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The Psychology of Choice in Digital Experience

By Ramsay Crooks

In today’s post, we wanted to open a short series that touches on theories that we find illuminating in understanding the psychology of how we humans make choices, how this process plays out online, and how we can use this knowledge to improve user experiences in digital. Afterall, the most successful CX, UX and CRO programs are rooted in consumer behavior and psychology.

Online experiences are almost always a series of user choices that ladder up to a primary choice (or goal), from the website owner’s perspective). This primary goal often takes the form of a successful checkout, sign up, form completion, feature adoption, phone call, or other similar interaction and digital experiences are designed to move users to complete these “goals.” 

But how carefully UX designers consider the psychology of human choice at any given wrung on the ladder can affect overall success in goal completion.

We’ll discuss a few notable theories that can guide people to more easily choose their way through their digital experiences, starting with the paradox of choice theory.

Paradox of Choice

This theory goes something like, People prefer choice;.i It reinforces our sense of autonomy and freedom, which is crucial for our psychological well being. But the paradox of choice essentially posits that some choice is good, but too much choice can actually negatively impact people. 

Add to this the fact that digital experiences aren’t met with the same constraints of physical reality. So as designers in digital, it’s easy to get carried away by presenting too many choices to users.  On the surface we usually feel that choice as a good thing, but we also need to understand that more isn’t necessarily better in this department. In fact, too many choices can lead to a higher amount of time spent and frustration felt by the user and a lack of satisfaction in a choice, once made - or user abandonment of the task, altogether.

For example, when overwhelmed with choices at the final stages of a sale, online it’s just as easy to click “Complete Purchase” as it is to X-out of the session, whereas leaving an actual checkout counter with a basket full of items could be embarrassing, awkward, or both. 

So How Do I Apply in UX?

How many choices are too many? Barry Schwartz, the author that wrote the book on the paradox of choice, notes that the theory applies only when there are three or more choices available. Three?! Many a DX would be useless with only two or three choices – ecommerce category pages being a widespread example (imaging only being able to choose between two pairs of shoes or jeans online!) Science is still evolving on this topic as well. 

The CXperts take on this dilemma is that each DX is unique, so there isn’t a magic number, but a general rule that less is more. As few choices as are necessary to help the user to the goal might be the best interpretation. And better to spread choice out to not overwhelm users.

An example is airbnb, specifically its mobile experience. They ask the user one question at a time, which allows for beautifully big touch targets and lots of clean white space to avoid distraction, but design aside, this is cognitively easing, letting users focus on one choice at a time.

Airbnb customer booking flow - mobile viewport

Further, finding the “most magic” number for a specific application is almost always a function of user testing, so if the choices being presented are crucial toward your organization’s goal, it’s worth considering a combination of user studies and / or digital experimentation to hone in on the right number of choices for any given scenario, as well as the best way to articulate those choices. 

Which brings up our final point on this issue: don’t forget to frame the context of each choice as completely as possible; giving users an understanding of the meaning of their choices can decrease frustration and increase satisfaction - a primary goal of UX refinement and CRO programs in general.

In later posts, we’ll explore in more detail how to handle choice in lists and menus using Hick’s Law, as well as adding an option to typically binary choices (Hobson’s +1 Choice Effect) to encourage continuation within your DX. 

If you have any questions on this or related topics, feel free to reach out to CXperts at