“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
-J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity; however, one of its costs is the burden of choice. Many decisions entail long commitments and/or high stakes. Even seemingly trivial or enjoyable decisions can entail risks, from wasted time and money to hidden dangers. Moreover, deciders have often experienced “bait and switch” and “no-win” scenarios. Thus, users can arrive at our physical and virtual doors in apathy, denial, wariness, fear, anger, and/or with a feeling of opposition to available information. At this point, it’s the choice that elicits emotion and drives behavior. Personas, use cases, and imputed attribute importance should give way to the choice as the unit of analysis. Here’s how.
The burden of choice is made heavier by the fact that not all tradeoffs can be known or explicit in our real-time world. Decisions—from a “send order” click to a left turn into a restaurant parking lot—can be made in seconds, with neither time nor motivation for introspection. But whether consideration is minimal or prolonged, by personalizing content with cues, signs, paths, and maps, UX can save users time and angst. One less minute spent deciphering stimuli is a minute closer to an optimal choice.
Deconstructing Decisions: Ten Ways to Make Choices Easier
How can we mitigate the burden of choice? UX can help users find and use their own best decision criteria without necessarily thinking about them. If you saw a temporary banner reading simply “Food” on a decrepit building surrounded by mud, under what circumstances would you pull off the road, and what does that say about your heuristics? Probably most of us would pass. But what if the sign said, “Award-winning Angus Beef Cheeseburgers?” Timely, pointed decision support complements the user’s own process.
- Reflect actual stakes and perceived importance. Call out and ramp-up decision support for what counts the most. Unless you’re aiming to entertain, don’t gamify or lampoon the possibly serious (from religion to dinner), nor prioritize before the user does. Be clear and present about high stakes like health and safety. Otherwise, avoid either equivocation or crying wolf. “The most important choice you’ll ever make,” does not apply to new shoes, but it might for a surgical oncologist, potential mate, or new home.
- Understand minimum consideration time (MCT) and perceived commitment time, often related. It’s pricey to drop out of college mid-term but clothing can be returned almost instantaneously, so the perceived commitment time of a clothing purchase is low, and the minimum consideration time is also low. Day trading entails a much shorter MCT than the paper stock certificates of yesteryear. A purchaser may under- or over-estimate commitment times, as when real estate or financial markets fluctuate. Can an offering, tangible or not, be easily shared, lent, resold, donated, repurposed? If yes, help it happen and make it known. Offer to save online search result pages and place physical items on short holds for later consideration for those whose MCT is longer than their time at the moment.
- Leverage consideration start and stop triggers. Present triggers that are both start and stop, such as impending deadlines, time-limited discounts, special offers, and so on. Ensure that triggers accord with perceived importance/seriousness. A hospital does not state, “Limited number of cardiovascular surgeries available,” although of course that is true. But a subject line or sign warning “Last day to save $30,” is a legitimate stop trigger more so than “Only 50,000 coins minted,” which is obviously less verifiable and time-sensitive.
- Measure, then fit the frame. Is the user looking for a new Volvo wagon or a way to get to work? A city? A neighborhood? A house? Adult cat versus kitten, or which shelter to visit? Leveraging the user’s preferred starting point (“Compare neighborhoods” or “Find a shelter”), link sequential sub-decisions intelligently, recognizing that, for example, a user might begin with searching a radius from a destination before considering neighborhoods from the results set. Referring site, click-through and search term data can be invaluable in understanding frames, as is primary data (as in number nine below).
- Narrow the consideration set in order to reduce MCT. For many users, receiving unsolicited but intuitively useful points of differentiation or reasons to act is a valid way to circumvent systematic consideration. This tactic is especially effective when supporting unfamiliar or undesirable choices. Why should a user dig through body copy or a systematic review to discover that you’re the only Catholic girls school in 50 miles or the only antihistamine under $5 when your headline or callout proactively states this simple differentiating fact?
- Accommodate diverse domains, measures, and thresholds. Common domains vary by subject matter but often include price, durability, competence, experience, colors, sizes, and styles. Measures vary more than domains. A B2B prospect might measure vendor experience by year founded, founders’ education, or big client names, while an investor might focus on financials, market growth, and analyst recommendations. This divergence suggests that we provide tools such as educational shelf displays, case studies, rich media, in-store video, live demonstrations, or self-service kiosks that highlight product heritage and performance using multiple measures, not just the putative competitive advantage. An array of media formats also supports the diverse learning styles of heterogeneous audiences.
Filters and sorts, preferably free text as well as pre-populated fields, support heuristics applied to large inventories. The number of search results given a combination of attributes should be clear as well; for example, Amazon does not show the number of search results in the left hand column hierarchy when it finds items in multiple departments, slowing a user who utilizes the number of results to decide whether to choose that department.
Heuristics such as measures (such as size) and thresholds (such as a range, like 8-10) may be applied exclusively, in combination, or sequentially. This suggests holding other filter values in place if the user jumps up a level to change one. Figure 3 shows a search that allows multi-level measures (Senior + adult cats) for every filter, used in concert with any or all filters. Set overlapping price ranges to accommodate “around $50” types of thresholds. Ideally, allow for Boolean selections so a shopper needn’t click seven times to include all tops except for tanks.
- Expose heuristics that the user might not have considered. When a school ratings portal presents measures that are new to a parent—such as asking for a student writing sample—this portal is influencing not just the choice of school but the evaluation criteria. Our shared criteria then become part of the cultural context around a product category, item, service, organization, or public good.
Children moving into adulthood and immigrants jumping into a new melting pot are particularly interested in fine-tuning their evaluation criteria. The same is true of consumers and professionals considering goods and services in which they are not experts, or seldom have to evaluate. These audiences are a good reason to highlight reviews explaining features and flaws they haven’t considered or are hazy on, and portrayals of real-life usage, products permitting.
By exposing both “easy” and more time-consuming heuristics, we accommodate short and long consideration times. One user might want to see where a physician went to medical school; another might want to browse her publications. Offer heavily-hyperlinked product matrices, peer and third party reviews, buyers’ guides, and attribute checklists including both static and rich media, the latter important since heuristics can be catalyzed by the five senses. B2B services lend themselves to multiple layers of content, each more in-depth than the last, as well as pop-up glossaries and other knowledge aids.
A few moderately-priced red wines next to the meat counter exposes several potential heuristics (wine color, category, price, meal pairing) without actually requiring that shoppers think about how or how much thought they are giving to their choice.
- Offer validators. Enable easy sharing and validation of the choice in progress via friends or strangers. Place testimonials, press, badges, and certifications front and center, not buried in the back of the packaging or store or confined to the About Us or Press pages.
- Support internalizing heuristics—or not. Some users readily internalize, abstract, and share their decision process. Others can be self-aware but keep it to themselves. Still others are unaware of what they will do next and are waiting for a guidepost or cue. “More like this/near this price” and easy zoom-outs support the journey, without users having to consider or expose more heuristics. Similarly, the sales associate who shows variety rather than pressing for requirements may close more quickly.
For those willing to share their process, ask questions like, “What are you looking for or avoiding in a [offering]? Have you done X? Under what circumstances do/don’t you?” Online and in-store, try for fun, pointed, interesting, and challenging questions, not just the same old, “Which of the following brands did you consider?” or the unanswerable/non-generalizable, like-factor rankings. Train sales staff to probe informatively and practice active listening. Leverage these insights with online/mobile experiences; in a superstore, the associate can offer inventory specs/photos on a tablet, helping the user fine-tune and apply heuristics, avoiding the pressure of camping out in the aisle.
By eliciting context from the user as s/he considers and experiences physical and virtual content, and by explicitly honoring context/decision characteristics, we can expose more relevant content and functionality more quickly.
- Support social sharing of heuristics—or not. Share and encourage off-site shared consideration sets and choices if/as permitted. Consider allowing comment threads and user-generated content showing what happened after the choice (the new puppy frolicking in the garden, sending the daughter off to college with her new sheets). Pre-populate site-wide social network hashtags for convenience.
The Bottom Line
Human brains are too small to trade off everything. By supporting systematic, ad hoc, and impulsive choices with personalized experiences, you increase cross cultural willingness and ability to consider the evidence for action that you provide.
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