The world of today is different than the one experienced by humans one thousand, one hundred, or even twenty years ago. We live in the era of an abundance of everything. When we want to eat lunch, we can have food delivered to our doorstep from hundreds of restaurants nearby. When we’re in the mood to listen to a song, 30 million titles on Spotify are right at our fingertips. But has the change from “work to acquire” to “work to decide” made our lives easier?
A modern human makes about 35,000 choices each day. Some of them are made subconsciously and some require careful deliberation. More choices to make lead to a condition called “decision fatigue” – where each decision seems harder and its quality is worse. Over the course of a stressful day, humans progress into decision avoidance. We’ve all been there. We can’t decide which pair of jeans we prefer at an online store, so we abandon the page altogether. We’ll get back to it later, but later never comes.
This phenomenon plays a significant role in the design of web services, where users are faced with extensive choice. The general presumption is the broader the offer, the better. There are a few reason why this is not the case.
Firstly, this approach places a greater cognitive load on people, as they skim through the available items, evaluating them and weighing their options. Because of the sheer number of items, each one receives less attention, which leads to lowered engagement with the website in general.
Secondly, the burden of responsibility for making a good decision is shifted entirely onto the user. An opposing approach could position the service as a guide to the user, employing methods of narrowing down the selection and suggesting which items would best suit his needs and expectations.
Here are a few good practices we can follow.
1. Don’t show all available options from the start.
You can use search filters, categories and other UI elements to let users narrow down the selection to what interests them the most. A good example to follow is Amazon.com. Their online store carries millions of items, but the Home Page only shows a selection of popular goods, with links to browse deeper into categories.
2. Suggest solutions to the user.
Rather than requiring constant user input, take a proactive approach. Try recommended options, curated collections or other methods of suggesting content that make the user feel like they’re already getting the best stuff. Spotify and Airbnb are examples of startups that suggest content to their users. One key takeaway here – make sure the recommendations are useful for the user. Recommending only the items you want to sell quicker, while ignoring users’ needs, will make users feel forced and increase the cognitive load.
3. Avoid information overload.
Detailed product descriptions are a must on modern e-commerce platforms and other web services. However, let the users decide how much they need at a given moment. Use UI elements like visible links, tooltips and accordions to make information readily available, while not overwhelming. Casper.com is a great example of an e-commerce that uses these techniques.
In conclusion, the phrase “Less is more”, adopted by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, describes his approach to minimalist design more than ever applies to Internet of XXI century. By carefully choosing what do show and what to hide, we can design web experience that are not overwhelming, but rather helpful, enjoyable, and profitable.