Online Decision Paralysis: Less is More, more or less


By giving visitors to your site a choice (between products, service levels or whatever), you are giving them power. You’re giving them the ability to decide what’s best for them, be in control of their situation and therefore write their own destiny – something we all crave according to McClelland and Burnham.

However, the more choices we are offered, the harder it can be to actually make a decision. In his webinar “Pay Attention: Understanding the Brain’s Need for Novelty and Shortcuts”, Tim Ash outlines the brain’s decision making ability by identifying three areas of the brain:

The NeoCortex is the reasoning part of the brain; it’s what separates us from other animals
The Lymbic System forms emotions, likes and dislikes and is present in all mammals
The Brain Stem is the instinctive part of the brain, it is automated and part of every animal

This automatic and unconscious part of the brain makes 95% of our decisions (insert obligatory picture of an iceberg here) and it is this part of our website visitors’ brains we need to tap in to when they arrive at your site… By creating a small number of clear choices, and therefore avoiding decision paralysis.

The Magic Number Seven

Miller (1956) suggests we hold 7 ± 2 pieces of information in working memory at any one time – consider a 6 digit telephone number for example. Now this “magical number seven” is often called into question and so we should take it with a pinch of salt, but when presenting visitors to your ecommerce site with products, we should bear it in mind.

Ryman Product Page Example

In the example above, we are being given 42 pages (493 products) of notepads and notebooks. Not only that, the pictures are small making it difficult to identify the difference in each of the products. Although the prices are easy to spot, the title and details for each product is written in teeny tiny font and so adds little value.

Difficult or complex choices will tire the brain and make subsequent choices more difficult. Help your visitors out by guiding them through the purchase process using categories in a short drop-down menu like this:

Fab Product Page Example

Fab has hundreds of products but not only do they display each one with a large picture, a (descriptive) title and a nice bold price tag, they also offer clear categories to easily refine search so the number of products on display can be reduced… and there aren’t too many categories to choose from either!

Make Life Easy

Offering your visitors a choice is still important, but by changing the way in which you display your products, you can actually help your customers choose the right one for them. Assign your products to categories, and then sub-categories, making sure each sub-category is unique enough to merit its own distinction. If you can’t break it down, try testing the way in which you display your products. Rather than a long list, try a grid formation three products wide as with Fab. Or four as with . Or five as with Or even six as with HMV


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