Friday, February 07, 2014

Users like options, but hate making decisions

Whenever I see one of those “Top ten designs of the year” or “Eight keys to good navigation design” I usually rip into them.  It’s really not that I am a negative person.  It is just that they always tend to be so overly simplistic.  They underappreciate the importance of context or completely misunderstand human behavior.

So it was really great to read Paul Olyslager’s recent post on the “9 Common misconceptions about users.”  One or two of them are common knowledge, but they are all spot on.  I want to share a few of the really good ones and perhaps add a few cents of value of my own.

His first one is perhaps the best.  Users want choices.  One of the primary motivations that drive human behavior is the need for perceived autonomy (see my gamification posts for more on that).  We crave feeling in control of our lives and our decisions. Having options is a salient signal to ourselves that we are in control.  In fact a recent TED talk by Alex Wissner-Gross makes the (a little too far reaching) claim that the best measure of intelligence is the ability to keep your options open. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.  Designers make a huge mistake by taking this as a maxim and giving users tons of choices.  This leads to many negative outcomes.  Because users also hate cognitive load.  If making a decision among all of these options feels like a lot of work we absolutely hate it.  That is not perceived autonomy, that is perceived helplessness.  Sheena Iyengar (about whom I have blogged before) calls this choice paralysis.

There is also the strong likelihood of loss aversion.  While making the decision we worry that we might make the wrong decision.  And we HATE that because it reduces perceived competence (another one of those fundamental motivations).  Then after the decision we are susceptible to post-decision regret, also known as buyer’s remorse.  The only thing worse than being forced into an option is being forced to live with that outcome afterwards, always wondering (or knowing for sure) that another option would have been better.  Some of us have this more than others (who Barry Schwartz calls “maximizers” in the fantastic book (and TEDtalk of the same name) the Paradox of Choice), but most of us have it to some extent.

And all of this just in his first misconception.  Thanks for the great post Paul.