Choices, Choices, Choices

<p class="intro">The year is 1997. Steve Jobs walks into a board room at 1 Infinity Loop, Cupertino, 12 years after he was fired from the company he co-founded. </p>

He carries with him an axe.

But don't panic. This is, or was, a metaphorical axe. At that time Apple's profits were sagging and their product line bloated. The Mac Performa, The Power Mac, The Apple Network Server, The Workgroup Server, The Powerbook, The eMate. Each with many numerical models making it nigh on impossible to decide which one you would spend your money on. You would need a spreadsheet decide on the model for you.

Let's not forget Apple was also trying to flog several different displays, printers, mice and software solutions. One of the first things Jobs did on his return was cut down the product line into something comprehensible.

Thirteen years later and the Mac product line stands at two, the iMac and the Mac Pro. The Macbook line stands at three. In thirteen years net profit has grown from -$1,045m to $5,704m. That's a steep ascent from the red into the clouds. This is no coincidence.

People hate choice, despite what their brains tell them.

Freedom of choice is what you got, freedom from choice is what you want Devo - 1980

If you look close enough, you see this principle put to work in all areas of design from Apple. We should talk about that but first, let's talk about jam.

The Curious Case of the Case of Jam

In the year 2000 two university professors, Sheena Lyengar and Mark Lepper conducted a study in a grocery store in California, posing as store employees.

They alternated between one table with 24 jars of jam to taste and one with six jars of jam. Not surprisingly, that bigger table drew the most visitors, 60% of passers-by stopped to have a taste compared to the 40% for the six jam table.

What's the the interesting part? Of all the people who stopped at the 24 jam stall, only 3% actually bought the jam. At the six jam table, thirty percent of all tasters walked out as proud owners of delicious jam. What's going on here?

Lots of choices will grab our attention, but too many choices overwhelm us – to the point where we likely won't buy at all. Susan Weinschenk - Neuro Web Design

Back to Apple – Less is more?

Apple's iPhone gets constantly ripped by tech nerds for being inflexible and closed. Owners can do whatever they want as long as Apple says so, developers are becoming increasingly shackled as Apple enforces a tighter grip on the app marketplace. It's more then just money grabbing though. With control they can ensure a consistent experience for the user. You only ever have to learn one interface for subscriptions. Great for users, bad for publishers.

There is a reason they drip feed features into their phone, it's more important to have few features that are very good then many features that do a half job. the iPad is a perfect example of a product that is to be good at very few things but the experience of using it is sublime. Be known for quality not quantity.

Choices in web design

What does this have to do with web design? Do the same rules of human consciousness translate onto the web and can we use them to our advantage?

Let me be clear. When I talk about psychology and taking 'advantage' I don't mean tricking people into buying dodgy products like a dark arts magician. It's about making informed choices about how to communicate to the user effectively. With the right information and know how you can help the user make effective choices and navigate throughout the site to their ultimate goal, that's what interactive design is all about.

1. Reduce

Think long and hard about how many choices you present to your visitors. Is each item easily distinguishable from the others? Don't suffer from the same problems Apple faced before Jobs swung the axe. Think Vitamin just simplfied their price plans from three to two. The staff at Carsonified are well aware of the benefits of narrowing the focus of visitors and making their decision a 50/50 one.

2. Describe

37 Signals give you a small pitch initially. If the visitor is interested, they can gradually unpeel more and more information about a specific product. Very smart from a company with four major products.

In order to choose if a product is suitable for them, people need to know just enough about the product. Don't overload them with information. Tell them what they can do. Don't them them how they can do it in till they ask.

3. Suggest

If you have a product or service that is far more popular then the others, let people know about it. Typekit know who comes to their site, professional web designers are their bread and butter.

4. Get smart with defaults

Smart defaults are selections made for the user, often found in web forms.

If it is possible, try and help your users make the correct decision to take some processing power out of their hands. You don't have to be right in every situation, just most of them. Design for the 80%.