Decision Paralysis

Martin Whittaker
Jan 6 · 4 min read

‘Choose less and feel better.’

- Barry Schwartz

It’s natural to assume that the more freedom someone has the happier they will be. Freedom and choice go hand in hand, the more freedom you have the more choices you get. Giving people the option to choose for themselves maximizes their freedom and allows us to be in control.

However, within user interface design the more choices a product offers, the harder it is to make sense of what’s going on. Giving people too many options can lead to Decision Paralysis. Lack of a clear path of what to do next will almost always lead to frustration and could be the death of your product.

Hicks-Law states the time it takes to make a decision will be longer as the number and complexity of choices increases. Decision time greatly impacts user experience, the longer you need to think about each decision, the less enjoyable the experience becomes. The more options you have to pick from the less satisfied we are by the outcome of that choice. This is known as the Paradox of Choice, a theory popularized by Barry Schwartz.


Information Architecture

Information architecture is paramount if you a user is to understand how a product works. It’s a fallacy to assume that making something easier to use always equals reducing the amount of clicks a user needs to get where they need to go. Getting where you need to go faster is of course a good thing but not at the cost of simplicity of navigation and general understanding of the product.

Feeding the information to the user slowly, in a digestible way is the best possible technique to make something easy and understandable and avoid Decision Paralysis.


Obscuring Complexity

When presented with a particularly complex process that may require a lot of thought and input from a user, it’s a good idea to obscure this complexity from the user by breaking down this process into smaller manageable chunks. This may result in the process being drawn out a little longer and increasing the amount of clicks but it greatly reduces the cognitive load of the user and increases the likelihood they will reach the end of this process. Done right it can also make an otherwise daunting experience, enjoyable.

This can be invaluable, if for example the flow is a checkout system. This technique will greatly decrease the amount of drop offs therefore increasing conversions.


Minimalism

Making something simpler to use doesn’t always mean reducing something to its bare minimum. Minimalist doesn’t always equal simple. Simple is really about clarity.

‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’

- Albert Einstein

An example of this is the hamburger menu, an example of minimalist design that has lead to great confusion amongst users. However, the more persistent a design idea is, regardless of how initially confusing it is, the more likely it will become understandable and develop into a design convention.


Design Conventions

A lot of designers strive to create something original, which is a fine goal and something to strive for but more often than not it can and usually does lead to failure. That’s not to say designers shouldn’t try to be original, but more that they should pick their moments wisely.

‘Conventions are your friends.’

- Steve Krug

Original design patterns compete against one another until one of them becomes dominant and thus becomes a convention. Conventions will persist for long periods until they are replaced by another competitor.

Designers should embrace design conventions not just because they are a quick solution for existing design problems but far more importantly because users have bought into these conventions, that is one of the reasons they exist in the first place. Embracing these conventions will help to reduce Decision Paralysis because they are familiar to users and will adhere to their preconceived notions of how a product may look and work.

Design conventions exist everywhere you look, cars, houses, furniture all conform to strict design conventions because they are tried and tested solutions to particular design problems. However, the opportunity for great innovation still exists within these spaces.


Smart Defaults

A great way to reduce Decision Paralysis is by using smart defaults. These are assumptions about what a user is likely to want to achieve at a certain moment in a process. This could be something as simple as, when buying a product online defaulting the quantity to 1 rather than 0, it’s logical and its one less thing a user has to do. Other examples include pre-selecting a location based on a user’s geolocation data. For a piece of software these should be anything that makes the product useable straight out of the box.


Conclusion

Software, being virtual has no restrictions or boundaries and inevitably its very tempting to try and make your product do everything. So it’s just as important to decide what it doesn’t do as much as what it does do. This applies both to the product as a whole and to what’s happening on screen at any given time. Once your product is out in the world and people begin using a feature, it becomes very difficult to take it away from them.

After someone actually starts using your product a streamlined solution with fewer, clearer goals will almost always generate more satisfaction. This does not mean you should start arbitrarily cutting features from your product but instead really think about the problem your product is trying to solve and create a clear path to the solution.

Martin Whittaker

Written by

Originally from Manchester, UK. Currently based in Fukuoka, Japan working as Design Lead at Qurate.

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