Designers create choices.
The working designers among you often create multiple options that non-designers must make a decision on. You present concept sketches or renderings for a client to choose between. If you work for a consumer goods company, you may be designing multiple iterations of a product, and consumers are meant to pick one of them to purchase. Tropicana offers 15 variations of orange juice; Colgate offers 47 types of toothpaste. In modern society, choice seemingly provides freedom, individualism, and ultimately, happiness.
But in actuality, having too many choices can leave people with a taste in their mouths worse than, well, orange juice and toothpaste.
Having choices can backfire. The 14th Century French philosopher Jean Buridan likened this to a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty, placed equidistant from a pile of hay and a pail of water. Unable to make a rational decision to choose between the two, he stands there until he expires from lack of both. Studies show that the same paralysis hits us when faced with an overwhelming amount of choice, or having to choose between complex items, or choice that has no stark differentiators, such as the donkey's hay and water.
Still, we stubbornly demand the option to choose. Your client's never going to be happy with just one rendering and no options, and customers may not want Object X if it only comes in red. So what is it that really goes on inside people's heads?
A fintech startup working on a marketplace for credit cards witnessed an interesting phenomenon during their early research. They developed a platform that guides customers to the credit card that's "perfect" for them, by matching them with their interests or spending habits. And customers love it--up until it is time to make their final choice.
In early testing, experimental users loved it when the application automatically narrowed their choice from 25 cards to eight cards, and then to five cards. But when the app provided the single best match, customers became suddenly anxious. "Is there only one?" they remarked. "Could you show me a few more like this?" So they reverted back to wanting more choice, but as they said, "Not too much!" We are left with a paradox, where users were both attracted to and repelled by choice. And it begs the question: What is the optimal amount of choice and why?
We're in a Jam
Consider a study from Columbia University psychologist Sheena Iyengar. Supermarket shoppers encountered two tasting stations of jam, one that had 24 flavors, the other six. While the 24-flavor station attracted the most shoppers, the smaller selection led to more sales – 30 percent of shoppers purchased jams from the smaller stand. In contrast, the 24-flavor station had a conversion rate of only three percent. Many studies since have proven that when you narrow choice, sales increase. But it is a bit more complicated that this simple conclusion, and Iyengar's study received debate in recent years.
There is a more nuanced point: Iyengar's study also found that shoppers were happier with their purchase when they had to decide from six options. Those who bought from the 24 choices walked away anxious, most likely because they had many more reference points with which to compare.
It turns out that when you increase the number of variations, you increase the potential that your customer will regret their choice.
This idea was further explained by behavioral economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who discovered that people regretted loss from an action they made, but did not regret a similar loss from inaction. This links back to the donkey and its inaction. We sometimes fall back on a decision to not choose, to do nothing at all, because we are terrified of regret, also known as loss aversion.
Live Three or Die Hard
Too much or too little choice leave users uncomfortable; the right amount of choice makes it easier for them to decide--and, importantly for brands, has them feeling great about their choice, post-decision. So what is the "Goldilocks" amount of choice? Studies show that we are able to choose effectively from no more than five options at any one time--and that three may be the magic number.
Why three? Because three provides a middle, and there is a lot of research supporting the idea that the middle item is usually the one that people pick.
When people are asked to pick a number between two numbers, they generally tend to choose a number close to the middle. And when faced with the choice of four bathroom stalls, people choose the middle two twice as often as they choose one of the outer two. Or if you offer people the choice of three highlighters, they will more than likely choose the middle one. In a row of three chairs, people will more often than not choose the middle one. And similarly in business, customers will tend to choose the mid-priced item. This is why e-commerce sites often have three pricing options—it provides a stronger prediction of what consumers will choose, and, you guessed it, it's the middle option that is most often bought. Our attraction to the middle affects our daily decisions, our purchases, our driving routes and all kinds of other actions we make somewhat unconsciously. The phenomenon is well known to social psychologists and it has a name: The 'center stage effect.'
Enter the Center
This center stage effect happens for physical as well as social reasons. First, physiologically, we are programmed to look at the middle first. Even when scanning a busy scene, a room, a painting, a computer screen, and presumably an industrial design rendering, we first focus on the middle or center before moving around the edges of that scene. So we tend to have a bias for the middle right away simply because we notice it more and attend to it for longer, and because of this we are already biased to choose the middle or center item.
Second, we have social norms that bias us to view the center as better. In one study, students were asked where they would sit in order for the professor to notice them and they picked center and up front. They were also asked where they would sit if they wanted to go unnoticed—and they picked the edges. We seemingly just know this, but in fact we have become socialized to think this way. Company leaders sit in the middle, at the head of a table. On teams, the last picks are usually from the edges of the group, and the least popular products are positioned on the top or bottom shelf, further out of reach. Of course there are functional reasons for this positioning, but the point is that it influences our decisions elsewhere, as in when we choose products or services.
Nothing about this process is rational; it is purely about balancing the irrational nature of decisions and respecting your clients' or customers' emotions.
This last point is important for all businesses to get right. Successful entrepreneurs tend to notice the things that others miss. They care about how their users feel at every step of the purchase journey. You never want to leave a customer or client feeling uncomfortable, baffled or anxious. Ultimately, understanding the irrational motivation of your end users, whoever they are, can go a long way towards determining the success of your product.