October 1, 2010, 2:57 pm
Freedom of Choice (with Assistance)
By Lisa Agustin
According to a recent article in strategy + business, creating a better shopping experience is really about offering a better choosing experience. More specifically, fewer choices. Offering people lots of options — 31 flavors! (Baskin-Robbins) 87,000 drink combinations! (Starbucks) 27 million books! (Amazon)– sounds like a great idea. But too many choices can have the opposite effect, leading to confusion, anxiety about the “right” choice and ultimately a poor choice or even No Sale. Why? In a nutshell, it comes down to neurological limits on our ability to process information–while the idea of lots of choices sounds exciting (there’s one made “just for me”!), it can be paralyzing to choose from too many options.
The article references studies performed in a grocery store (choosing a jar of jam) and a workplace (choosing a retirement savings plan) to illustrate its point, but it struck me that this applies to online experiences, too. A web site with a lot of content that offers too many options that are poorly organized will lead to frustrated users who will abandon your site for your competitor’s.
So how do we– marketers or user experience (UX) practitioners–craft a better choosing experience? Authors Sheen Iyengar and Kanika Agrawal offer the following tips, to which I’ve added my UX take:
- Cut the number of options.
- Create confidence with expert or personalized recommendations.
- Categorize your offerings so that consumers better understand their options.
- Condition consumers by gradually introducing them to more-complex choices.
Don’t worry about losing shelf space to competitors–in the end, trimming back the product line lowers costs, increases sales, and makes it easier for consumers to choose. According to the authors, “In case the poor performers aren’t evident from sales figures, focus groups and online networks can help you separate the wheat from the chaff.” My UX take: Focus on presenting the content and tasks that mean the most to your users. A combination of web analytics and user feedback (interviews or surveys) will help you figure out what should be on the site and what’s expendable.
Expert reviews and recommendations “let consumers skip over much of the information-processing component of choosing, minimizing cognitive stress and enabling them to make good choices,” according to Iyengar and Agrawal. My UX take: This tip speaks directly to the online experience. Many web sites offering highly differentiated items (books, music, clothes) benefit from recommendation tools, or automated systems (“electronic agents”) that generate suggestions based on consumers’ expressed preferences. While these tools require more of an investment on the part of the organization and sometimes the user (e.g., if a survey or profile needs to be completed), they can be worth it if your web site is one that offers a large quantity of content or inventory to peruse.
“For an expert, there is no completely unique product or service; rather, each offering is a distinctive combination of attributes that the expert has seen before.” The key is getting a novice to act like an expert by creating top-level categories that are easily understood. As an example, the authors cite wine retailer Best Cellars, which limits its varieties to 100 wines that are divided into eight top-level categories, such as “fizzy,” “juicy,” and “sweet.” Once the novice has chosen a category, he or she can choose a wine within that category by reading the detailed labels that accompany all the bottles. My UX take: For web site users that rely on browsing to find what they want, category names are critical. This means avoiding terminology that is either organization-centric (“Initiatives”) or vague (“Solutions”) and using what makes the most sense to users.
“For certain kinds of decisions, you can set up consumers for success by encouraging them to learn from, and build upon, their own previous choices.” Iyengar cites a study in which two groups of car customers were asked to customize their vehicles, choosing everything from the engine to the rearview mirror. The first group started by choosing features with a high number of options, moving to those with low numbers of options. The second group started by making choices for features with a low number of options first. In the end, the first group had a less satisfying experience: “They began by carefully considering every option, but they soon grew tired and settled for the default. In the end, they wound up less satisfied with their cars than the buyers who had progressed from low choice to high choice.” My UX take: Users can go through a lot of information online, provided it’s presented to them in a way that lets them process it in logical bite-sized pieces. This means creating an information architecture that uses categories that make sense to the intended audiences, a hierarchical structure that lets users drill down and expose more information as they need it, and a supporting design that visually prioritizes information on each page.
Iyengar and Agrawal acknowledge the dilemma: “Don’t marketers have to give consumers what they want? Yes and no. We should give them what they really want, not what they say they want…They want to feel confident of their preferences and competent during the choosing process; they want to trust and enjoy their choices, not question them.” The online experience should work the same way.
A closer look at its selection of items underscores the brilliance of Coulombe’s limited-selection, high-turnover model. Take peanut butter. Trader Joe’s sells 10 varieties. That might sound like a lot, but most supermarkets sell about 40 SKUs. For simplicity’s sake, say both a typical supermarket and a Trader Joe’s sell 40 jars a week. Trader Joe’s would sell an average of four of each type, while the supermarket might sell only one. With the greater turnover on a smaller number of items, Trader Joe’s can buy large quantities and secure deep discounts. And it makes the whole business — from stocking shelves to checking out customers — much simpler.
The key, as you point out, is refining to the best choices:
Customers accept that Trader Joe’s has only two kinds of pudding or one kind of polenta because they trust that those few items will be very good. “If they’re going to get behind only one jar of Greek olives, then they’re sure as heck going to make sure it’s the most fabulous jar of Greek olives they can find for the price,” explains one former employee.
In the UX case, if you’re going to limit the amount of content accessible in one click, it better be the most fabulous content.
Posted by Henry Woodbury on October 3, 2010 at 1:31 pm
Posted by Kirsten Robinson on October 5, 2010 at 9:30 am