Before having my son, I had to buy a stroller. There are so many strollers. Big ones. Small ones. Folding ones. Different colors. Different designs. Ones that transform. Used ones. New ones.
I needed a stroller and the idea of picking the wrong one gave me anxiety. What if I spend too much money? What if I spend too little? What if I regret buying the wrong one because of some unforeseen requirement? I was paralyzed. Of all the experiences before having a baby, this is probably the most prominent thing I remember. To this day, it still gives me anxiety.
Unfortunately, decision paralysis is not specific to strollers. In 2000, psychologists Iyengar and Lepper did a study where they sold jam in a grocery store. First, they offered 24 types of jam. On a later date, they offered six types of jam in that same display.
What were the results? The larger display attracted more interested buyers but they were less likely to buy. When they did buy, it took them longer to choose. This is also known as Hick’s Law.
Another lens through which to look at this problem is information overload.
What is information overload?
Information overload is the paradox that the more information and options we provide to our users, the more considerations they have to make, which actually makes it more difficult to make a choice. By providing users with more choices, product designers can actually make it harder on them, not easier, to make a decision and be satisfied with your product. With more possible choices, users are more likely to make mistakes and ultimately make decisions they’re less happy with.
Below is a list of common cases of information overload users and customers can encounter on a daily basis:
Information Overload Examples
- Menu options
- Product displays
- Terms of service
- Pricing and billing options
- User interfaces
1. Menu options
Whether you’re navigating a tool of going out to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, too many options on a menu can confuse users and make it harder for them to decide which path is the right one for them.
2. Product displays
If you manage an ecommerce store, a product page, or a grocery store, too many products to choose from could lead customers to choose the wrong one -- or to not purchase at all.
3. Terms of service
Terms of service agreements are lengthy -- and for good reason. But because of the length and breadth, it’s important to give users and customers different options to review them, especially if they’re signing a contract or paying money. Facebook does a nice job of segmenting the lengths terms into different subsections users can review.
4. Pricing and billing options
Pricing pages are another common tripwire for information overload. In an effort to provide different options to encourage buying, you can inadvertently make it harder to decide, and therefore to buy. At HubSpot, we redesigned our pricing page to be more reactive, so prospects can filter according to the price point they want, or the features they want to include.
5. User interfaces
The user interface of a homepage or home screen for your website, tool, or product can set the tone for the rest of their interactions. If the first thing they see is a homepage or interface that’s cluttered with modules, text, images, and videos, it can be extremely off-putting, and make it hard to find the information they need to make their next move. Below is an example from The Daily Mail, which is chock-full of information about the Royal Family, but it’s hard to decide where to start reading or looking first.
Source: Daily Mail
Below is a snapshot of my colleague, Sophia Bernazzani’s inbox shortly after signing up for emails from a retailer she likes to shop at. A little overwhelming, right?
She unsubscribed from these emails shortly after signing up, even though the subscription offers discounts and special offers on items she already likes to buy. But even if it seems like a compelling offer to the business, it’s important to remember that customers and users spend their days fielding phone calls, emails, Slacks, and snail mail, so a dedicated strategy for communication is key to not overloading them with even more information.
How Product Designers Can Prevent Information Overload
Hick’s Law and information overload may not seem particularly groundbreaking. Who cares if it’s the wrong jam? However, if you’re choosing from 50 Vanguard retirement plans, and you don’t contribute because you’re overwhelmed by the number of options, it could impact on your ability to retire.
Barry Schwartz, Psychologist, gave a TED talk on the paradox of choice. He alludes to this study and emphasizes the cost of too many choices. "Not only does this mean people are going to have to eat dog food when they retire because they don’t have enough money put away, it also means that making a decision is so hard they pass up significant matching money from the employer … up to $5,000,” said Schwartz.
Choice can also take an emotional toll. Imagine you’re at a restaurant, like the one we mentioned earlier. There are close to fifty items on the menu and at least 10 are something you’re genuinely interested in. After 15 minutes of consideration, you order a dish. How do you feel? How would you feel if that decision was between three options instead?
The more choices, the more missed opportunities to consider. And the more missed opportunities to consider, the more regret you feel. Below are a few of my suggestions for preventing your customers from feeling the dread and confusion of information overload, based on my years of experience as a senior product designer at HubSpot.
1. Run weekly design critiques.
“We built a new feature. Let’s add it to the global navigation.” A teammate suggested this to me a while back.
Would our feature be highly discoverable? Yes. The global navigation is the most highly prioritized, most visible part of our entire product. Would it get a lot of usage? Because of the placement, our hypothesis is yes. Was it as important to our users as the other items in that navigation? Unclear. This was a new feature and we had no user research data and no behavioral data.
Will one more navigation item really impact our users that much?
Here’s the thing. I feel very protective of our customers. We know the majority of them work in small and medium-sized companies and wear many hats. They’re incredibly busy and it’s our job to advocate for them in these situations.
If I add one more feature to the navigation, it means I add one more decision for every customer. The same goes for any additional text, icon, button, link, color, field, or radio button anywhere in our product. It means a little more anxiety, a little more paralysis, and a little more potential regret on top of all the other decisions they have to make in their daily lives. What should they make for dinner? What should they buy mom for her birthday? Which pipe should they buy to fix the plumbing issue in their bathroom?
Our User Experience (UX) team takes pride in this value and we run weekly design critiques to ensure we hold each other accountable to changes we've made, and provide feedback where needed so no UX changes are being made in a vacuum.
2. Always keep your end user in mind when making changes -- especially if they’re additions -- to a product.
The truth is, we’re constantly striking a balance between limiting choice for our customers and giving them access to the things they need. Additionally, that balance varies based on how often customers use our designs.
When I designed for the content management system team, the majority of my users interacted with my designs once or twice a month. This meant that every time they went to build out a landing page, they looked at that design with fresh eyes. They had to relearn everything each time. Some forgot how to perform key actions.
In contrast, the majority of my CRM users (sales reps, sales ops, and sales managers) are in my product every single day, all day. Because they’re in my designs so often, they remember where everything is and they feel comfortable with more choices and more information. This is a stark contrast with the marketers who make landing pages once or twice a month. The more customers use a design, the more choices they feel comfortable making. Miller's Law lays down this framework stating that the average person can only keep between five and nine items in their working memory, so I try to bear this in mind, along with my users’ professions and needs, when I’m thinking about or proposing product changes.
3. Analyze user data and feedback on a regular basis.
To find the right number of choices for your design, one must look inward. Here is what I recommend:
- Pull behavioral data to understand 3-5 key user flows in each design. These flows should be the thesis of why your design exists. They are the critical paths for customers in this view.
- Get on a call or meet in person with customers and have them to walk through those key flows while speaking out loud. Include both new customers and experienced customers. How quickly can they make a decision? Do they seem anxious? Do they regret their decision? You may have given them too many choices. Are they impatient? Annoyed they have to go somewhere else to do what they need to do? Bored? Maybe you can add choices to your design.
Analyzing the results can be time-consuming. It’s easy to toss a word in here, another color in there, and a feature in the navigation. What’s not easy, is reversing hundreds or thousands of lazy design decisions after your company has scaled. Don’t wait until your customers scream. Be good to them and do what’s right. Put in the work to make decision making manageable from the start and build a culture of it on your team by running weekly design critiques. Your customers may not thank you but you’ll sleep well knowing they have one less thing to worry about in their very busy, hectic lives.
To learn more, learn the definition of technical product management next.