Don’t let good customers make bad decisions

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Quick: how many clicks does it take to do something important in your product? Count them. If it seems like too many, it probably is too many clicks if you want the customer to keep coming back. The “too many clicks” problem is a symptom of a bigger problem that you probably have if your product is anything but a version 1.0. The problem? It just takes too many decisions to do anything. And you have a limited amount of good decisions in your day.

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” (

When Good People Make Bad Decisions

When you don’t make good decisions, the results are disastrous – both in terms of tactics (do I want to do something in this web site and how do it do it) and strategy (I can make short-term decisions that fall counter to a longer term strategy when I’m frustrated.) Assuming that your site, product, or app only gets some of your customer’s time, you should make the customer’s decision count as much as possible. Otherwise, your customer suffers “decision fatigue.”

What is decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue is literally the physical and mental fatigue that results from expending the energy to make decisions. The more decisions you need to make to solve a problem, the more fatigue. Some people have better decision muscles – they spend their days training themselves to make decisions – and others do not. You should build your product with the most critical decisions in mind that you want the customer to make. And please don’t ask the customer to choose more often than necessary – when you ask for their attention, it should be a meaningful decision that also produces meaningful feedback.

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it”
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

What can you do about decision fatigue?

There are good ways to cut the number of clicks required for a customer to do something meaningful. You can count the clicks required to do the 20% of actions that happen 80% of the time. (You might call these actions when done well “the Happy Path.”) Now remove one or more of the clicks in these frequently used scenarios, and you just helped many of your customers to complete an important task in your application with fewer decisions.

Swiss Army Knife, or Razor-sharp cutting implement?

As part of your effort to limit decisions, you should have fewer ways for customers to do things. While a multi-tool approach can cover more edge cases, sometimes a tool that does only one thing extremely well is the best choice. Too many products can do “everything,” and typically don’t do one thing well.

How do you do improve the ability for customers to do things? Start by asking more closed questions, e.g. “do you want me to remind you every day or week and at what time?” is a better question than “what’s the best way to remind you?” Then, remove the jargon from whatever’s written there.

Add Learning “Scaffolding”

How do you explain these options? Add “scaffolding” by making learning content that helps the average customer get from “sorta ok” to mostly good. Smart customers who get it will get even more out of this content. You can find these learning themes by identifying the top 10 highest rated and lowest rated knowledge base articles that your customers use and rewriting them.

You can find 47 other ways to improve the customer experience here.

Fight Decision Fatigue by Limiting Choices

Lots of choices.
Lots of choices.

You’ve seen it, probably several times today. It’s the opportunity to take in more information and wait before deciding. It could be simple, like “what should I have for lunch?” Or it could be more complicated, like “Where should I live, given all the factors that I know.” Research suggests that decision fatigue is real, and that if you limit the choices for a decision, you’ll be happier. Many retailers disagree, suggesting that more choice is always better. I believe that consciously limiting your choices will help you to make decisions faster and ultimately, will help you to make better decisions.

Can I prove that limiting choices help you make better decisions? Not immediately, but consider the following. If you take the hypothesis that many decisions are equal in value (no, I’m not suggesting all decisions are equal), making these decisions faster gives you information about the result faster. And if you use an evaluation model to allow you to assess, decide, and react (what should I be doing, what are the choices, and what was the result), you’ll know pretty quickly where or not your decision was good. If the decision is higher in value (risk of making a bad decision is higher), then try to break down the big decision into a series of small decisions that will help you avoid not deciding.

Decisions will give you results. Because evaluating whether a decision is “good” is subjective, it helps to make sure that you’re not just picking blindly, or by having a model uninformed by events. Nate Silver’s new book examines both political pundits (they are not accurate very much of the time, it turns out) and groups that offer precise but inaccurate results (ratings agencies managing collateralized securities). Silver points out that the best way to make correct and precise decisions is to test your assumptions, to continue making decisions over time, and to get more data points. Also, if your decisions about big events are very different from the crowd, you might be wrong. Or you might be right only once in a while.

In my experience, lining up the available decisions and knocking them down (adopting the practices popularized by David Allen in his GTD or Getting Things Done method) helps me to make these decisions faster. By spending less time making decisions on small choices, I have more mental energy available to approach bigger questions. What do you think?

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