How Choice Impacts Conversion

Choice is simply the act of making a decision between a number of possibilities. It offers us the agency to do things how we believe we should, not how we must. Choice is an important concept in e-commerce, as in all facets of life, but it’s far more complicated than it seems. To unravel the mystery of choice, we first turn to Malcolm Gladwell.

In a TED Talk back in 2004, Gladwell explores the idea of choice in a way only he could — through the lens of spaghetti sauce. He introduces us to the man who made choice the hot new thing in the food and beverage industry, Dr. Howard Moskowitz. Back in the early 80’s Campbells approached Dr. Moskowitz with a problem regarding their premium tomato sauce Prego. They were losing market share to Ragu and needed a solution fast. Dr. Moskowitz got to work.

He started with 45 varieties of tomato sauce covering a wide range of attributes. While most individuals would slowly test these 45 options down to the best one, Dr. Moskowitz was pushing for a shift in thinking.

He wasn’t seeking the best sauce, he was seeking the perfect mix of sauces. The distinction is subtle, but also game-changing. This was the central tenet of what Dr. Moskowitz was selling — something we call horizontal segmentation today. It’s not about a single option, but a range of options that satisfy the different segments within the market. After all, there’s no one size fits all for most things in life, let alone tomato sauce.

On spaghetti sauce — Malcolm Gladwell (TED)

From those 45 varieties, he started testing and he identified 3 clear categories of sauce that people identified with: plain, spicy, and chunky. The most surprising thing about these results? Nobody was serving the chunky tomato sauce market because no one ever said they like chunky tomato sauce if you asked them, but the data told a different story.

The finding led to a new line of chunky tomato sauce from Prego and they quickly bounced back to being the market leader once again. This seemingly simple strategy by Dr. Moskowitz led to an explosion of choice across all categories in the supermarket and beyond. It was a shift from universals to variability, from one to many.

The Paradox

Choice would change the game and it did. Today we have endless choices everywhere we look, but it’s not all good. In fact, we may very well live in a world where choice is becoming a problem.

Barry Schwartz covers this phenomenon in his aptly named book, The Paradox of Choice. What started as serving a few horizontal segments within the market has exploded to ridiculous levels. In your typical grocery store, you have hundreds of options for everything imaginable, including cookies and coffee and cookie-flavored coffee and coffee-flavored cookies and so much more.

The thinking is there’s something for everyone, but at some point, it starts to become too much. Rather than empowering the individual to choose, we paralyze them into not being able to decide. We become so overwhelmed with the number of options that we rarely make an informed choice and often we don’t make a choice at all.

This flood of choice negatively impacts us in several key ways.

As we touched on earlier, too much choice makes it harder to make a decision at all. We over-analyze to the point where our decision is indecision. This overload impacts us negatively on a psychological, emotional, and behavioral level.

Too many choices not only make it difficult to make a decision, but it also increases our expectations of what we do end up choosing. This is driven by the fact that all this choice leads us to believe that there is a perfect option for us and that is what we come to expect from any decision. We’re never pleasantly surprised.

At the same time, when we do make a choice, we almost always regret it. Why? Because of the plethora of options available to us, we realize that we had the option to pick something different and we expect the option we didn’t choose was probably better (though it certainly may not be).

Finally, choice overload often ends with self-blame. We feel like the reason we’re disappointed with our choice is because we made a poor choice and less so because the options were poor to begin with. An unhealthy thought process to say the least.

Making a decision takes a moment, living a decision takes a life-time.

- Sherif A. El-Mawardy

While we often believe that choice is invaluable, that it maximizes our welfare, freedom, and livelihood, it can also be a huge downer. Limitations and boundaries are a good thing.

So is choice good or bad? The answer is somewhere in between, which makes it such a challenge to solve for in the world of e-commerce.

Choice in E-commerce

While choice has proliferated in the physical world, it has done much the same in the digital one. In reality, the choices we are offered online maybe even more powerful, as they can be the difference between conversion or abandonment, between satisfaction or regret. And yet, it seems like we don’t truly appreciate how choice moves the needle in the world of e-commerce.

If we take two key lessons from Gladwell and Schwartz, they would be the following.

Finding a single option, product, or idea that resonates with every person is essentially impossible. Every individual has their own personal taste, so finding a mix of options is far more important.

Too many choices tend to hurt the overall experience. This is perfectly illustrated by Hick’s Law, which states that as the number of choices increases the time it takes to make a decision also increases.

Knowing this, we need to find the sweet spot when it comes to choices and decisions in every part of the online shopping experience. Whether this manifests as presenting the appropriate mix of options or limiting the decisions needed to checkout, choice is ever-present.

Let’s look at an example in the world of dress shirts. Below are two screenshots for dress shirts, one from Bonobos, the other from Mizzen+Main.

At first glance, there’s not much to complain about for either product page. They’re both laid out in a logical way, with a clean design that presents the essential information to the user. When we look closer though, the choices they offer differ in a few important ways that could greatly impact conversion.

First of all, we can look at the number of choices the two companies require from the user. Bonobos presents four choices for picking their dress shirt: color, size, fit, and length. Mizzen+Main has three: color, size, and fit. Three vs. four decisions may not seem like much, but it can make an impact.

Digging into this further, how these options are presented is also very important. Mizzen+Main hides the options in a drop-down, making it less clear what the possible options are. Not being able to understand what choices are available to you when presented a choice, just adds an unnecessary extra step. What they did get right is providing a default selection for each choice, something they could make more apparent, but a measure that eases the burden on the user all the same.

On the other hand, Bonobos is very transparent about what can be selected for every option they have, but they don’t pre-select the bottom three questions, forcing the user to take extra steps. If we know that a majority of users order a Medium, Tailored, Regular length dress shirt, pre-selecting those options at the get-go saves customers both time and energy.

Within those options is where things get even more interesting, especially when we look at the color selection. There are 4 choices for color for the Mizzen+Main dress shirt, compared to 19(!) for Bonobos. The amount of effort that may go into making that decision alone could lead to a shift in conversion.

Both have room for improvement and this is just from examining a single product page that is part of a much larger funnel. It starts to become clear just how pervasive choice can be when it comes to online shopping.

All this leads to a very clear directive: pay attention to the decisions you force your users to make.

How can we do this? There are a number of paths to take and these are just a few simple ones to keep in mind.

The number of choices or decisions a user needs to make should be as lean as possible. Don’t make it more complicated than it should be or you’ll fall prey to Hick’s Law.

Reduce choice complexity. Maybe you just have one choice to make, but when the choice includes 20, 30, or more options, that becomes a different sort of problem.

At every stage of the process, is your customer in the mindset of browsing or buying? Are they a new customer or a returning one? These factors coupled with behavioral data can help you position your user experience accordingly.

Every choice you ask your user to make should be distinct, not overlapping. They should never force the user to make trade-offs, especially if the choices are truly complementary. Think about this for every option you present.

It’s good practice to leverage default selections and highlight the best options as it encourages faster decision making. Having a no-brainer choice makes things so much easier and can reduce the clicks it takes to convert dramatically.

When things do get complicated around choice, leverage your ability to curate, personalize, and categorize choices to create more manageable chunks. It allows users to more easily navigate these decision points but also helps you keep the granularity you desire.

There’s a lot to deconstruct when it comes to choice and the e-commerce experience. While these ideas are a great starting point, every company, user flow, product, and customer base is different. You’ll need to take the time to explore what works best for you and your organization.

That being said, it’s vital to be cognizant of the power that choice plays in your user experience. Try and take these ideas and see how they can be used to optimize your own conversion funnels.

And always remember that the easier we make the choice, the better off we’ll be.

Originally published at on February 11, 2020.

Writer that designs — or is it the other way around? VP of eCommerce at function of beauty, creator of t-shirts, and lover of books.