Article: The Paradox of Choice: An Interview with Barry Schwartz

Jared Spool

August 28th, 2006

Watching people shop online for digital cameras online is quite interesting. Every site has a ton of little silver boxes to choose from and shoppers have no clue where to start. They had hoped the site would provide some sort of advice as to which camera was going to be best for them. The site never did.

Interestingly, we noticed the sites with the fewest choices seemed to make the shoppers the happiest. We thought taking away choice would upset them, but it had the opposite effect.

Our experience watching the shoppers matches exactly what Barry Schwartz wrote in his landmark book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.” His research, as the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, has shown that choice overload is a real problem. He’s shown how more choices can be detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being.

As designers, we really need to understand how choice affects our users. We can make designs that give users all the options, or we can create designs that limit choices and guide users to success. What will work best for our users?

We think choice overload is so important, we’ve invited Barry to be the User Interface 11 Conference Spotlight Presenter. We’re thrilled he’ll be sharing his work at our conference and I think it’s going to be enlightening to everyone.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Barry about his work. He and I talked about his research techniques, the experience of choice overload, and what designers can do about it.

Read the transcript of my conversation with Barry.
Listen to the podcast.

8 Responses to “Article: The Paradox of Choice: An Interview with Barry Schwartz”

  1. Michael Says:

    Wow. That’s interesting. Tell us more! The first thing I thought of when I read was the “rich link” home pages article —

    Is this a case of the difference between browsing to content and picking options?

  2. Drew Says:

    “It Depends.” In this case, I think it depends on the type of choice being made and, most crucially, where the expertise lies in making the choice.

    In the case of choosing a camera from an ever-growing, ever-changing variety of cameras, I’d argue that in most cases the manufacturers are the experts. They know not only what makes a good camera from a technical point of view, they know what features they put into their cameras and what they’re good for. The typical camera buyer, assuming she’s not a professional or even dedicated amateur photographer, knows she wants a portable camera that takes good pictures, and maybe a handful of features she wants in addition to that, but she’s not the expert. In this case I fully agree that it’s the site’s job to help guide her to the camera that’s best for her — artificially limiting the choices to make her happier would actually just hide the problem, not solve it. She still doesn’t know there might be a better camera out there for her, but she’s happier because she thinks she’s gotten the best one. (There’s a political analogy here but I won’t go there.)

    In other types of choices, she’s the expert. Ask her what color camera she wants. Eight color choices might lead to a little more anxiety (my favorite color changes daily, it seems) but she’s still the expert on what color she likes. Give her a list of 24 electronics categories and if they’re well-defined and distinct, she can point to “Cameras.” Would she be happier with one single 48pt link that says “Cameras”? Maybe, but how did the site designer figure out what she was shopping for?

    I’m just feeling this out, but my gut says there’s more to your first, richer comment about the site providing a catalog but no advice or guidance than there is to the fallback solution “just take away the choice.”

  3. Anne Caborn Says:

    The work we’ve done at CDA strongly indicates that people respond best when they feel in control of the decision making process. Filters to reduce choice make sense but they must be presented from the user perspective. So, while the Amazon model: “People who bought this also bought…” does work, it is much more stimulating for the user if they get to set the filters eg dropdowns/radio buttons that allow them to dictate maximum price, features, colour…. and even demographic – Are you -0- Someone who loves technical gadgets -0- Someone who likes things kept simple -0- The sort of person who enjoys reading the manual that comes with a new product? These demographic filters should reflect the product or service offering. So long as the site has a good content management system, this is relatively straightforward to set up and can bring choice down to manageable levels. It’s also important the choices about choices don’t get too complicated. Think in terms of groups of 3 or 5 simple questions (3s and 5s are good brain management multiples) that cut the ultimate choice list by at least 75% or down to one short web page. You can offer More choices? as an option.

  4. Ed Schlotzhauer Says:

    I recommend you read Mr. Schwartz’s book that Jared referenced (“The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less”). It is tedious in places but he makes some very interesting points.

    Don’t make the mistake of of reading this as “eliminate all choice or control”. For instance, a link-rich web page is not a problem, because clicking on a link is not a “choice” in the sense he is describing. It is an exploration. The user can go back any time and go down a different path. It is easily reversable. It is not like buying a car or choosing a career or even (to use one of his examples) choosing a jar of jam.

    I think, from my own experience, that the sheer amount of choice everyone faces everday and the near impossibility of getting enough information to make an intelligent decision is a mounting problem.

    As a community of people who want to make the user experience better, we should think about this and act on it where we can.

  5. Heidi Says:

    I was listening to a podcast of The Works (great Seattle NPR show that covers business/tech topics), and the host was interviewing an employee whose primary responsibility is to make the Amazon grocery store the best it can be. She was talking about how all of her vendors and all of her data show that consumers want MORE products to choose from. You can download the MP3 of the Amazon interview and listen to it:

    She was talking about how their data show that customers like choosing from 70 Jello flavors. She was saying that her vendors have been telling her that the feedback they receive from their customers is that they like to select from a wide variety of flavors/variations. And Amazon gives users the ability to shop for 70 flavors, unlike a grocery store where people select from the top 5 flavors.

    So perhaps it does come down to the type of decision that you’re making: for digital cameras, less choice or somehow “smart filters.” But for something that is feature-less and easy to comprehend, like Jello, being able to select the exotic, less-known flavor is OK. Or perhaps shopping at Costco is so enjoyable because if you want decaf coffee beans, you sometimes only get one option–a peaceful decision.

  6. Heidi Says:

    I just listened to the full podcast of the Schwartz interview and now realize that the Amazon Jello example fits into the Amazon Book paradigm: when you know exactly what you want, a place like Amazon is perfect because you’ll be able to find it. When you know you want Jello, you can buy Jello. Then, the first time, you might browse all of the flavors, but then on subsequent visits to the Amazon Jello page, you can quickly target your favorite [perhaps exotic] flavor and be at the checkout within seconds or minutes.
    So it really does come down to whether you’re browsing or selecting. You SELECT your Jello, but you BROWSE for digital cameras. However, on your first visit, you are Browsing for the Jello, much like you’re sampling ALL of the jams that Schwartz mentions in the podcast, and thus you perhaps forego the Jello is some cases because the number of choices is overwhelming, just as you forego purchasing the jam.

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