Overwhelmed by choice

Take a look at the following beautiful user interface:

A terrible UI filled with way too many options

Be sure you make an optimal decision!

(Don’t even try to figure out what this form is collecting input for.)

What’s wrong with that interface? I ask as if it isn’t obvious: there are way too many choices! Seriously, how can you expect a user to make a sensible decision when there are this many options to choose from?

This is just a basic principle of good user interface design: simplify decision-making for the user by limiting choice. It sounds kind of dark and 1984-esque, but in fact it is quite a humane approach. (Also, to clarify: I’m not suggesting removing choices, but rather making them “opt-in”; i.e., if the user wants to change/enable something, he/she can do so by seeking out that choice rather than being bombarded with countless options up front.)

Here’s the classic example of what I’m talking about:

The Google UI

Seriously, how easy is that? You are only asked to make one choice: what do you want to search for? Notice there’s an “Advanced search” link beside the main input field, allowing you to seek more choices if you want them.

Have you ever found yourself confronted with a set of choices, and it stresses you out? I know I have. What’s really strange is that often, in these situations, you would be objectively worse off without the choice; yet you would be happier if your options were fewer.

Take college, for example. Let’s say you graduated from high school at the top of your class. You applied to Harvard and Princeton and got into both. Sweet, right? Except no, it’s not so sweet; now you have to make the agonizing choice of which school you want to attend, meanwhile recognizing that whatever choice you make, there’s always going to be this nagging question in your mind: What if I had picked the other school? Did I make the right choice?

On the other hand, if only one school accepted you, then your choice is made for you. No agonizing decision-making for you to worry about! Problem solved.

Here’s what I think happens in our brains when we’re making choices: we do our best to consider all possible options, but if the number of options to consider gets out of hand, we get “overloaded” and end up making a choice we know may not be optimal. This is a matter of practicality as we don’t live forever and thus don’t have the time or mental energy to consider every option available to us.

You C.S. folks will appreciate this: what’s the algorithmic complexity of this decision-making process?

static void ConsiderDecision(Option decision, OptionSet options)
    if (options.IsSingleOption)
        ConsiderSimpleChoice(decision, options.Single());

    foreach (Option option in options)

Yeah, that’s right: it’s large (O(n!)—that’s the same as the Travelling Salesman Problem!). With each additional choice we’re given, the mental strain we endure in striving to choose among the choices available to us increases factorially, not linearly. At a certain point our brains recognize the impossibility of considering every individual option (much like a chess master recognizes that he or she can’t possibly consider every individual sequence of moves leading to a checkmate), and this causes us to actually panic a little bit. We make a choice we know we can’t be 100% confident in and just hope for the best.

Not to get too melancholy, but this all reminds me of an excellent song I sometimes enjoy listening to by The Swoon, a very obscure band (seriously, I don’t even know if you can find them on Google). The track is called “Speak Soft”; it’s a deeply sad but beautiful (in my opinion) examination of the state of being lonely and not knowing what to do with your life. In particular the lyrics I have in mind are from the song’s last verse:

Houdini closed himself inside of a box.
He didn’t have a trick to spring the lock.
Off the stage the people watched the clock.
Prison could be a nice place to live,
the bars on the window like bars on a crib.
Freedom is the least desired gift to give.

Moral of the story for application developers: next time you’re designing a user interface, don’t get carried away with the options. It isn’t nice to your poor users’ brains.

Moral of the story for everyone: recognize your own decision-making limitations and don’t seek out options that don’t truly matter to you. Otherwise, you’re only doing yourself a disservice.


One thought on “Overwhelmed by choice

  1. Bragaadeesh says:

    Understood. That is why Apple had only one key in their iPhone instead of ten different options. But there should be an option to explore more options. For example, Google does have an advanced search where you will have n different options to choose from.
    And as a developer, I lovvvve having limited options in my requirements (which usually is not the case though).
    Another nice read

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