Freedom From Choice

Let’s say you had a craving for some jam. Would you go to a store featuring many varieties, or would you stick with a few favorite flavors?

Two Stanford professors wanted to determine a correlation between choice and buying behavior, so they set up two tables in a local supermarket. They filled one display with dozens of jars of jam, while placing only six flavors on the other. While people flocked to the table with the most variety, the table with the fewest options proved to be almost three times more effective in converting interest into sales.

We naturally seek out choices, but in the end we hate to choose. In “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell cites cognitive psychologists who say that everyone possesses a natural limit to the amount of information we can process at one time. Though certain people can handle different mnemonic tasks better than others, researchers have identified a natural ceiling of six or seven “things” that we can retain within our short-term memory.

When we reach the upper ranges of our “channel capacity,” we risk confusion through “information overload,” so we develop strategies to automatically filter what we value from what we consider extraneous. An online journal, The Next Big Thing, asked its readers how they cope with multiple sources of information. Experienced Web users indicated that they have highly honed screening skills and feel they handle the challenge quite well. The study suggests that less sophisticated online users have more trouble keeping up.

The Internet encourages us to scan and screen everything. This new environment represents an extraordinary challenge for our own Web sites, which can conceivably offer almost limitless amounts of information to our target audiences. The success or failure of these sites rests on our ability to control the choices we offer these visitors two ways — by understanding what types of information they likely seek and by establishing intuitive design and navigational systems that allow them to retrieve what they want quickly and easily.

For instance, research shows that while marketing initiatives encourage potential consumers to go to an advertiser’s site for more information, they will leave quickly if they cannot find what they want — no matter how nice the pages look. Reporters habitually complain about poorly organized sites. PRWeek reported that three out of every five reporters decline to include companies in their stories if they cannot locate key information within their Web sites.

When we minimize clutter, offer intuitive gateways, provide consistent site design, and acknowledge the needs of our audiences through the choices we offer, we do more than improve the user experience. We also dramatically impact the way people regard the information contained within these sites. The Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab collected data from over 1,400 people living in the United States and Europe to determine what makes Web sites credible. Among their findings, the Stanford researchers noticed that visitors trusted sites that they found easy to use but gave low marks to poorly designed sites that they considered visually “amateurish.”

Web sites need to foster credibility if they wish to become effective communication centers. This leads us to another aspect of choice — giving visitors a reason to choose to visit you in the first place. In a world defined by too much information, we gravitate to what we view to be important and meaningful. No one has time to waste with content they cannot trust. Saatchi and Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts once described the emotional bond that connects customers to brands as “trustmarks.” Naturally, he advocated traditional advertising as the vehicle for creating these visceral connections; he also believes that no other medium matches the Web’s ability to deliver information designed to validate the trust we place in our brands.

Emotion strikes a powerful chord with most people, yet you need to back up the message with a rational confirmation. Ideas, brands, messages — they all must possess a tangible quality if they are to have a lasting impact. A Web site can provide that tangibility if you commit yourself to delivering compelling, credible content.

About 20 years ago, Devo, the wickedly subversive musicians with the funny red hats, inadvertently summed up the quandary we face in an information age. “Freedom of choice / is what you got,” they sang. “Freedom from choice / is what you want.” Companies that understand how to correctly offer the right choices, both in providing valuable information for its target audience and then organizing it in an intuitive fashion, will take an important step toward making their own sites as sticky as jam.

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