user experience & design

The Psychology of Choice In UX Design

June 12th, 2017

As the ends to a UX designer’s means, the concept of a “user” is scrutinized and dissected so often that it’s almost dehumanized. Will users click this? How can we attract users to this page? How do we make users do what we want to do? It’s easy to forget that users are just people.

To design for your people, you need to understand them—how they behave, what motivates them, the latent forces behind the decisions they make. When we consider these enormous questions, we start to depart from the UX design field. Now we’re talking psychology.

I’ve always held the belief that UX design is an intersection of myriad fields and disciplines, but psychology arguably overpowers the mixture. Whether it’s behavioral, cognitive, or even emotional, psychology simply describes the study of all users—it’s a veritable treasure trove of UX knowledge.

In fact, traversing all of the intertwining connections between UX design and psychology would fill up several textbooks—and we both don’t have that kind of time. Instead I’ve chosen to focus on a specific facet of psychology that will help deliver seamless, data-driven UX to your users—uh, people.

Users interacting with any platform, no matter its context or purpose, will likely have to make choices. Staring at your home screen, they need to decide what links to click or buttons to tap to achieve their goals: finding information, purchasing a certain product, applying for a job.

Because concept of choice is so ingrained in UX design, it’s important to have an understanding of using the psychology of choice to your advantage.

Don’t Overwhelm With Options

In an age where so much of UX design is based around personalization and customization, you’d assume that presenting more options to the user is always auspicious. After all, the more choices they have, they more likely they can find the perfect one for them.

But in reality, when presented with an overwhelming amount of options, users tend to gravitate to one choice more than any other: no choice at all. It’s counterintuitive, but the phenomenon of choice paralysis is well-documented.

One of the most cited examples of choice paralysis, or choice overload as it’s sometimes referred to, comes from a 2000 study by psychologists Sheena Iyengar & Mark Lepper, who set up competing taste-testing booths in a California grocery store.

One booth offered twenty-four different flavors of jam, causing 60% of passersby to stop and taste—but only 3% of tasters actually purchased a jar. In contrast, when offered six flavors of jam, 40% of shoppers stopped, but 30% purchased a jar.

While there’s no formula you can use to magically spit out the perfect number of choices to offer on your website, another study found that no more than five is solid heuristic to go by. That’s less than the jam experiment, but accounts for the fact that users are much more fickle online than off. If even somewhat overwhelmed, they’ll leave your website.

You’ll see five as the absolute limit for options quite a bit in UX web design. I’ll use our website as an example: our main navbar has exactly five options, each clearly defined so that the user can easily make a choice.

The Psychology of Choice In UX Design

Codal’s home page, featuring a nav bar of five choices

Play The Frame Game

Any website that offers their services in packages are familiar with the ‘framing’ principle, sometimes affectionately known as the Goldilocks technique. It’s an excellent technique to use when you’re offering several choices, but want to optimize their presentation to influence the user’s decision.

As the nickname suggests, its most common iteration is presenting your user with three choices in a row: a “small” option, a “medium” option, and a “large”. The Goldilocks theory posits the user will most likely select the middle one—a happy compromise for both you and your user.

The Psychology of Choice In UX Design

UX of Chicago Tribune subscription packages

This is a common practice for periodicals like the Chicago Tribune, pictured above, that typically offer different subscriptions of varying quality. By sandwiching the ideal option between two extremes, the Tribune makes it much more likely their user will select that option, rather than making no choice at all.

Choosing Usability

Choice psychology offers valuable insight into how the human mind makes decisions. And that’s what using a website or app for the first time is: a series of split-second decisions as the user tries to achieve their goals on your platform.

The psychology of choice is only one component of the much larger role psychology plays in UX design. From behavioral analytics to color theory, understanding the user’s mind means designing for it.

Premier UX design agencies know the nature of their industry is a mixture of art, technology, and countless other disciplines. With each new project, different skills and strategies need to be implemented. It’s all about choosing which one will get the job done.

Sean McGowan


Sean is a technical researcher & writer at Codal, authoring blog posts on topics ranging from UX design to the Internet of Things. Working alongside developers, designers, and marketers, Sean helps support the writing team to ensure Codal produces engaging web content of the highest quality. When not writing about the latest and greatest in digital design, Sean can be found baking, watching movies, or complaining about the shortcomings of his favorite Philadelphia sports teams.


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