How choice influences customer satisfaction

In his great book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz details how people can be overwhelmed and dissatisfied by too many options.  New research from Columbia University seems to indicate how you present options is just as important to people’s satisfaction with their decision.  Both insights have broad applicability to inbound marketers and community managers.

Do you present options simultaneously or sequentially?

What the Columbia University study examined was customer satisfaction when products were presented either simultaneously or sequentially.  What they found was that sequential (one-at-a-time) presentation of options increased people’s hope that the next option would be better than the previous one.   Simultaneous (all-at-one-time) presentation conversely was shown to better reinforce the purchase decision, making it a better tactic.

This is probably something intuitive to our experience.  Consider Amazon, Pinterest, even Twitter (to an extent).  All of the information and choices are available in any screenshot.  Then consider the unease with which people have recently written about Facebook’s Open Graph, which gives the appearance of arbitrary posts in a user’s news feed.  Even with Facebook’s assurance that the most popular posts are being revealed, there is a sense that something is missing.

How is this relevant to the everyman (and everywoman)?

An example of sequential presentation are sites that try to game bounce rate by spreading content over multiple pages.  You may have kind of known that readers hated that, and this indicates as much (although I suspect there are other reasons for this as well).

Another example would be sites with multiple target demographics.  Trying to provide choices and content for soccer moms on the same landing page as choices for tweens oftentimes will provide too many choices, often irrelevant to one or more of the targeted groups.   A separate landing page with fewer options might be more pleasing to users.

The big idea in these studies is that it’s not enough just to know your customer and make them buy (or take action), but also to make them feel positive about the experience afterward.

Giving people a reasonable number of easily accessible options appears to be one way to do it.

What do you think?  Do you agree with these findings?  Have you had success with sequential options?  Is this applicable in any other facet of online marketing or community management?


Photo Credit

Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.
  • Carol Lynn Rivera

    Read that book and loved it. The psychology is quite fascinating. I’ve struggled with choice many times over the years, wondering whether I’m providing enough or too much. In fact, over the years I’ve significantly reduced the amount of choices I give customers. Not because I don’t want to give them what they want but because most of the time they don’t know what they want, and the more options they see the less they decide. I know exactly what you mean about content spread over multiple pages. I’m sure that has to do with ad impressions, too, but it’s annoying and an article has to be REALLY good for me to bother going to the next page. Great food for thought here and worth rethinking some business practices as a result.

    • jimdougherty

      Thanks so much, Carol! I met a woman from Swarthmore that had Schwartz as a professor and she was quite taken aback at how much I revere him and his book – but I agree with you that it’s top notch, well-researched. I know exactly what you mean about customers not knowing what they want – I appreciate that you shared that story. I’ve had the same experience, and it really speaks to how disconnected people are from their customers when they inundate them with choices. Thanks so much for your great comment and for reading!

  • Jayme Soulati

    Using iPad. Cannot share this as I see no share tool bar! Excellent piece!

    • jimdougherty

      Thanks Jayme for reading and commenting.

  • Bill Abramovitz

    All choices are not created equal. In the web model, logic, hierarchy and intuition and smart design can amass enormous amounts of information in a single interface. But it’s important that these decisions are made based on proven consumer needs and wants – basic marketing and UI testing. By contrast, the analog or sequential presentation of options seems counterintuitive in our digital world. We Google, we search, we connect with information quickly. There’s nothing more frustrating than sitting through a lengthy Powerpoint presentation when on only 5% of the information is relevant to your business. I’m looking forward to reading the research.

    • jimdougherty

      Phenomenal insight, Bill. The idea of what developers can do versus what’s ideal to do immediately came to mind for me as well (thought you articulate it much better). I never thought of applying this research to powerpoint presentations, but it’s so true that ancillary, unnecessary things obscure the need-to-know. Great insight, shifting the paradigm a bit for me. Appreciated!