"The presumption is, self-determination is a good thing and choice is essential to self-determination." - Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice.
People want to be able to choose for themselves, after all, free will is one of the most important luxuries a human can experience and we recognise that individual choices shape not only the person making them, but also how that individual is perceived by those around them.
The caveat to this is that choice requires brain power, which can lead to an individual feeling both tired and stressed. How we offer choices to users needs to strike the delicate balance between giving them a variety and a headache!
When people enter a shop, or browse an online store, they want different options to choose from in the product category they are looking for. However, there is an upper ceiling to the number of choices that should be offered, and how you present those choices is also of critical importance.
A theory from the mid 1900’s known as Hicks Law, widely cited in design circles, states that the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices available. Where it gets interesting though, is that Hicks Law is often applied to the science of User Experience, where simplicity for users is paramount, suggesting that it might be better to offer consumers fewer choices.
So how can we balance offering consumers the right level of product variety and choice, without overwhelming them, potentially inducing decision fatigue?
The Paradox of Choice
Known as the paradox of choice, the issue of balancing variety and simplicity is one that has been explored in depth. Making decisions is cognitively taxing, the more important they are, the more processing power they require. This means that, strangely enough, a consumer presented with too many options will slowly tire, eventually resulting in them freezing and in some cases, leading them to not make a decision at all (user exits the page). Worse still an overload of choices can potentially even lead to a temporary decline in the potential consumer's view of themselves, with choice overload sometimes inducing feelings of anxiety, panic or sadness.
When overloaded with choice, the brain gets tired and users who are tired of weighing up decisions may default to the most basic decision they are faced with: product or no product. Once these two, simplified options are laid out, the user often defaults to the “no product” decision, as it requires less work for their already exhausted mind.
It’s important then to understand what choice a consumer is after. It turns out that most consumers are only interested in a variety of product options when the choice is meaningful.
For UX (user experience) designers, this means applying Hicks Law carefully, in a way that takes consumers away from a plethora of product options, breaking down the possible options into smaller steps. These should satisfy their desire for choice, without overloading them and inducing decision fatigue.
It should also be noted that there are also a number of scenarios in which Hicks Law does not apply, especially when using it in the context of e-commerce and digital product design. .
To understand the subtlety contained within and how best to apply Hicks Law to the paradox of choice, we will need to better understand Hicks Law itself and the way it is used in design.
Hicks Law, sometimes referred to as the Hicks-Hymen law, states that increasing the number of choices an individual has to make will also increase the time it takes to make those decisions logarithmically.
The phenomenon was first reported by a Dutch ophthalmologist in 1868 who noticed a relationship between multiple stimuli and choice reaction time.
Building on this, the British-American psychology duo William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman set out to examine the relationship between the number of stimuli present and an individuals reaction time to any given stimulus.
What they found seems obvious: the more stimuli there are to choose from, the longer it takes to choose just one of them!
In the modern era, designers from all disciplines across multiple platforms cite Hicks Law liberally and often when it comes to designing user experience. Hicks law plays a part in how many controls your microwave oven has and how the now antiquated payphone interface was designed. It is heavily used in high end restaurants around the world, with menus that offer a choice of meals, without bewilderment.
More recently, it’s heavily applied to web and app design, with a focus on user experience, arguing for an elimination of distractions and a reduction in the number of choices presented to a user.
It is here that Hicks Law reaches a crossroads. Applied to user experience, the benefit is obvious, apps or websites that are awkward and complex to rarely, if ever gain a popular user base and the consistency of simple, user friendly design is a given for all top tier products. When applied to consumer choice of products and how they are presented to a user however, the water becomes more murky.
That’s because there are some instances where choice is available but Hicks Law does not apply.
In the world of commerce, products and displays, choices or products are rarely presented equally. In physical shops or online stores, seasonal promotions and in vogue products occupy centre stage. Coupled with that the consumer may have prior knowledge of a particular product, or there may be a complex hierarchy of layers to products, which narrows choice for the consumer through other criteria.
Hicks Law is not applicable if the choices available to the consumer are not equal, as they are unlikely to be in e-commerce. If one option is presented more strongly or clearly versus the others available, the decision time is not affected by the equation.
Similarly, if a user is highly familiar with the options available to them, as a repeat customer might be, a large spread of choices will not increase their decision time.
So when can we apply Hicks Law when designing our applications, websites and e-commerce pages?
Applying Hicks Law
Knowing how to apply Hicks Law to e-commerce websites or apps can be a little tricky, as there is a dichotomy of understanding. We want to offer users and consumers a choice, but in designing our websites, we also want to present a simple, intuitive layout with minimal distractions.
So let’s look at the user experience as we would offer it in an e-commerce setting, keeping in mind that there are two separate disciplines here.
One is applying Hicks Law to the process of a purchase from start to finish, meaning we want to break down the potential choice of hundreds of products into more manageable, smaller options.
This is clearly demonstrated by online retail giant Amazon. They offer literally thousands of products, it would be totally impractical to have a menu which displayed every single one. So everything is broken down into categories. The homepage is used to present particular offers, special items or items from a user's previous purchase. The menu offers a first layer of choice in categories and subsequent sub-categories are only displayed on the page of their parent category.
The other is applying Hicks Law to pages in isolation, considering the homepage, product page and checkout process as distinct entities will clarify when and where to apply the rule.
This is your store front, and there are a lot of design rules and suggested practices for homepages, with good reason. It’s the first impression your customer gets and research suggests many users will leave a webpage within the first 10-20 seconds if there is no clear value proposition.
This means we want to offer them a clear place to go, guiding the user to make a purchase. This often means placing a particular product or service in a place eyes are drawn to when they first land on the page. Our homepage should be inviting, welcoming and informative, displaying discounts, offers, promotions and featured products that the user’s attention will go towards.
By showing the user a particular product or offering more clearly, we are not presenting options on equal terms, therefore Hicks Law does not apply to the number of options you present as products on a homepage. We want to show potential customers there are a variety of products to choose from.
We should still adhere somewhat to Hicks Law though, a cluttered, busy homepage is not going to be able to draw attention to one element of the page if there’s a load going on. Clear white space around the showcase element will draw the user's eye to it and direct them towards the offer or product.
Once our visitor has clicked onto a product, they should land on that product page immediately. Taking them anywhere else is extremely poor practice - they’ve just made the first step towards a purchase! From here, we now want to apply Hicks Law in making that process as simple as possible, eliminating distractions which might abort the potential sale.
BUT, we also want to give the customer plenty of information about the product we are offering them. Great sales copy should fully inform the user about the value proposition offered by a product and should not be a distraction. It’s extremely important for the customer experience that they fully understand the value proposition offered by a product or service, the product page is the place to do so.
Furthermore, since the user has expressed an interest in making a purchase by getting this far, it’s also a good opportunity to present them with some options on the product they are considering. We don’t want the homepage of a clothing store to display 10 t-shirt designs, each with 10 colour options. The 100 products presented on this homepage will be overwhelming.
Instead, we choose to display each design (10 products) and when the user clicks through to a product page, they are then presented with the colour options for that particular design.
So we can offer consumers a variety by applying Hicks Law to their overall experience (their journey through the website as a whole), but the product page should offer plenty of information, related products AND possible add on sales.
Add on sales and related products don’t fall under the rule of Hicks Law though. Remember, Hicks Law doesn’t apply in cases where options are spread through different layers in a hierarchy, as add on sales are.
So we should apply simplicity to the overall experience of the user on our e-commerce site, offering options to the user step by step and guiding the user towards the sale. Once on the product page however, Hicks Law does not apply to offering additional sales or to information about the product.
Great! Our user has placed one (or more!) items in their basket! Now it’s time to apply Hicks Law to their overall experience AND to the checkout process.
We’ve assisted the customer in choosing the product(s) they want and they are ready to buy. Now Hicks Law does apply. We want to simplify the purchase process and offer a distraction free checkout experience. The last thing we want is for the consumer to wander off in search of other items or options!
Although taken as a given in design circles, in the context of e-commerce there are some situations where it is not appropriate to apply Hicks Law.
A good way to think about it is to simplify the OVERALL process for the consumer, breaking down options into manageable chunks. However on individual pages, we want to apply Hicks Law more carefully, remembering the exceptions that we have discussed, when presenting options unequally, or in different hierarchical layers.
Carefully considering the design, layout and user experience of an e-commerce store is essential to success in the online retail world. There are many rules and suggested practices for this, so it’s sometimes helpful to speak to an expert.
WQA provides supercharged digital product development for growth driven companies around the world. Working with Startups, Scale-ups and Enterprise, we design, build and scale digital products, experiences and platforms used by millions of people.
If you want to learn more about how we apply rules of design and Hicks Law to our applications and websites, you can chat to us or email us for a conversation and assessment of your unique digital context.