Choice Overload: It's not about the number

Sep 21, 2023

Your users are overwhelmed by the number of options that your app provides. Your only solution as a product manager; reducing options. Or at least, that is the story you are being told. But is that right? 

Not quite.

Choice Overload is a well-studied phenomenon wherein decision-makers become overwhelmed with too many options to choose from. Whether it is the number of routines on an exercise app or the number of flavors of jam at a supermarket, the outcome is the same - indecision and eventual dissatisfaction with their choice as the decision-maker thinks about all the other options they gave up. The most common advice given for this problem is simply to reduce the number of options. 

But consider this; how many different things could you be doing right now? Can you count the options you have? You could stop reading, tell your boss that you quit, do chores, eat a sandwich or a salad, play a game, join the circus, or an infinite number of other things.

Yet, you are not experiencing Choice Overload every minute of every hour of every day, and not in a state of constant rolling regret over how you spent the last 10 seconds of your life. Most people are not so overwhelmed with the infinite set of possibilities they have every second of their life. So why is it that your users are reporting being overwhelmed? 

Consider also that a similar paralysis and dissatisfaction can occur even when only considering a couple of choices, such as at a restaurant with a limited menu. Clearly, things are not as simple as the ‘number of options’. There is something deeper going on. 

So what causes Choice Overload, and how do you fix it?

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