How to Overcome Analysis Paralysis in Web Design

Paul Boag

Analysis paralysis can undermine calls to action, damage the user experience and impact conversion. But what do we do about it?

Whether you know it as analysis paralysis, choice paralysis or decision paralysis, we have all encountered it both personally and with the sites we run.

In fact analysis paralysis and choice paralysis are slightly different things, but they are deeply intertwined. The more choices we are faced with, the more likely we are to over analyse the options available and the less likely we are to act.

It is a problem beautifully summed up by Hicks Law. This law states that there is a predictable increase in the time it takes somebody to decide, as the number of options goes up.

Analysis Paralysis is explained by Hicks Law
Hicks Law shows us that the more choices we offer a user, the long it will take for them to decide, so increasing the chance they abandon the site.

What Hicks Law doesn’t cover is the fact that at a certain point people give up. They are overwhelmed with choice. That is particularly problematic for us as that point is low online. It does not take much for a user to conclude that it is too much effort, and they will either revisit the decision later or go to a competitor.

So how can we prevent the problem of analysis paralysis? The most obvious starting point is to limit the number of options available.

Limit the Options to Help With Analysis Paralysis

A classic example of limiting choice comes from an experiment selling Jam. A grocery store in California set up a display to sell jam. At certain times, the stall had six flavours from which to choose. At other times, it had 24 choices. The researchers behind the experiment saw a mere 4% conversion rate when offering 24 jams compared to a 31% conversion rate when there were only six choices.

Preventing Analysis Paralysis through distinct options.
The Jam Experiment shows us that too much choice lowers conversion.

That experiment perfectly demonstrates the problem with analysis paralysis and makes the response obvious – limit the number of options.

However, doing so is not always possible or maybe outside of our control. Fortunately, when it comes to the web, we have a little more flexibility than a supermarket.

If we are unable to reduce the options, we can hide some of the less popular ones. In other words, we could display six varieties of Jams prominently on the homepage, but still, make the remaining 18 flavours available deeper into the site for those who want to explore those options.

Preventing Analysis Paralysis by hiding less popular options.
If you cannot reduce the choice, at least hide less popular options.

But analysis paralysis is not just about the number of choices, it is about how distinct those choices are from one another.

Make the Choices Distinct to Reduce Analysis Paralysis

Part of the problem with the jam experiment wasn’t just the number of choices, but that there aren’t 24 clearly distinct varieties of Jam. At a certain point, the distinction becomes too subtle. That just made the decision even harder.

You see website owners making a similar mistake all the time. For a long time Wikipedia had a search box with two buttons labelled “go” and “search”. “Go” took you straight to a page related to your search query, while “search” took you to a search results page. However, the distinction was too subtle for most users, and it caused analysis paralysis.

A more recent example is the Amazon mobile app on iOS. When you try to preorder a product they present you with two buttons. One reads “preorder now” and the other “preorder today”. Despite my best efforts, I cannot work out the difference between the two!

Preventing Analysis Paralysis by making the choices distinct
If you have more than one choice, make sure they are distinct. If they are too similar users will not choose.

The problem with subtle distinctions between choices is it adds complexity to the decision-making process, and that is something you need to avoid if at all possible.

Avoid Complexity by Breaking Choices Down

Of course, some decisions are by their nature complicated. For example, buying a new car involves making a plethora of choices from paint colour to financing options. Equally purchasing insurance online means comparing a complex variety of conditions, levels of cover and excess.

When it is not possible to simplify a decision any further, you can look at breaking that decision down into a process. In essence, you can guide the user through the decision-making process, reducing the action down into smaller, easier choices.

The John Lewis website here in the UK does a good job at this when you are looking to purchase a TV. They provide advice to consumers about the different factors they should consider, allowing them to narrow down their selection based on the choices they make.

Preventing Analysis Paralysis by breaking down the decision.
John Lewis does a good job at guiding users through the decision making process by breaking it down into smaller, easier, choices.

However, if you do break down the decision-making process in this way, allow users to save their progress and finish it at a later date. There is no guarantee that the user will be able to make complex decisions in a single sitting. By allowing them to save their progress, you increase the chance of them returning later.

That said, you want to avoid drawn out, complicated decisions if at all possible.

Encourage Fast Decisions

That is because there is one other aspect of our behaviour that relates to analysis paralysis I have yet to mention. The longer we take to make a decision the more we lack confidence in the choice we make.

However, this behaviour also offers a potential way of combating analysis paralysis. The faster we can encourage somebody to make a choice, the less likely they are to over think it and become paralysed by that choice.

There are a variety of techniques we can adopt to encourage this approach, but you need to proceed with caution. If you overly pressure people, they will either see what you are doing and feel manipulated or suffer from buyers remorse afterwards. Both of these results are damaging as consumers can undermine a brand through social media or negative reviews.

Preventing Analysis Paralysis through reducing risk
Zappos do a great job of reducing the risk associated with a choice by offering a superb return policy.

However, there are ways of enabling people to make decisions faster, by making those choices feel like “no-brainer” decisions. Price is one way of achieving this. A low enough price will allow an impulse purchase involving little thought. Another way is to offer a fantastic return policy. In both cases, you are reducing risk, which is a topic I cover in my guide to conversion rate optimisation.

Of course, an even better way to make the decision feel easier is to suggest which choice the user should pick.

Make a Recommendation

When faced with overwhelming choice often the most effective way of encouraging users to make a decision is to suggest a course of action. The majority of ecommerce websites use this technique in the form of ‘special offers’ or ‘staff favourites’.

However, although these suggestions go some way to alleviating analysis paralysis, they do not connect with users on an emotional level. Just because something is on special offer or recommended by the staff, does not mean it is right for the individual user. After all, today’s astute customers know these suggestions are more to benefit the retailer than themselves.

Amazon uses a slightly more convincing approach on its homepage with its ‘what other customers are looking at right now’ section. That works because we tend to follow the crowd in new or unfamiliar circumstances.

Although suggestions are a useful way of easing analysis paralysis, sometimes it is possible to avoid asking users to choose at all. That is where good defaults come in.

Set Good Defaults

It is surprising how often we ask users to make decisions where we could do so instead. We tend to pass the responsibility of choice to users for two reasons.

First, we become obsessed with edge cases. Even though we know the majority of users will make one choice, we worry about the minority who want something different. The problem with this mentality is that the user experience of the majority often suffers to cater for the needs of the few.

Second, we believe that users want choice because that is what they say they want.  It is, in fact, correct that users wish to have more options. That is known as the choice paradox. People say they want choice, but when they receive it, they become paralysed.

So what is the solution? Am I proposing that we ignore the minority for the sake of the majority? Not at all. Instead, we must default to the most common choice while allowing the option to customise.

Preventing Analysis Paralysis through good defaults
This flight site defaults the number of passengers and dates to common selections.

This principle applies not just to the selection of products but also to user interface choices. For example, many sites require users to select from a list of previous delivery addresses, when they could default to the last address used.

Good defaults can reduce cognitive load on users, while not taking away the choices available to them. That is a powerful tool for overcoming analysis paralysis.

Analysis paralysis is one of the most dangerous barriers to conversion, and so we need to work hard to reduce it. As you finish this post, I recommend reviewing your analytics and checking any page with a high exit rate. You may well find that these pages contain a choice users are just not prepared to make. Fixing that choice could make all the difference in conversion.