If you were in a focus group for a new fast food restaurant and you were asked about how much variety and choice you would prefer, what do you think you would answer? If you are like the majority of Americans, you would likely say that you would prefer a large menu with more choices. If the restaurant heeded your advice, you and the other Americans like you would be pleased to see so many choices before you. The restaurant, however, may soon be dismayed when they realize that people typically subconsciously don’t do well with choice. It impairs their decision-making prowess almost to the point that they won’t make a decision at all.
In what has become known as the famous “Jam Study,” researchers Iyenga and Lepper set out to know how people actually respond to choices in front of them. To do this, they posed as grocery store employees at a busy high-end grocery store and set up two booths: one with six different types of jam to choose from and one with 24 types of jam. The goal was to see how many people would stop buy each booth and taste the jam and what percentage of those people would actually make a choice and buy some jam.
The results were astounding. At the table with 24 jars, almost 60% of the passersby stopped to taste the jam. At the other table, only 40% stopped by. To an onlooker, it would appear at first glance that the table with 24 jars was more successful. After all, when people saw more choices, they were more likely to stop buy. The crazy thing is, most people can only process 3 – 5 pieces of information at a time (think of how many random numbers you feel comfortable memorizing at a time…); when we’re faced with too much information, we fumble.
At the table with 24 jars of jam, only 3% of the people who stopped ended up choosing and purchasing a jar of jam. At the table with only 6 choices, 31% made a purchase! That’s a sales increase of 25% at a table with far less inventory.
So what does this mean for visual communicators? Giving people choices is both a positive and a negative. People believe they want choices and will likely say they are more happy with more choices. But if the number of choices becomes overwhelming, no choice will be made at all (or confusion and frustration will set in). If you are creating a website or other document where decisions have to be made, walk that fine line of making your audience feel like they can make choices, but don’t give them too many.