The Paradox of Choice

By Daniel Scocco

In economics there is a theory called “The Paradox of Choice”. It states that increasing the number of choices will improve the user experience, but only ultil a certain point. After that point the added choices will not only be indifferent to the user, but they might also become counterproductive.

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A simple example: market researches found that individuals in a supermarket are 10 times more likely to make a purchase if they have to choose among six rather than among 20 flavors of jam.

Now, what do jam flavors have to do with your blog you might ask? Your blog, just like the supermarket shelf, presents many choices for the visitor. Every link, in fact, is a choice. When someone visits your blog he will need to choose among reading the home page, clicking on a single category, clicking on the advertising, contacting you and so on. If that is the case you need to make sure that you are not overwhelming your visitor with too many choices (links).

This approach applies to the whole blog design. If you place too many fields on the sidebar like “Latest Posts”, “Latests Comments”, “Top commentators”, “Blogroll”, Polls, Badges, Meta Data and so on the reader will probably get confused and avoid the sidebar. Similarly if you fill the bottom of your posts with “Related Entries”, advertising, subscription buttons, affiliate links and other extra information the user will just get lost and skip those sections altogether.

Do not get me wrong here, having those items on your blog are important, but not all of them bundled together otherwise they will lose the usefulness. Limit the set of choices for the reader and he will be much more likely to perform an action (i.e. click on a link).




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22 Responses to “The Paradox of Choice”

  • AL

    Exactly what I was pondering. Bloggers need to critically reevaluate the stuff they throw together on their sidebars or end-of-posts, and they have to do that from the perspective of their new or returning visitors. In today’s ‘widgetized’ web, it’s easy to get sucked into placing irrelevant or not-so-useful widgets on your blog which, as you said, just add more irrelevant choices for the user.

  • Sabri

    A very good tips!

    Seriously speaking, your blog has among the best and eye-friendly design to read.

    Once a reader, always a reader. 😉

    Regards

    Sabri

  • Jack

    Exactly the reason I try to limit my choices. I work in retail, therefore know about choice killing selection.

  • Daniel

    Sabri, thanks for the nice words!

    Jack, yeah the concept applies to most endeavors in life, including retail.

  • Sabri

    Oh no… I realised that now my comment look very much like a spam comment. Please do know that by saying that your design is a pleasure to see is because you don’t put too many ads. A point made in your content.

    Now I have satisfied myself that I’m not spamming(or didn’t look like one). 🙂

  • Edward Wolf

    Very useful tip. Thank you.

  • Mike Panic

    There are some blogs I read on a regular basis like Engadget that that have 3 columns (some have more) and the main content of the site is only about 500pixels wide. The rest of their blog is filled with ads and random crap but I almost never see it. My eye is so trained as a reader now that it just goes to the left of their blog to read the comments.

    Some people are running 3, 4 and even 5 column WordPress blogs and its just too much fluff content. I’m actually thinking of removing the “Recent Commenter” off the right sidebar of my blog, which is sparse in design to start with. The reason is, I question how much value it really brings to the site and more importantly, what it adds to the users experience.

  • Bret – techtraction.com

    Nice post. I’ve had the same opinion for a long time now. There are countless blogs out there that put so much clutter in the side bar that the whole site is nearly impossible to understand: information overload. I’ve been slowly adding things to my own blog and trying to resist the temptation of filling up the sidebars. I must admit, however, the temptation is strong.

  • engtech

    It took me *forever* to learn this one. I keep on adding more features beyond the point when something is “done”.

    I think I still have to much info on the bottom of posts (top posts and last 12 posts), but at least I’ve gotten my sidebars under control.

  • Daniel

    Mike, you are right, there are some blogs that manage to get away with huge amounts of ads, but I guess they first established themselves as THE authority for a certain niche, and then readers would tolerate that due to the good content.

  • inspirationbit

    That’s an interesting look at a blog-related issue from the economics perspective. I agree, it is very important to find that golden mean that works both ways – we don’t want to overwhelm visitors with too many links, but at the same time we want to provide some points for exploring our blogs further.

  • Carey Baird

    Another great post, thanks for the info. I wonder what the exact amount of links are too many – I suspect the best way is to try and look at it from a neutral point of view or get a “normal” user to check out your page – if it looks too busy or confusing, then its too much.

  • donald

    This theory is called Hick’s Law. It more accurately describes the problem than the paradox of choice.

  • Daniel

    Carey, for sure different blogs will have a different optimal degrees of choices. It will depend probably on the type of content, on the type of readers (i.e. tech-savvy users probably can handle more links without problems). The key to find your ideal level is to test as you said.

    Donald, thanks for sharing that Law, it was new to me.

  • Bes Z

    Good point Daniel. Also, I think having extra links like latest comments and other things on the sidebar can be important, but if they ruin the experience of the reader, then they are bad. Of course, if you blog only for yourself without caring much about others or the audience reach, then you can do whatever you please on your blog.

    We have to experiment. I would like to stress this a lot! Experimenting is everything. We cannot just find something interesting and use it. For example, I am still debating over the use of many links in my sidebar [for my main site], even though it seems to be something that promotes a community. I would love to have less links, and I think I am going to clean it up more. Some sites can get away with no extra links other than the sidebar, and some sites can get away with a lot of links on the side.

    Choices are good; however, like some of your previous tips mention, we have to market our presentation in ways that users can understand and appreciate. We also have to see if the choices we are presenting to people are necessary or optional. For example, presenting links to other sections of a site can be necessary, but showing “latest comments” is optional. That optional component, the “latest comments” area in a sidebar, can both help people get involved more in a blog by showing them other commentors who are also commenting, and at the same time, that “latest comments” area will confuse a lot of readers who already know that clicking a post will show them comments for that post and seeing that extra information “only” allows them to participate more, but does not really give a strong incentive as to why they should participate. Does that make sense? I hope I am not too confusing.

    In the sidebar, I can put a couple of hundred links to outside places and to areas on my own site, and they can all be relevant to the user. However, simply adding a choice on top of other choices, when there are other ways to find out those exact choices by going through different places on a site, probably confuses people. Think about redundancy also; having the latest comments on every page while viewing pages with comments that show those same latest comments also confuses people more. It somehow adds more links pointing to the same page, the way we talked about in your other post regarding removing links from single titles. Of course, we can have dynamic sidebars, where going into specific single posts will not show certain elements of a sidebar, or even the entire sidebar all togther.

    Off-topic: there will be hundred different views on the same concept out there. That does not mean that what Daniel described was wrong/inferior compared to Hick’s Law, Donald. 🙂 The link you mentioned is interesting and we can incorporate it into our sites somehow too, as it seems to be more numberized; thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • donald

    You’re welcome. Like you, I also went/go to school for economics so I often apply econ theory to random non-econ things too 🙂 … like how opportunity cost can apply to web design, i.e. placing x element on a page is forgoing that space for any other element and the benefits it may have.

  • Todd

    I really need to clean the links on my site. I have never thought of it that way.

    Also, I’m thinking of picking up a minor in Economics.

  • Dawud Miracle

    I’m with you. It’s an interesting balance trying to decide on and fit the most important sidebar elements while not congesting the site. I’m not even sure I’ve been as effective as I could be.

  • Shawn Blanc

    Good design is not when nothing more can be added but when nothing more can be taken away. Choose the fetures you want to ‘major’ on and then leave the other’s out. It’s bitter sweet though.

  • Arul

    The same thing would happen if our website is too complex and gives too many distraction to our visitors. Too many pictures, too many offers, too many suggestions would just drive away potential sales.

    I’ve experimented with many methods and in my opinion. simplicity is the key to the best results. Too few choices in the other hand would make you visitors feel like they are ‘forced to’ follow your suggestion.

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