Designing Choices, Part 1: Making Comparisons Easier

Decision Guide

See a recording of Rob Giffords Designing Choices webinar from 12/19/19. 

Every day we make thousands of choices. Some are inconsequential, such as the route to take to work, or which sandwich to get for lunch. Others may feel more significant, like which watch to purchase, or what features to look for in a new car. But few decisions feel simple. As designers, we can solve this problem.

Why aren’t decisions simple? First, in an effort to help consumers find the right products, companies are offering more and more choices. This trend isn’t limited to retail, but takes shape in many essential areas of our lives, like personal finance. For example, people are often asked to allocate their own retirement savings over multiple investment funds and to choose the right level of insurance coverage. Navigating these complex decisions takes a lot of knowledge and analysis.

Unfortunately, because most of us are experts in our own businesses, it’s easy to assume customers will bring the same level of knowledge and engagement to our offerings as we do. Since they don’t have that knowledge or level of engagement, people struggle. In particular, two factors of decision making cause problems:

  1. Typically, people try to conserve their mental energy and attention. This means they don’t spend as much time learning about their options as they perhaps should. (Friske & Taylor, 1984)
  2. People fear making mistakes. That means complex decisions create anxiety (even though it doesn’t mean people do more research). (Schwartz, 2004)

These two dynamics of decision making mean that when people have more choices available, it can lead to poor experiences and long-term financial costs (Appelt, Gao, et al, 2014). In an increasingly digital world, experience designers and strategists are uniquely positioned to help customers navigate these difficult choices.

How Do We Simplify Choice?

At the heart of any decision making process is the act of comparing- understanding your options so you can decipher which is the best one. This requires helping people get the gist of what’s available very quickly without taxing their working memory. Here are a few strategies you can employ to make the comparison process easier:

1. Reduce the Number of Options to Compare

The greater the quantity of options to compare the more work is required. What’s more, the more options someone encounters, the higher their expectations of finding a perfect match which often leads to dissatisfaction and, more acutely, regret (Iyngar & Lepper, 2000). It may seem counterintuitive, but reducing the quantity of your offerings actually makes it easier for people to find the right option and feel confidence in their selection.

Still, offering some degree of choice helps people feel a sense of autonomy. So finding the right amount of options can be tricky. Luckily there are some established findings from cognitive psychology that provide some guidance. Known as Miller’s Law, it’s been shown that most people are limited to processing around 4 to 7 pieces of information at a time (Iyngar, 2010). This limitation is relevant to decision making because the act of comparing involves remembering something about each prior option when you evaluate a new one. This doesn’t mean you can’t offer more, but that at any given decision point you should avoid offerings more than seven or so options. After that, consider rolling out the decision in phases to help people grasp the information they need to retain at one time.

2. Make Options Distinct

Even with a limited number of options, it can still be hard to make a decision between things that are relatively similar. It’s important that the options you provide your customers are distinct in ways that are meaningful to them.

Some of these variations can be easy to figure out while others require research with your customers. What’s important is to know what your different customer segments value in your product. You can use these different needs, or segments, as a basis for differentiating your options. For example, if you’re offering your customers a choice of Auto Insurance plans, you may want to have a higher deductible plan for price sensitive customers and one with comprehensive coverage for customers that value peace of mind.

This type of analysis can get complicated, but the trick is remembering that for most people, good enough is fine. Many of the nuances to our product may not be super important to your average customer, so offering shortcuts to the best options in each category will make the decision easier from the get go.

Jetty’s initial quote page is a great example of the two strategies we covered. There are dozens of possible coverage configurations for Renters Insurance, but Jetty distills them down while making it easy to see what’s different about each.


3. Make it Easy to Understand What’s Important

Just as offering more options leads to more work evaluating them. The more details presented about each option the more difficult it can be to compare them. Adding too many details may confuse inexperienced consumers because it muddies what is most important to consider about each option. You can solve this by designing your offerings so only the attributes that are most likely to influence a customer’s satisfaction are visually emphasized. For example if we’re helping someone choose investment funds, it’s most important to highlight things like risk and return, rather than more obscure aspects.

Remember, every piece of information we present about an option implicitly communicates that it needs to be considered. When presented with a long list of details, people may feel they are not considering everything they need to, which can lead to a feeling of uncertainty about their choice or overweighting aspects of a choice that aren’t really related to their needs.

Oscar offers so many variables to compare for potential members that they risk directing members attention away from key factors like deductibles and copays that are more likely to drive plan satisfaction.

One nuance to keep in mind is that very experienced and engaged consumers are likely to want access to more information about their options. So, it’s important to know your users before you start employing this design strategy. One way to accommodate both types of users is to provide only the most important information by default and hide the details behind a link or tap for consumers to view if they want to.

Here too, Jetty nails it. After a potential customer chooses a base package they can customize it to their needs or simply keep it as it is and purchase.

Choice can be hard. Both businesses and consumers are drawn to choice, yet making choices is often difficult. Fortunately, there is a deep body of psychological research that can help us. In this article, we’ve covered a few tactics you can use to simplify comparison decisions, in the next installments of this series we’ll discuss how you can use content to frame choice more clearly as well as how you can sequence choices to make it feel easier.

Sources and Further Reading

Appelt, K., Gao, J. et al. (2014) ,"Choosing How to Choose: Can People Choose the Best Choice Architecture?”. Advances in Consumer Research: Volume 42.

Fiske, Susan T.; Taylor, Shelley E. (1991) [1984]. Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0070211919.

Gigerenzer, G., & Goldstein, D. G. (1996). Reasoning the fast and frugal way: Models of bounded rationality. Psychological Review, 103(4), 650-669.

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995-1006.

Iyengar, S. (2011). The art of choosing. New York: Twelve.

Johnson, E., & Shu, S.B., et al (2012). Beyond Nudges: Tools of a Choice Architect. Marketing Letters, Volume 23, p.487-504.

Miller, G. A. (1956). "The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information". Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97.

Simon, Herbert A. (1956). "Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment" (PDF). Psychological Review. 63(2): 129–138.

Schwartz, Barry, 1946-. (2004). The paradox of choice : why more is less. New York :Ecco,

Taylor, E.A., Carman, K.G., et al. (2016), “Consumer Decision-making in the Health Care Marketplace". RAND Corporation.

Contributed by
Rob Gifford
Job Title
Managing Director, Experience Design