There’s just something about making decisions that gets me all worked up. Especially those daily, mundane choices like choosing food at a restaurant, clothing in a webshop, or what to cook for dinner. As soon as the time comes to make a decision, I feel a small ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, and my blood pressure starts to rise.
If you can relate to this, well, luckily we aren’t alone. Choice overload is paralyzing for many and often causes them not to decide at all. Or, perhaps even worse, causes them to be more dissatisfied with their choice compared to if there were fewer options.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality of this issue is that there aren’t many signs of it letting up. Realistically, it will probably only get worse in the coming years.
We live in a digital society. Virtually every store is online and if they aren’t… well, I don’t need to remind you what happened to Blockbuster and Barnes and Noble.
With the changing times, we believe it's worth arguing that the moment is long overdue for eCommerce companies to make it easier for their customers to make decisions. And we aren't alone in this sentiment, as you can see from the growing body of choice overload literature.
Choice overload is a widespread phenomenon
Let’s turn back the clock to 2000 when Columbia and Stanford’s researchers came together to research the puzzling paradox of choice.
Before this landmark study, there was a common presumption that the more choice, the better. Economists and marketers alike believed that by offering more options, customers would be more satisfied with their purchases.
They made this assumption based on the rationale that everyone is different so they must all want their products their way. By broadening the product offering, more people would find their heart’s desire with, for instance, that oddly specific Creamy Garlic Caesar Salad bag of chips.
Contrary to this assumption, they found that people are not rational (surprise, surprise). Namely, researchers Iyengar and Lebber found that although consumers seemed intrigued and empowered by more choices at first, this enthusiasm quickly faded.
So much so that those exposed to 24 jam choices (instead of just 6) were less likely to buy than those who saw less variety. Talk about a sticky situation.
This benchmark article lit the match to various follow-up studies. Through the course of these, multiple factors were identified relating to when (and when not) choice overload is an issue.
Specifically, one article compiled 99 studies, consisting of a total of 7,202 respondents, to outline choice overload’s impact.
This meta-analysis (i.e., an article that combines the findings of various studies to find generalizable results) identified four factors that can reliably predict when, whether, and how assortment size is likely to influence choice overload.
When is choice overload a problem?
1. The decision is (made) difficult
Have you ever experienced that moment of panic when the server comes to your table to take your order, and you’re still contemplating the appetizers on page 1 of a 10-page menu? Before you know it, the added pressure of making a choice in a limited time inhibits your ability to make a decision at all.
This can have one of two effects: One, you become less satisfied with your choice; Or two, your confidence in your decision diminishes.
Highly differentiated Products
Next to this, large product assortments with highly differentiated products contribute to more difficult decisions. Namely, it’s easier to choose between two options that just differ in color instead of a difference in color, design, and durability.
Chaos: A common complication of shopping at second hand stores or blow-out sales. Products are thrown left and right, making it hard to make a choice - let alone find your ideal product at all!
Moral of the story? Presentation makes a difference, a big one at that.
Research has found that when products are not ordered logically, consumers spend more time and effort in searching for their preferred choice. The result is increased cognitive effort and overload, as well as, ultimately, inaction.
2. The choice set is complex
Choice overload is especially prevalent when an individual has to consider multiple options that only slightly differ from one another and don't contain a superior option.
If this is the case, it may be the result of products being similar in overall attractiveness, alignability, or complementarity. Do you recognize any of these in your or your favorite store's catalogue?
Attractiveness refers to the overall quality perception of the product. Consumers are most likely to suffer from choice overload when the product assortment is extensive in terms of high quality, attractive options.
Alignable products are those that only differ in specific features. Like a car with a 2.2-liter engine instead of a 2.5-liter engine. These product features are seen as trade-offs with differences not significant enough for the layman to differentiate easily between.
Complimentary options represent product features that compliment a product but do not necessarily largely differentiate one product from another. For example, cavity fighting or whitening toothpaste. Because the product nuances are small and seemingly insignificant, indecision can be triggered in shoppers.
In short: Products offerings that don’t differ greatly from each other cause cognitive strain for decision makers.
3. The customer has no preference
Shoppers with preference uncertainty also suffer from choice overload. Especially those who aren’t educated in a specific product category or don't have a preference to lead their decision.
These effects are reversed when someone is an expert in a product category or has clear and articulated preferences for a variation of a product.
4. The consumer doesn’t want to put too much effort into their decision
Individuals have a select number of cognitive resources, which are virtually what your brain uses to process information. So when a task (such as making a choice) takes up an increased amount of resource, it becomes exhausting - and honestly, off-putting.
Our brains use heuristics (i.e., mental shortcuts) to try and minimize decision-making effort and avoid mental depletion. So, when being exposed to just a limited selection isn't possible, we rely on these shortcuts to make better judgments and quicker decisions.
However, more often than not, many of us will just give up if something takes too much effort. Especially when it comes to finding a specific product (rather than just browsing) in a large, illogical, or complex assortment, the threat of choice paralysis is imminent.
It should be noted that some individuals seek variety. And the search they conduct for a product increases the satisfaction they feel when they find “the one.” This distinction in human behavior reinforces the importance of doing thorough consumer research.
How to ease the effects of Choice Overload
When it comes to selling your products, whether that be online or in-store, it’s important to try and reduce the mental strain that your customers experience. This might seem like a daunting task at first look, but luckily, it’s not.
To start making strides in the right direction, pay some special attention to your design, information, and selection. When these elements are fine tuned, you ensure a better customer experience for your shoppers.
Design: Make decisions easier and more intuitive
First and foremost. It’s easiest to start with your design. Are you presenting your products in the best light possible? Think about those choice overload triggers outlined in 1 and 4 (difficult decisions/uneducated in the product category).
Give your shopper enough time to process information. This goes for the amount of time given and the product presentation. Group your products in logical ways, find the overarching categories and organize accordingly.
It's also crucial to give your customers enough time to consider their choices before approaching them (in-store). If online, gauge exit behavior before prompting them to sign up for discounts or special offers.
Be sure to tread carefully when using aggressive time-limiting marketing techniques such as using scarcity-driven tactics. While this is proven to be effective, it can also have adverse effects. Be honest. Don’t use fake countdowns or stock numbers (I’m talking to you, cheap Facebook advertising sites). Avoid losing the consumer’s trust or overwhelming them with too little time.
Your design could also incorporate particular heuristics such as the use of certain colors, music, or pricing. Taking advantage of individuals’ mental shortcuts will add to the ease of a shopping experience and make decisions more natural (read more about that here).
Intuitive and simple design is king. Cater to this and reap the benefits.
Information: Give the details needed to make the right choice
For highly differentiated or complex products, provide accessible information that lists the pros and cons of product features. Try to inform your customer so they are empowered to make the best possible choice that with leaves them satisfied.
Another increasingly popular tactic to establish differences in similar products is the use of triggers or product tags (e.g., new, popular, expert’s choice). Triggers bring together human psychology and effective design to shape shoppers’ choice architecture in a way that allows them to make better decisions.
We use these triggers to highlight products. For example, our tags can show which items are the season’s most popular, limited edition, or new and innovative.
Selection: Present a limited assortment
When it comes down to it, the most efficient way to reduce choice overload is to provide fewer choices.
Designers should predict the user’s needs in certain situations to achieve a normality and unobtrusiveness of the product.
You could eliminate choices by featuring only top selling products or new collections in their respective categories while showcasing the rest of your items in the clearance section of your shop.
This technique can be tricky. As finding the balance between what people do and don’t want isn’t always easy. It takes a thorough understanding of your customers, products, and market offering.
Resisting the rational approach
Choice overload and its side effects may be counterintuitive. But, unfortunately, it’s a pressing issue that needs to be addressed.
Taking the necessary steps to prevent and ease its effects make a difference. The last thing you want is for your customers to become paralyzed or dissatisfied.
So what steps do you need to take to make your shop less stressful for your customers?
- Make the decision less painful: Use simple design, give shoppers time to decide, provide choice shaping information.
- Shed light on products to lessen the complexity of choices: When products are similar, differentiate them by highlighting their USPs or offering detailed information.
- Use triggers and heuristics: Shoppers only have so much energy to spend on choosing a product. Highlight product features or characteristics so those who are uneducated or unwilling can use these to shape their decision.
- Contact Crobox: We’ll help you optimize your webshop in a way that’s beneficial for you and your customers ;)
We’ve found choice overload is the top barrier for click-through rates on the product listing page. Check out how we reduce it in our Persuasion Profiling White Paper.