Overchoice, Choice Paralysis and The Paradox of Too many Options

Choice Paralysis is an important concept to understand, whether you’re running a business, building a website or offering products. By understanding the issue you can learn to avoid it, and reap the benefits of an organisation that runs smoothly, a website that doesn’t hurt people’s brains and sell products without stifling the customer.

Choice Paralysis (or) “The Paradox of Too Many Options”

“This project has the engine of a Morris Minor, and the brakes of a juggernaut.”

I’ve touched upon this before in a previous post, but today I want to cover more fully a topic I feel strongly about: Choice paralysis.

What is Choice Paralysis?

In a nutshell, choice paralysis refers to the act of giving customers so much choice that they effectively shut down and do nothing.

An example might be a menu system with 20 links in each menu. Another example might be a clothes website that sells 60 varieties of what is essentially the same t-shirt, but with very minor variations between each.

Choice is a good thing, right?

There is a widely held belief that choice grants people freedom, and freedom makes us happy. How true is it?

On the outset it can appear to be a good thing to give customers lots of choice. If Joe Bloggs likes product X then we can sell product X1 to Jane Doe. And why stop there? By creating X2 we can sell to John Smith and with X3 we’ve got a product to sell to Anne Nonymous. Carry on that way and before you know it you’ve got to product X60 and what happens? Now customer A. N. Other can’t choose between the myriad of near-identical products. Whoops.

In his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less”, psychologist Barry Schwartz looks at how consumerist choice is at an all time high, and yet the maxim that choice makes us happy doesn’t seem to have held true.

Analysis Paralysis

It’s not often I write an article that affects web designers, programmers, project managers, product managers, middle managers, directors and CEOs. But the same issue affects businesses at an organisational level.

We’ve all been in meetings that drag on and on and on, arguing over the most ridiculous minor detail. Who cares if the icon is cornflower blue or azure? Does it really matter whether the link is on the right or the left? Is it really that important that the product have that particular keyword in it?

Analysis paralysis refers to analysing every single possibility in order to maximise profit, to the point where any benefit is lost by the amount of time spent in analysis. It happens in meetings. It happens when a manager is scared to make a decision in case it ends his career. It happens when engineers spend so long planning their new project to make sure they “get it right”, that any benefit has long since been lost.

A government project I worked on back in 2006 was summed up brilliantly by a co-worker when he said, “This project has the engine of a Morris Minor, and the brakes of a juggernaut.” The problem? Analysis paralysis.


I should say that none of this is a new idea, “Overchoice” was coined as a term in the 1970s by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock. His focus was on consumerism, but his thoughts are equally valid in the field of user interface design, of which web design is a subset.

The World Wide Web didn’t come along until 1991, but Alvin Toffler had already laid down guidelines that would affect it 21 years earlier. And now, 21 years later still, people are still making the same mistakes.

Is there hope?

Absolutely there is. It’s simply key to keep in mind a few basic principles when designing a user interface. And, yes, a web page is a user interface.

First of all, try to limit your variations of a product. If you sell hats, don’t make 50 identical designs in slightly differing shades. If you sell sandals, don’t add another 30 to your line-up that have a just ever-so-slightly different flower on them.

Group things together, categorise them, make it easy to search for them by their characteristics with a filtering system or similar. Try a simple test: Get your mum or someone else not familiar with your shop and get them to try and find a specific product, see how long it takes them. That’s how long each and every one of your customers are spending cursing your name for having too many almost identical products.

Remember the 7±2 rule: Keep things grouped together in groups of no more than 9 items, preferably closer to 5.

When building menus keep them uncluttered and spacious.

Never assume that more is more. The phrase “less is more” really does hold true in a lot of circumstances.

About Matt Lowe

Matt Lowe is a WordPress web designer / developer based in Newbury, Berkshire. After 8 years of doing the nine-to-five for other companies and watching them make the same mistakes over and over he set out in business on his own, forming Squelch Design to help businesses get online and make money.

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