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How to use the paradox of choice in UX design to increase conversions

UserTesting  |  March 22, 2021

Have you ever stood in front of a candy aisle and been overwhelmed by the number of choices in front of you? Or browsing your favorite streaming media service struggling to pick something to watch because the possibilities are seemingly endless? You’re not alone. This internal struggle when presented with many options to choose from is called the paradox of choice.

What is the paradox of choice?

The paradox of choice is defined as an observation that having many options to choose from can cause people to stress and problematize decision-making. 

what is the paradox of choice: definition of paradox of choice

The notion here is that a large number of options should mean that people could ultimately make a choice that satisfied them. However, that’s not typically the case. Providing too many options can have its drawbacks. From feelings of anxiety when trying to make a decision to feelings of regret or worry that they may have made the wrong decision afterward. Let’s take a look at how the paradox of choice works in an example.

How the paradox of choice works

There’s a common belief that more choice is better. But when it comes to aiding decision-making and driving conversions, is that actually the case? Researchers, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, challenged this notion and conducted a study to understand the paradox of choice and the psychology behind it. Their study provided evidence about how people are influenced by the number of options they have to choose from.

In their study, they set up a jam tasting booth in Draeger’s, an upscale grocery store in Menlo Park, California. Half of the time they displayed 24 different flavors of jam, and the rest of the time they only displayed six. They observed two things in particular during their research. In which scenario were people more likely to:

  1. Stop and sample some jam
  2. Buy a jar of jam

The results were counter-intuitive to what many would guess. When researchers displayed 24 flavors of jam, 60% of people stopped to sample them, and 3% of those who stopped converted and purchased a jar. On the other hand, when they displayed six flavors of jam, 40% of people stopped, but 30% of them bought a jar.

In this example, we can see that the larger display was appealing to the eye, but overwhelming for the mind. Attracting the attention of shoppers is important, but not very valuable if they don’t make a purchase. When it came down to deciding to purchase a jar, consumers were at least six times more likely to convert when they encountered fewer options. But why is that?

The paradox of choice asserts that fewer options are easier to process

When people are presented with an exhaustive list of options to choose from, many find it very difficult to be decisive. To take it a step further, the more choices you offer, the more likely people will delay their decision—even if it goes against their best interest. Psychologists call this choice overload.

The process of understanding all the information, evaluating the options, comparing them to competitors, and deciding whether or not to buy takes so much mental effort that it’s easier to simply not make a decision.

The paradox of choice can cause analysis paralysis

In another study, Vanguard (the giant mutual fund) gave Iyengar access to the 401(k) retirement plan records of 739,749 different employees at about 2,000 different companies.

Her team of researchers found that for every ten mutual funds an employer offered, the rate of participation decreased by 2%. That means if a company only offered five funds, 10% more employees would participate than when they offered 50.

When you give people 50 choices of mutual funds—or 24 types of jams—they become paralyzed and end up choosing nothing instead. This means that logically, you can increase the chance of purchase by reducing the number of options.

Why is choice important in UX design?

The paradox of choice plays a significant role in UX design because websites are often a place where users are offered a large amount of choice—think e-commerce or streaming media.

If you hadn’t read this post, you might think that offering as many options as possible makes the user more likely to find something they need and purchase it from your website. However, all the choices are distracting to your user and may cause analysis paralysis—resulting in no purchase at all. Not to mention, all of this excess choice may cause stress for the user that could ultimately be associated with your brand.

Let’s take a look at a few ways UX design can lead to the paradox of choice:

CTA explosion

When there are too many CTAs on any one section of a website, the user may become confused about where to click. Additionally, too many CTA buttons can pull the user’s attention away from the main (or important) content on the page.

Content overload

Too many concepts being displayed or explained at once can make it difficult for a user to focus on just one piece of content. Instead of taking the time to process all the intended information, a user is likely to lose focus and miss the idea or product you’re trying to sell.

CTA chain

An endless chain of CTAs is not only confusing, but it’s frustrating for users who just want to get to where they need to be. Plus, it makes your site feel spammy and less trustworthy.

Keep the paradox of choice in mind to increase conversions: less is more

Fewer options lead to more sales in grocery stores and higher participation in 401(k) plans, but does the same framework apply to digital experiences? The paradox of choice, paralysis analysis, and choice overload certainly influences how users navigate websites and apps.

If you’re willing to get rid of extraneous, redundant, and unnecessary options, you’re likely to see more sales, lower costs, and a better user experience. Now let’s look at some examples of companies in different industries that are benefitting from considering the paradox of choice in their UX.

Examples of the paradox of choice in UX design

Ecommerce (Amazon)

Even though Amazon offers millions of products, they avoid choice overload by tailoring their recommendations to the types of things you search for and purchase. They even reduce stress from too many options by only highlighting 4-7 different options (depending on your screen size and device).

paradox of choice: amazon suggestions

They also apply this principle on product pages by offering suggestions in the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section (again, depending on the size of your screen).

paradox of choice: amazon people also bought

And as a final effort to reduce anxiety when making a purchase, Amazon provides a section that helps you compare similar items at a glance. This helps reduce the cognitive load and motivate confident decisions.

paradox of choice: amazon comparison

Tech products & web apps (Twitter)

Back in 2015, Twitter used to ask users to take a couple different actions on their homepage that wasn’t completely clear. Here’s what it looked like:

paradox of choice: twitter 2015

Even though there aren’t many options, all they really want you to do is two things: sign up or sign in. One of the ways they’ve increased their conversion rates over the years was to reduce the extraneous elements on the page and really focus on driving the two primary user behaviors that matter to them. Here’s what their homepage looks like today:

paradox of choice: twitter today

Pricing pages

When purchasing a product—especially a SaaS product—people want to be sure they’re purchasing the product that best suits their needs. By limiting choices and providing clear information about each package, people are more likely to make a selection.

paradox of choice: pricing pages

The categorization technique

Finally, there’s another technique that will help you eliminate choice overload and increase your conversions. It turns out people can handle more categories than they can handle choices. In fact, people don’t get as overwhelmed by categories because they intuitively help them organize their thoughts.

categorization technique netflix

Netflix uses categories to make it easy for users to tell things apart. Because they have a wide variety of content, putting it into categories makes it easier for the user to make a selection. You might be thinking that you still take forever to make a selection on Netflix, but just imagine how long it would take without any categories at all.

Test your experiences to avoid paralysis analysis

When it comes to online sales, the old adage is true: less is more. And people are more likely to convert when they encounter a limited number of options than when they encounter an exhaustive number of options. 

While you don’t need to be an expert in design psychology in order to be a proficient UX designer, understanding the basic principles of choice will help you build better products and experiences for your users. In the end, there isn’t a magic number of choices for driving conversions, but testing your experiences with your users will help you fine-tune your design.

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About the author:

With UserTesting’s on-demand platform, you uncover ‘the why’ behind customer interactions. In just a few hours, you can capture the critical human insights you need to confidently deliver what your customers want and expect.