Customers ask for more choice than they want

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More Choice == Good, Right?

It seems logical: people who buy stuff want choice (lots and lots of it.) We’ve built buying models, stores, and services that ensure that customers can buy whatever they want, whenever they want, and (almost) whereever they want. But giving someone a near-infinite number of choices doesn’t always help to buy faster or to be more confident – it often stops the buying process in its tracks.

Too much choice overloads a buyer (or browser) – see the classic Jam Experiment – and prevents them from getting to your ultimate goal. You want customers to buy your product or service, become a happily served customer who understands why that product or service is important to them, and agrees with the job that they hired you for. That job is to provide that product or service at what they perceive to be the “right” price.

A simple idea with broad implications

Here’s one solution to try: remove choice from buyers whenever possible. This sounds a bit draconian, but think of it in light of Clay Shirky’s advice to avoid filter failure. Shirky advises us to get better filters and not worry about having too much information. The best designed products and services do exactly that: either limit what they can do, and let you know it up front; or hide their complexity to be revealed in context for the buyer (or customer) who wants and needs that extra information. This is a user experience version of the concept of information hiding, abstracting the unnecessary details until they are needed.

What does limited choice enable?

Limiting choice results in mass market products because if you do it right you’ve achieved 80% of the functionality or benefit of the big idea, using only 20% of the complexity. Limited (and smart) choices result in a natural monopoly at scale, and improve sales or the speed of the sales cycle. Think of iPhone, Southwest Airlines, and Uber – these are all businesses that provide a well designed product or service, do what they do really well – and don’t try to serve the whole market.

Limiting choice also creates dissatisfaction for some people – they want it all, and would prefer no limitations. Android, Private Charter Service, and Private Car Sharing are great examples of these options, and I don’t want to imply that they are not good options – just that the addition of choice also often adds complexity and cost. Adding choice in these situations forces the user to make more decisions, often resulting in a slower sales cycle or an increased likelihood that the end user experience will be variable 😉

When you should you embrace as much choice as possible?

If you’re not trying to create a natural monopoly or want to create a service that offers as much choice as possible, a business that promotes “long tail” options – or those that individually do not offer enough profit to survive but when aggregated offer excellent potential – is a strong option. If the ideas are hard to bundle (think different kinds of books or music), might be handmade or limited production (like in Etsy), then providing a marketplace with as much choice as possible will help.

Adding choice can create chaos and a longer buying cycle. For the right business it will also unlock different buyers than the mass-market opportunity. So what about the compelling idea that more choice results in better informed buyers? Buyers who want this information will ask for it – provide this to them in context and try to avoid overloading people who don’t ask – until they need it.

What’s the desired outcome of the right amount of choice?

Matching available choice with the type of business you’re running is important. Too much choice and too little interest on behalf of buyers to determine why they should choose one option over another will just drive buyers away. Too little choice and not enough obvious utility (usually, 9x as much) will discourage existing users of other products and services from switching to your point of view.

The right amount of choice will bring:

  • faster buying cycles
  • more well-informed customers (when they want to be informed) who get what they want when they need it
  • happier buyers and happier sellers

When you can listen to any music, how do you choose?

I’m listening to Spotify today (Head and the Heart, if you’re wondering), and I realized that the explosion of music choices (in a day, I might listen to Pandora, Turntable, Grooveshark, KEXP Radio here in Seattle, or any one of a number of sources of music) hasn’t made it much easier to pick what I’d like to listen to at the time I’d like to listen to it.

True – the recommendations of friends and the ability to pick almost any song or album at any moment has given us an almost infinite ability to listen. And it has also given us an almost infinite menu of choices. I’m late to the party on this one, and I’m really enjoying the combination of Spotify when combined with to curate music I might like based on my choices. It leads me to believe that the next step in app development and service development overall is the shift from mass customization to real personalization based on behavior.

Why should we care? Because too much choice can be paralyzing and prevent you from acting. Barry Schwartz is a psychologist who studies the effect of choice – here’s his TED talk on the effects of too much choice on our overall happiness.

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