Whether we like it or not, we all make choices every day. In fact, the typical American makes about 70 choices a day. They may be small decisions about what to eat or what to wear or they may be big decisions about running a business or choosing which house to buy. But what goes into making a decision? Decision making involves making a choice from a list of possibilities. Sometimes a choice may be binary such as “yes” or “no” but it could also have an infinite number of options. Since technology has become so prevalent in our day to day lives, we often use it to make decisions. Web designers and developers must be aware of choice architecture in helping users make the best decisions available on an interface. In this article I will focus on the concept of Hick’s Law.
Hick’s Law and the Paradox of Choice
Choice is freedom. Choice is happiness. Think about when you’ve ever said, “Well, I don’t have a choice.” It’s never a positive thing. Imagine going to a restaurant where only one item is on the menu vs. having thirty items on the menu. The basic theory is this: In general, more options will improve utility and also provide the best option as a choice. If you have a food menu with a lot of options, you will be more likely to find the exact thing you are craving versus having to settle from a limited amount of options.
However, too many options will have you feeling like a deer in the headlights. This is when choice overload occurs and is described by Hick’s Law, named after psychologist Willam Edmund Hick. Hick’s Law states that with each additional choice, more time, consideration, and cognitive effort is used, thus making the time to make a decision logarithmically longer. These leads to what is sometimes described as the “paradox of choice.” Essentially, each additional choice offered to a decision-maker causes additional time and consideration to evaluate which in turn can outweigh the benefits of having choices. Barry Schwartz discusses this phenomenon in his book on the subject.
To illustrate the power of Hick’s Law, consider a classic example of it in play. Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper performed an experiment that shows too much choice can be demotivating. They set up two tasting booths for different flavors of jam; one with 6 flavors and another with 24 flavors. The booth that had 24 flavors had 60% of passers-by stop to try some jam while the booth that had 6 flavors had 40% stop to try. However, the booth with 24 flavors only had 3% purchase a jam while the booth with 6 flavors had 30% purchase. Another aspect to note is that the number of jams tried at each booth had very little difference (extensive choice booth had average of 1.5 jams tried while the limited choice booth had average of 1.38 jams tried). The huge difference shows us Hick’s Law and the paradox of choice in action. People initially desire more choices but when making a decision, these participants had to compare a jam flavor against 23 others. There was a higher likelihood that the perfect flavor was available with more choices but the difficulty of the decision made the participants walk away.
We can apply Hick’s Law and the jam example to best practices in web design in a variety of ways. The main example in which Hick’s Law is applied on the web is in the design of site navigation. Some websites, especially major retailers, have navigation menus that are typically labeled as “mega menus.” These menus open up with a plethora of navigational options. Often the number of choices that are presented can be overwhelming for the user. Often the best solution when presenting so many choices is to organize content into appropriate categories or even breakdown the decisions into steps instead of all at once. It may be better to have 3 categories with 3 sub categories as opposed to showing the user 9 at a time. Although this approach produces more decisions, the decisions are easier to make because there is less choice.
Another way to reduce the cognitive load is to introduce search and filter options that will display only relevant information and choices that the user requires. Hick’s Law should be used to guide the user through their experience and make decision-making clear and fast. Not only does it apply to navigation but to any options presented on the page. Another example where this is seen is in web forms. Whether a user encounters a web app, a sign up form, or a checkout process, a large number of input fields presented at once can be overwhelming. Instead of having one step with a myriad of input fields, categorize the fields and break them down into manageable, simple steps.
Just like the jam, users will typically be attracted to more choices or features before they start with a product but higher overall satisfaction comes from simpler usability. We can see this approach from companies like Apple and Facebook. Apple typically does not have a lot of customization options in their products or interfaces. However, they are specifically designed for simplicity and ease of use. The same can be said of Facebook’s interfaces versus something like MySpace. While MySpace offered unlimited choices of customization on pages, it was sometimes a negative thing. Content could be hard to read and the usability of the pages suffered. Facebook offers very little choice in customization in the look and feel of a page; mainly profile pictures, cover photos, and minor layout changes. However, all the pages have a clean design that is easy to read and use.
Making Decisions Easier
Sheena Iyengar, one of the principles in the jam experiment discussed earlier, introduces us to a set of guidelines in how to make choosing easier. She presents four techniques (the 4 C’s):
- Cut – Cut down on choices, less is more. Fewer choices result in higher action.
- Concretize – Make the consequences vivid and concrete between the different choices.
- Categorize – Choices can be narrowed down when they are based in a category instead of presented all at once.
- Condition – Condition for complexity by gradually introducing more features and decisions with more choices instead of up front.
In the end, it is up to web designers and developers to guide users through making decisions through an interface. Users will have enough choices to contemplate throughout the day so when it comes to using a website or a web app for work, they shouldn’t have to think. Using these concepts can help reduce the cognitive load on users and make life easier.