23: Too much choice can be overwhelming

As the Olympics approached, I was salivating greedily about the twenty-four live streams of coverage the BBC would be providing. As I’m not on cable or satellite, this ended up being just three. You’d think I would be disappointed but I’m not – this is going to improve my enjoyment immeasurably as a result. Here’s why.

Like a glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet, I envisaged myself consuming all that televisual sporting goodness somewhat like this:

Wall of TVs

In reality, I know what it would actually have been like:

As a novice Olympic sports spectator, I’m not entirely sure which events I want to watch or which I’ll enjoy. For me, the smörgåsbord of live streams available would represent an overwhelming variety of choice – and a choice that I’m not equipped to make as an uninformed novice.  So finding that there are only three channels available means that I only have to decide between those options; a much easier task.  Because I trust the BBC’s choice of content, I can safely assume they will put the A-grade content on those three channels.

In other words, novices need curators to recommend the best options when the choice is overwhelming, otherwise choice paralysis will occur.

For these types, the twenty-four streams don’t actually represent a choice as they’ve already chosen

This is a very different scenario to the expert or enthusiast who knows exactly what they want to watch and so just want to know when and where to find it.  For these types, the twenty-four streams don’t actually represent a choice as they’ve already chosen.  The variety is there to ensure that as many enthusiastic spectators’ viewing choices as possible can be fulfilled.

At his TED talk in 2005, Barry Schwartz talked about how presenting too many choices can lead to choice paralysis (the consumer is overwhelmed and puts off the decision indefinitely) and ultimately disappointment.  Having too many choices available sets the expectation that at least one of them is perfect.  When you choose something and it’s less than perfect, you imagine that the other options were better (even it you made a good choice) and you regret the choice, reducing your enjoyment.

As product managers, we often inadvertently create an overwhelming choice for novice users or customers, often with the outcome that the customer chooses not to choose. We might support several pricing or licensing models, or have several variations of the product package. When dealing with novices, curate the choices available: if you have gold, silver and bronze packages and the majority of your customers go for silver, recommend it to new customers – help them to make the choice.

Expert customers or users have already decided what they want before they come anywhere near the options you present, so make sure you can identify them and make it easy for them to find what they’re specifically looking for.

So be like the BBC and curate your content for novices whilst also making it easy for experts. That way you can maximise the chances of both types of prospective customer choosing your product.

Why not share your examples in the comments of how you cater differently for novices and experts? I’d love to hear your views.


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