palate (or our life) on new things.
Another example is Girl Scout cookies. I always found it easy to select one or two different boxes to purchase at a grocery store exit when there were only 5 or 6 choices displayed. Did you know that now there are actually ELEVEN different flavors of Girl Scouts cookies available including the 2010 introduction of “Thank U Berry Munch”? Fortunately for me, the current display outside my grocer in FL features only the five most popular choices. This is a good thing for me – and for the Girl Guides (who make money on sales) or I’d probably leave without making a purchase (actually in the case at hand I’d always purchase at least one box since Samoas are my “satisficing” favorite!)
Derek Severs posted a blog in the fall of 2009 about research outlining the Jam Experiment where shoppers given too many choices purchased 10x less jam than those presented with a smaller array of options. Here’s an excerpt:
“For 10 years, Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar has been studying choice. For her research paper, “When Choice is Demotivating”, they ran a great test:
- They set up a free tasting booth in a grocery store, with six different jams. 40% of the customers stopped to taste. 30% of those bought some.
- A week later, they set up the same booth in the same store, but this time with twenty-four different jams. 60% of the customers stopped to taste. But only 3% bought some!
- Both groups actually tasted an average of 1.5 jams. So the huge difference in buying can’t be blamed on the 24-jam customers being full. “
Derek’s assessment (click here to read the entire post) goes on discuss rationale for such results but the bottom line is that those with too many choices bought TEN TIMES LESS PRODUCT — buyer paralysis indeed!
Think of times when you’ve had too many choices on a website or on a restaurant menu – nested if’s become too difficult in our already too-busy lives — and quickly we yearn for simplicity. For example, do you want grande/venti/colossal/mega/gargantuan/enormous, with/without/soy/almond milk/skim/full-fat/half-fat/half and half/whipped/partially whipped/steamed? My response is ‘duh’ – not only do I not know what I want, I have no idea what my friend asked me to buy… Eventually I either order two medium regular coffees to go, or nothing at all (and all I can think is “get me out of here!”)
What can we Learn from Too Many Choices?
Following the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) we know that we can capture 80% of the market with purely 20% of the options we think we need to provide. So, save time, energy, and development time by limiting the options available to five or less, and earn more sales and bigger profits. At the same time, you’ll save your customers stress and decision-making gymnastics as long as you provide them with a choice – just not a vast array of overwhelming features!
Wishing you a highly productive (and stress-reduced) week!
Carol Dekkers, Software Measurement and Global Software Development expert, author, speaker. Want to engage Carol to be a speaker at your next event? Email Ms. Dekkers at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.caroldekkers.com for details.
Read Carol Dekkers’ other blog (Musings about Software Development) at http://musingsaboutsoftwaredevelopment.wordpress.com
Copyright 2010 Carol Dekkers – All Rights Reserved ———————