Designing for choice

The idea of ‘simplicity’ as a universal design principle is a notion widely promoted and accepted in design thinking. The words ‘keep it simple’ and ‘less is more’ are frequent expressions often repeated throughout a project’s lifecycle; either to promote the removal of complex concepts or the reduction of steps needed for a user to complete their desired goal.

When we delve into some of the most influential design literature of the last decade it’s clear to see why this concept has a stranglehold on what constitutes good design. ‘Don’t Make Me Think’, ‘Simple and Usable’ and ‘The Paradox of Choice’ amongst others, all tackle this issue head on and ultimately drive us towards one definitive conclusion:

Reduced choice = better user experience.

Until recently I wholeheartedly believed in this concept, and I still do for the most part; it makes total sense. Reduce the number of hoops your user has to jump through and the better they feel, the faster they feel it and the more likely they are to come back for more. It’s so logical! So what’s wrong? Well, there’s a part of my brain niggling away that can’t get over the fact that simplicity fundamentally requires reduced choice, but reduced choice doesn’t necessarily give the user the best experience, especially in the long term.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying make everything more complicated and overwhelm users with choice. I am simply highlighting a potential compromise that has to be made between creating a super simple streamlined product and creating long-term consumer benefit through integrating more choice. Obviously this isn’t applicable to every experience out there and is highly dependent on the industry but I feel it’s a point that needs to be discussed.

Let’s take a look at a handful of examples I’ve stumbled across recently:

Handy allows you to book cleaners as well as other services for your home. Evidently they exist to make finding, booking and managing a cleaner as stress free as possible based on how they market themselves on their website. However, whilst they allow you to do the first two steps rather well by simply putting in your location, cleaning requirements and how often you would like them to come, the management part has left me — and many others baffled. Once you have selected a cleaner and how often you would like them to come there is no way through the app to cancel that recurring appointment, the cleaner simply just keeps coming on your selected day of the week and in order to cancel you need to contact customer services. Wouldn’t it have been easier to add an additional step in the booking process which could let me choose how many weeks I would like to book the cleaner for or even allow me to select a recurring appointment?

Instead, the apparently stress free experience is now twice as frustrating, all in favour of making the sign up processes as lean as possible and potentially introducing dark UX patterns: maximising profits by not allowing me to opt out easily.

Next is one of my favourite companies, Airbnb. I think their UX is fantastic, from opening new windows automatically when selecting properties to allowing me to quick-view each property as I hover over. I love it all -very fast, very efficient and overall enjoyable to use. However, I recently read that hosts (who — let’s not forget — are customers too) will soon be required to make their properties ‘instant book’, meaning that they will not be able to vet their guests before they come and stay. Whilst this will make the process of booking much faster for guests, the long-term impact this can have on both parties could be detrimental i.e., hosts compensating for guests they have not vetted with increased deposits and cleaning rates to cover their concerns.

Both these examples are short sighted in terms of their design, focused almost entirely on streamlining the process of getting people in, and ultimately make the long term value of their respective services fall short of customer expectations.

So what can we do about it?

The good news is that in my opinion it’s actually pretty simple to start considering this in the design process. Firstly, make sure you define the long term goals of the user, not just from a functional point of view i.e. booking a flight, but also from an emotional perspective i.e. a stress free relaxing travel experience. By keeping these longer term emotional goals in mind when you start to map out potential features, steps and default options, you can think about a solution which doesn’t just allow the users to do it efficiently at that moment but one which will also provide a better long-term experience. Remember, one extra step in the process to booking a flight that gives me some baggage information may be slower but could actually give me the information I need to enjoy a seamless travel experience and make sure I don’t run into any problems at the airport.

The conclusion; that in UX less doesn’t mean more and faster doesn’t mean more efficient.

The best of both worlds

I’ve primarily been talking in the context of businesses that choose not to implement particular functionality in order to streamline the service, as a result reducing choice. But as I said earlier, there is a compromise that great products manage to meet. Uber is probably the best known of this kind and is currently in the process of adding many more features such as pre-booking a ride in advance and coinciding Uber Eats delivery with your estimated arrival time. The key is to elaborate on a mental model that has become solidified in the consumer’s psyche and to build new features around that core piece of understanding (more about this in my next article). So you see, adding features isn’t something to be afraid of but something to aim towards if they meet the customer’s long-term ideals.

Final thoughts

I don’t want UX to grow short-sighted. With the speed that both projects and the industry itself moves it’s easy to forget the long term goals of users and the emotional benefits that choice can give them. The prominent rhetoric of simplify, simplify, simplify is not something to ignore but something to be wary of. It is not about simplicity at all costs but rather something to apply when the user’s long term goals, ambitions and experiences are not impeded by that design.

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