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The 4 Step Cure for Choice Overload

Posted by Kyle Steinhouse on Tue, Dec 03, 2013

It was a recent Saturday afternoon, and I had a laundry list of errands to complete. My last stop was the liquor store where I immediately found myself stalled in the vodka aisle. My list simply read “vodka,” but the vodka market is saturated with diverse options, so which one should I choose? Just a few of the attributes where options vary widely include: reputation (“Hello, Grey Goose”), quality (“Hello again, Grey Goose”), name (“Good evening, Little Black Dress”), packaging (“Hey, Crystal Head”), flavor (“Hi, Van Gogh PB&J”), and price (“Sup, Aristocrat?”). Pinnacle Vodka alone boasts 30 different flavors in their Cocktail Catalog.


Best Vodka Brands

Having all these choices is great, right?  I thought so too at first, but then I spent five minutes pacing that same 20 foot stretch, and then ten minutes (my palms sweaty), and, oh please don’t let me have just spent 15 minutes in the vodka aisle. The diagnosis was clear; I was exhibiting all the symptoms of the choice overload blues.

Choice overload occurs when the addition of more choices becomes overwhelming and actually starts to have adverse effects (authors Scheibehenne, Greifeneder, and Todd provide a robust description in their 2010 meta-analysis “Can There Ever Be Too Many Options? A Meta-Analytic Review of Choice Overload”).In my case, I was having trouble committing to a choice, which resulted in a longer-than-expected errand. Scheibehenne et al. also describe other effects like a decrease in satisfaction with the final choice and an increased likelihood in not making any choice at all.

Is there a cure?

Recent research by Townsend and Khan suggests that a verbal depiction of information—text— can decrease choice overload when there are a large number of choices because verbal information requires more deliberate processing. Perhaps, with an inventory list of vodka SKUs, I would have more quickly eliminated Naked Jay Vodka’s Big Dill Pickle flavor.

Of course, the impact of choice overload goes well beyond the vodka aisle; think about choosing investments, a tablet for your child, or a loyalty program. It’s especially relevant for those of us who design questionnaires to be rigorous and yield insights, without drowning our respondents. One of the best known researchers of choice overload, Dr. Sheena Iyengar, offers these 4Cs  to consider when you’re charged with designing and presenting options:

  1. Cut: very simply, if possible, consider reducing the number of options

  2. Concretize:  help people understand the consequences between the choices they make in a vivid way—make the benefits real to your prospective customer

  3. Categorize: categories help people tell choices apart, and the categories need to make sense to the customer, not just to you, the provider

  4. Condition for complexity: Ask the questions with the fewest choices first and the questions with most choices last

So what happened next on my liquor store errand? Lucky for the vodka market, I don’t like to leave anything unchecked on my errand list. I ended up with a bottle of Van Gogh Vodka Dutch Caramel.

Kyle is a recent transplant to Boston and to CMB. He enjoys long runs along the Charles, the freedom of choice, and vodka cocktails.

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Topics: consumer insights, research design, customer experience and loyalty