How to stop choice paralysis damaging your sales

Could you be losing sales because users cannot make a decision? The chances are the answer is yes. Fortunately there is something you can do about it.

Those damned customers, sometimes they are more trouble than they are worth! On one hand they say they like choice, but when you give them too much they stop buying.

Choice paralysis is a well known problem in retail. Numerous tests in supermarkets have shown that if you offer a customer too many varieties they are less likely to buy than if there are only a few.

Woman shopping in a supermarket

Africa Studio, Shutterstock

However, despite choice paralysis being a well known phenomena, most ecommerce websites seem to ignore it. I come across too many ecommerce sites with…

  • Too many products in one category.
  • Complex ways of customising products.
  • An overwhelming selection of special offers.
  • Endless categories and sub categories of products.

It is hardly surprising then that many of these sites suffer from a dismally low conversion rates.

Unfortunately website owners often perceive this low conversion as I sign that they are not giving users what they want. This leads them to add even more choice, which results in still further paralysis.

The answer actually lies in a very different direction and begins by limiting choice.

Limit the users choice

In a now famous supermarket study only 3% of shoppers purchased jam when confronted with 24 varieties, while 30% purchased when given only 6. Although the 10 fold increase is interesting what fascinates me are the people not exposed by the raw data.

A good number of those 27% approached the jam section with a particular jam in mind. They knew what they wanted and went to purchase. However, the range of alternatives actually placed doubt in their mind. Was their normal choice of jam the best option available? Should they try something new? These questions created enough anxiety to actually stop them purchasing.

Selection of Jams

fresher, Shutterstock

The lesson here is that choice paralysis is not just something suffered by those who arrive undecided. It can actually prevent a committed buyer from placing an order.

Although this is a scary thought the answer is obvious, reduce your range of products. On one level this seems counter intuitive, but on another it is an obvious response to the problem of choice paralysis.

However, reducing choice is not the only response. There is also a need to clearly differentiate between the options available.

Clearly differentiate between choices

Choice paralysis is not just to do with the number of choices available. In fact it can be acceptable to offer a large number of choices where the differences between those choices is clearly defined. Unfortunately the choices we offer often have significant overlap.

Computer manufacturers suffer from this problem. When buying a computer, making a decision can be hard when the only difference between models is technical specifications. Most people do not understand the difference between 2GB and 4GB of memory.

Apple does a great job at overcoming this challenging by reducing the choice and differentiating between their products.

For example, if you visit the Apple website you can easily compare different macs and read a clear description about what makes each model unique.

Apple website: Which Mac is right for you?

If you are looking for something light then go for the macbook air. If you want something small go for the mac mini. Although they do mention technical specifications these are secondary to the simple descriptions.

However don’t fall into the trap of thinking this need to differentiate only applies to product lines. It also applies to navigation and product categories. Take for example firebox.com. What is the difference between the top level labels ‘geek’ and ‘technology’?

firebox website navigation

Clearly differentiating choice has to apply to all aspects of your site from product range to site navigation. If you must have overlapping choices then you may wish to consider hiding less popular choices to avoid confusion.

Hide less popular choices

Unfortunately in the real world website owners do not always get to choose what goes on the website. We aren’t in a position to slim down the product range or redesign it entirely so that products are more distinct. In such situations smoke and mirrors can produce the same effect.

Although you may not be able to remove the choices available to users, you can hide less popular ones to give the impression of a clearer choice.

We faced this exact problem when working on the Wiltshire Farm Foods website. They had a huge number of meals organised into an extensive list of categories. What is more there was a real need to ensure consistency between the website and the printed brochure, so we had no choice but to keep the categories they had. This left us with a confusing site structure. For example if somebody wanted to order a ‘beef pie’ did they look under ‘beef’ or ‘pies and pastries’?

Our solution was to hide less popular categories and focus the user on the most used forms of navigation. For example we knew more people navigated by ‘beef’ than ‘pies and pastries’ so we hid the latter. However, it was still available for those who wanted to see all pies.

This approach gave the impression of a clearly defined choice without removing the additional options for those who wanted them.

Of course, so far we have focused on users who have a fairly clear idea of what they want to start with. What about those who are even less sure?

That is where suggestions come in.

Make suggestions

When faced with overwhelming choice often the most effective way of encouraging users to make a decision is to suggest a course of action. This well known technique is used by the vast majority of ecommerce websites in the form of ‘special offers’ or ‘staff favourites’.

However, although these suggestions go some way to alleviating choice paralysis they do not connect with users on an emotional level. Just because something is on special offer or has been suggested 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 UK homepage with its ‘what other customers are looking at right now’ section. As humans we have a tendency to follow the crowd in new or unfamiliar circumstances and so will look to the choices of others for inspiration.

Amazon homepage

Although this is undoubtably more successful than the ‘special offers’ approach, it still does not fully harness how we overcome choice paralysis in the real world.

When faced with overwhelming choice offline we turn to friends and family for their opinion. In particular we look to those who share similar tastes to our own and whose opinions we trust.

Some ecommerce sites are replicating at least some aspects of this behaviour with sections entitled ‘people like you bought’. This plays off of our inherent group mentality and goes a long way to overcoming choice paralysis.

This thinking ultimately ends in enabling users to see what ‘friends’ are purchasing. Facebook has already done some experimentation in this area. However, I suspect it will not be long before Amazon implement a social network of sorts on its own website.

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

Set good defaults

The best way to avoid choice paralysis is to avoid choice entirely. It is surprising how often we ask users to make decisions where we could easily do so.

We tend to pass the responsibility of choice to users for a 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 in order to cater for the whims of the minority.

Second, we believe that users want choice because that is what they say they want. However, research shows there is a difference between what we say they want and what makes us happiest. Giving the user choice may make them feel temporarily more in control, but ultimately they are more likely to suffer from buyers remorse.

So what is the solution? Am I proposing that we ignore the minority for the sake of the majority? Should clothes come in the single most common size on websites? Should computers not come with the option to preinstall Linux instead of Windows? Not at all.

Instead we must default to the most common choice while allowing the option to customise. Why make people choose between Windows and Linux when the vast majority is going to choose Windows? Set the default to Windows with the option to edit it if required.

This principle applies not just to the selection of products but also to the forms at checkout. I have seen too many websites that require users to select from a number of previous delivery addresses when you could simply default to the last address used.

World Wildlife Fund website

Good defaults have the wonderful ability to reduce cognitive load on users while not taking away the choices available to them.

We are not vulcans

The underlying point that I am making in this post is that we are not hyper-logical vulcans. However much we would like to think otherwise, we do not make rational decisions. We do not carefully weigh the options and make a decision, especially when faced with overwhelming choice. We simply do not have the mental capacity to do that on a conscious level.

Instead we fall back on the subconscious, relying on gut reactions and emotional decision making. This often makes us feel uncertain and out of control. Sometimes this feeling is so powerful we would prefer to make no decision than make the wrong one.

With that in mind we need to make every effort as website owners to avoid overwhelming our users with choice.

“Choice of clothes of different colors on wooden hangers, isolated on white” image courtesy of Bigstock.com

  • Superb well written article, thank you.

  • Useful stuff Paul! Oddly enough I was just facing this very topic with one of our clients’ homepages yesterday. Further to your point 10, I included a tiny message (in a handwritten typeface) next to the action button, that informed the user that hitting the button and completing the subsequent form, was a mere 30 second process – encourging clicks and putting lazy peoples minds at rest… ;)

  • You know Ted, making an effictive call-through is a lot like making love to a beautiful woman. First you lay the groundwork, maybe offer a little extra. Make sure you have a small number of distinct actions. Use active, urgent, language. Get the position right. Then make it big, and carry the call through!

  • Phil

    yeah, I’m totally with Stewart Curry :)

  • Great post Paul, the idea of “Call to action” on a website is a concept I am trying to push to my smaller clients at the moment. This is a good resource which hopefully will help get the idea across to them.
    Cheers

  • Lmao @stewart
    That’s one way of putting it :D

  • Wow that is a great post! I just discovered your blog with Smashingmagazine Twitt. Keep up the good work!

  • Good post. As a matter of fact, the folks here at PBwiki are considering removing the Buy Now button in the next restructuring of the Web site. Would love to hear any additional thoughts on how to optimize our site.

  • This is a good resource which hopefully will help get the idea across to them. thanks

  • penkapp

    Good stuff, Paul. From my experience:
    1) a small number of distinct actions
    2) whitespace
    3) carry the call through
    are the top three if I had to rank them. Without carrying the call through, visitors are left disappointed and will either not come back or notify others not to bother. Doing a poor job of satisfying the latter can instantly kill your site traffic and any possible related revenue.

    • I would highly recommend having only one call to action visible at any one time. More than one adds confusion and leads to less actions being taken overall – as a general rule of thumb.

      Great article. Thanks for sharing. I’ve taken inspiration from this and created my own post on effective call to actions – and linked back to you (effective call to action).

  • Matthijs

    Excellent advice. One point I’d like to add: if you have a call to action somewhere, make sure it is 100% obvious to a visitor what will happen if they react to that call to action.
    So often I come across potentially interesting offers, I’m at the point of clicking the call to action button or filling in a form (or something like that), but what stops me is that it isn’t clear what’s going to happen next.
    Do I have to go through a long and tedious sign up process? Am I buying something immediately when I click this? What will they do with the personal info I’m filling in? Etc etc
    A big “Sign up now!” button is nice, but only half the story I think.
    (this is just personal experience by the way. Maybe the marketing guys have found out that my concerns don’t apply to the general public)

  • beautiful examples btw.
    nice refresher course..the challenge is to design sites that use these design principles AND keep all of your web designs from looking the same. Our challenge is designing thousands of websites and making each one unique while sticking to these great tips.

  • Made information be felt close to voip

  • Inerxia

    Excellent!
    Thats why the little “Share this” icons doesnt work for blogs, they are so many options and services…
    Thanks

  • Joy

    Fantastic article. Thanks! You just gave me ideas for my next blog update. :)

  • Hmmm… just last night my friend and I decided to launch the “Brass Balls Radio Anti-Ethanol Movement”, to save the (tequila producing) agave farms of Mexico. I do believe we shall implement some of these ideas as we launch our “Save Agave, Fight Scurvy!” campaign.
    Thanks.
    Wendy

  • Very useful article, thanks a lot :)

  • Thank you for this nice detailed article. I will try and use this for every project from now on.

  • very nice thank you

  • Jeremy

    I enjoyed the article. Thank you for taking the time to share.

  • Fantastic and well documented article. It really is true in the world of business or communication, that if we focus on our audience then we will get greater returns. What firefox, wordpress, and others have done by focusing on the call to action is brilliant. I would love to see more websites do the same.

  • Great post. I’ve been thinking about incorporating a call to action on my site for some time. I am not a large company, with a software type product, but a PR pro and social media guide selling my services to non-profits, small businesses and speakers/coaches. I think those selling services have to make extra sure we are giving enough value and being authentic, that folks can believe in your expertise enough to sign up, contact you or whatever your call to action ends up being. I think customer testimonials are very useful for helping build the authenticity of a brand as well.
    Thanks for the good info

  • Sorry to comment twice, but after re-reading comments, I agree with Matthijs above. Try and use language that gives the potential customer a clue about what will happen when they take the suggested action.
    I was just reading a Copy Blogger post (http://www.copyblogger.com/increase-blog-subscribers/) that by changing a word or two increased his entry level jobs blog RSS subscriptions by 254%. He changed the word subscribe to RSS feed to Get Jobs by RSS. Because a large percentage of people equate the word subscribe with paying money, the way subscribing to a magazine costs money, that perception created a barrier to sign-ups. Changing the words clarified the results of the all to action and increased responses dramatically.
    I have suggested to my small business clients that we us the words sign-up or free subscription as some of their clients/customers are unfamiliar with RSS feeds, what they do and how they work. The RSS feed button is something that many tech-savvy folks take for gratnetd, but that many potential customers may not.
    I personally hate clicking a link, filling out a sign-up form, and THEN finding out that there is a cost or charge. If I know it up front, I’m more likely to buy in (pun intended).
    We need to be sure to step outside of our own preconceptions and think like our potential customers. Use their language, not our jargon.

  • Dan

    Thanks for posting this, extremely useful for designers.

  • Very useful post, very well written!
    I agree with Cathy, I think you will need to consider your audience and make the call to actions work for them rather than for you. After all, they will be using your site.

  • Thanks for the mention Paul. Useful guide.

  • Well written and extremely useful article with good selection of examples. Thanks a lot for this guideline.

  • Great tips. I like #3. It’s what I call the “Entropy Factor” Don’t let it get out of control.

  • Really good stuff. This article will the standard by which I judge my future websites.

  • I like the idea that EVERY website has a call to action – even if it isn’t obvious.
    But one major point about CTAs that I would suggest is the need to TEST. If you are using instinct or “gut feeling” to guide your choices about what makes a better Call to Action, then you aren’t listening to what the visitors are saying. You need some kind of testing platform to find out the actual affect that your changes have on the success rate of your call to action.
    Thanks for the articles and podcasts!

  • Very well written. I was just talking to a client and I stated they needed to ask themselves one question : What do you want your website to do? A website is designed to do one thing and one thing only: exactly what you want your site visitors to do. You are also aware that a website is a marketing strategy. Any solid marketing strategy is supported by other strategies.
    More sign ups for your email list
    More RSS subscribers
    Higher conversion rates from visitors to customers
    Email inquiries about services
    Maybe not in that order but the bottom line remains websites are no longer just a face on the Internet, it has to be designed to do something. Thanks for putting this together.

  • Brilliant post. Focus is everything, really
    Our multitasking brain often makes us forget of it
    but it is always good to remember !

  • Extremely useful, easily digested list with fab illustrations. I will be applying the details to my evolving garden design website. Many, many thanks for sharing!

  • How about those sites that already been doing well without having these ideas what little changes shall be made?

  • Very useful post, very well written!
    I agree with Cathy, I think you will need to consider your audience and make the call to actions work for them rather than for you. After all, they will be using your site.

  • Thank you – I have tried a couple of these techniques and I noticed an immediate improvement so I’m back for more.

  • Some good stuff there – I didn’t really know what a “call to action” was supposed to do before reading this! As I’m not selling things directly, I can’t use some of these, but I like the idea of having one on every page – perhaps a different coloured banner at the bottom with “Contact me Here”…

  • I have to admit I was making a lot of mistakes with call to action… Well thanks to you i know what to do now. Thanks for a great tut on this.

  • This is article is really useful and covers just about all I needed to know before creating effective ‘Call To Actions’.

    Looking forward to implementing them more efficiently as a result.

  • hey, this article of yours is EXCELLENT, i bought a book on call to action, and there was soooooooo much WAFFLE. Your article was straight to the point and is clearly written, and your examples were really good. I’m now addressing my website with your ideas. By the way love your website theme too.

    Great stuff

  • Thanks for all of the great advice! I am trying to build calls-to-action into our company blogs and want to be as effective as possible. Lots of good advice here!

  • Call to action buttons can be intimidating if you’re not sure where it is going to lead you. A proper description is needed, but the appearance of the button surely helps too. It feels more secure to click something green or blue since the colors seem ‘safe’. A big red button creates the impression that I’m about to execute something big and there’s no turning back once I click it.

    Thanks, that’s a nice article.

  • Tim

    With regards to #4 “Use active Urgent Language”, I have been reflecting on this over the last few days – so your article is very timely Paul! – and I think “Today” is another very good word that can be used …

    As in, “Order today to receive your free gift”, “Call us, and start enjoying the benefits of … today”, and so on.

  • I totally agree with Poker guy. You have to take the human mind into consideration while designing this kind of functions.

  • Very good article. I just came across this with a quick google search on ‘call to action in websites’. This was exactly the insight what I was looking for. kudos.

    3 was perfect for the project I’m working on and my client was please with the idea.

    • You need to start thinking about your site design with personas in mind. Even if these are just short descriptions or notes for yourself, we always need to design with the end user firmly in mind from the outset.

  • excellent, well constructed article. the understanding of the concept of negative space can not be underestimated.

  • Thanks for your informative article.

    I will try to develop a call to action strategy for my next web project.

  • It’s funny, I’ve been reading a ton about calls to action and have even paid people a lot of money to learn from them.. and i see screenshots of some of the same websites they use in their example on this page! :)

  • Exactly what I was looking for to convince my boss to use the word “call” in front of our phone number.

  • Exactly what I was looking for to convince my boss to use the word “call” in front of our phone number.

  • Thanks a lot. This article has greatly benefited me. 

    Regards

  • Paul,

    I enjoyed this article. Very informative and visually appealing. The key to effective call to action is to follow the techniques mentioned above.

    Best,

    Stacie Walker

  • Anonymous

    very helpful….thank you so much for sharing!!!

  • We have been doing some call to actions on our homepage having read your great post. However some inpuit would be great as to making them better… You can view them here: http://umbrella-host.com i hope thats ok!

  • Paul, years down the track, I find that I can still recommend this article to my colleagues. A timeless article. If I could add just one point 
    (a bonus, perhaps)  it would be split testing the call to action on the page.

    I was absolutely convinced at one stage that “Switch to ClientName” was the perfect call to action for our client, but it turned out after we tested it, that it decreased conversion rates by like 80%. Sometimes it pays to try a few different ones out (based on varying the techniques you’ve outlined here) to see what works.

  • Came across this site: http://www.samplesaleavenue.com that has a (in my opinion) eye-catching call to actions on the home page for each post listed… The CTA is revealed on hover. Very cool :)

  • Adam Leviton

    Thank you for explaining the strategy behind CTAs, and not just “how to make a pretty button.”

  • Really love your site Paul… While I won’t pander by enumerating all the things that you obviously thought were good ideas; I cannot resist giving kudos on the Estimated reading time. That single addition, earned you my subscription click.

    Sorry for the off-topic comment- but this is where I happened to be when I felt the impulse to say “Well Done!”

  • Thanks for a great post. I’ve been banging on about call to action for years but many folks in small businesses just don’t seem to get it.

    • That is fascinating. I cannot understand why any business owner would not interested in calls to action. What do they answer when you ask them their reason for having a website.

      • It’s a good question and much of it has to do with the sectors I work in (accountants and lawyers) where having anything other than a stuffy ‘same as the rest of them’ website is seen as a little too extravagant.
        With one client  I suggested having a large sidebar button prompt to join the newsletter in exchange for a free business assessment tool and the client’s response was “that doesn’t sound very professional and we’re not giving anything away for free”.

        Occasionally, hitting your head against a wall is less painful…

  • Ian McManus

    One question I have is how do you know the right amount of calls to action?  My client has 3 on this page above the fold, and I’m not sure if it’s too many?  
    http://southfloridapropertygroup.com/condos/four-seasons  — any thoughts on this?

  • brianjordan05

    Thanks for all of these useful information maybe I can add some call to action with my reviews too. I’ll try all of your tips here. Especiall for my pentax k20d review.

  • Thanks Paul. I once saw a call back feature on a website (wish i could trace the website). Upon clicking on the button it dialled the customer service desk. It had powered by Oracle. But i can’t find that specific solution on Oracle. Can you help? I need it on my website. http://www.iamloyal.co.uk 

  • bgrggfe

    Do you know who is the prolocutor star of Louis Vuitton Handbags Online  now? It is the Sofia Coppola, she is well-know with the director of movies. Of course she like the LV very much ,especial the Louis Vuitton Wallet,but she never buy something from the Louis Vuitton outlet store, because she always get freely and show the newest louis vuitton items .

  • Very use full information about how can improve home page call to action ! ! 

  • Bernadette Brennan

    Thanks, great blog on call to action. Very succinct and the visual examples really helped to get your point across. Am about to try and put it into practice on my website as I think it is lacking a strong enough call to action. Thanks. http://www.premierhomefinders.com.au

  • OK, finally got the call to action button up on my website and in 24 hours have already gotten an enquiry. Wish I’d done it sooner! THANK YOU. http://www.premierhomefinders.com.au

  • Probably one of the most succinct articles I’ve read on creating effective calls to action.

  • Great break down of user behavior.

  • contentverve

    Interesting article with a lot of good pointers. As goes for CTA position, my experience is that the best practice “always have the CTA above the fold” can backfire big time. I just published a case study where moving to CTA to the bottom of a long landing page generated a 304% lift in conversions. You can check it out here: http://goo.gl/hBQtr

  • Thank you for the informative and useful information. Thank you for sharing.

  • karan singh

    Call to action is over finale destination to attract the user`s, we need to optimize our add or landing page according to user thought , we just analyse the requirement and thoughts of client and display our features on call to action.

  • Great article!

  • James

    The challenge you still have with well written CTAs, is the webpage is static. Sometimes visitors need something more dynamic to hone their focus in on for a desired call to action like what nudgein.com does.

  • pete

    Very insightful info. However, quite a lot of authors also offer their own concepts on how to write an effective call to action and although most of the information you find helps you learn a thing or two, it would have been great if there were some extensive examples of several ‘call to actions’ which have been written for different purposes. Like for instance how some examples of call to action meta tags that can be used in Internet Marketing articles. This would give any beginner a good idea of how to write their call to action.

  • Soluweb

    I have just discovered this website and have found a lot of valuable information, thanks for sharing.

  • So I am working on a followup to this article. It is going to be an in-depth video course unpacking the techniques used by some of the biggest websites in the world. I am really going to delve into creating an effective call to action. If you want a sneak peak check out the page I have put together. – https://gumroad.com/l/Calls-to-action

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