The paradox of choice: search, navigation, and content at each phase of your user journey

Too many options in your website navigation can make the user journey more confusing, simplify for better user experience.


Scott Smith, Principal, DFFRNT

Choice is good, but excessive choices are not. When scrolling through websites, users will quickly compare and choose from a few well-constructed links but they will get frustrated and abandon pages when links are overabundant or poorly organized.

Websites are designed to offer choices. If you’re shopping online, for example, your goal is to purchase a product. Narrowing the choices to a few relevant options lets you select the item or service that will give you the most value and solve your problem. 

Too often, designers create web pages with more choices than the average user can handle. This leads to confusion and users feeling overwhelmed. It hinders your customer from making any decision at all. 

In Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, the author makes a clear case that too many choices lead to:

  • User paralysis
  • Poor decisions
  • Dissatisfaction

We see these results often when performing usability testing of websites and digital products. Having too many choices lengthens task completion times or keeps users from completing tasks.

The principles are based on research by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. In More Isn’t Always Better, Barry Schwartz describes the problem in Iyengar and Lepper’s experiment about jars of jam:  “Consumers want a choice; grocers offer many, but adding more options gets complicated. In Iyengar and Lepper’s study, customers presented with more jams were one-tenth as likely to buy.”


"When people are given a moderate number of options (4 to 6) rather than a large number (20 to 30), they are more likely to make a choice, are more confident in their decisions, and are happier with what they choose."

- Sheena Iyengar, Professor, Columbia Business School.

Good design carefully considers the range of choices at every stage of a task path. Knowing your top tasks (the key reasons people visit your website) helps you optimize the number of options you offer. Good design also factors in behavioural economics: the combination of behavioural psychology and traditional economic thinking that lets us know why people behave the way they do. Understanding the factors that cause your users to make bad choices will help you design around them.

Here are a few ways too many choices can harm your user experience and steps you can take to counter this proactively. Your users’ experience starts before the moment they click a hyperlink or search result that leads to your website.

Start at the Beginning: Search Engine Results 

Search engines increasingly pull in sentences and link text from your website. We need to start preventing the paradox of choice at search engine results. Words are important to users as they browse the web. Know the words that are important to your visitors.

When people use a search engine, half the time, they will only scan the first three search results. They compare quickly and make a choice. If it looks like a search result has information that will help them, they click. But, they may miss a better page because it is too far down in search results

If their search finds too many items, people may not click any. Instead, too many choices will immediately cause them to refine their search further, using different keywords or filters. On search results pages, people actively avoid too many choices.

It is essential to ensure your landing pages appear in the first few results.


When people see several links that seem to promise the same thing, they spend too much time thinking about the difference between them and often need to remember what they came to do in the first place.

Navigational items: Keep It Simple 

When customers arrive on your website or begin using your app, the navigational menus should easily and demonstrably support their goals. Too often, users are distracted by too many choices. What are your visitors’ most important top tasks on your web page? Identify these and only support the top functions in navigational menus.

Tips to simplify navigation:

  • Your site may have multiple databases, and you may be tempted to offer different navigation for each. Yet, offering more than one model for navigation can pose too many choices. 
  • Users will immediately size up what they can do when they arrive. Multiple navigational models or hierarchies force users to compare the options.
  • If the navigation is in different places, such as the left side, right side, and at the top, it causes more delay as users look around the screen at the options.
  • If you offer multiple search boxes, keep them in the same general area.

Avoid Giving Your Users Too Many Paths

A few navigational options, as on the highway sign on the left, are all that is needed when moving quickly.

One result of too many choices in navigational items is too many task paths. These extra paths often result from too many cross-links and branches within second and third-level pages as people click deeper into the site.

Offering multiple paths to identical content seems like a natural way to serve diverse audiences. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take many path options before users feel like they are “going in circles” or have “been here before.”

Our experience with usability testing makes it clear people want to scan, find a link that will help them complete their top tasks, and click. If they encounter many choices, they lose steam and compare links too much.

When people see several links that seem to promise the same thing, they spend too much time thinking about the difference between them and often need to remember what they came to do in the first place. It is like having several helpful guides fighting for a chance to show the visitor around.

Duplicate Content is Not Twice as Good

Users get frustrated when they find redundant web content, especially if the content is not well-differentiated or cross-linked. 

Your customer wants a quick sense of your website as they accomplish their task. This can be hard to get if they discover slight content variations in different parts of the website.

What causes duplicate content? Repeated content usually results from poor coordination between web authors or if sub-groups within organizations make slight modifications for their own purposes.

Content can also appear duplicated when websites offer information from different timeframes. Let’s say students are looking up their course calendars for the year. They’ll quickly get confused and frustrated as they compare search results for previous years’ calendars with similar content that link to the same search terms as the calendar they need.

If your internal search engine lists pages of similar information that changes through time (e.g. policies, laws, etc.), consider ordering search results by date. Hide less-relevant older content from being indexed by your internal search engine. Archive content that is beyond its shelf-life.

What if the Overall User Experience is Toxic?

Even with an optimal number of choices at every step, the overall experience of having to make too many choices can still make people feel overloaded, confused or lost.

Forcing people to scan too many choices causes them to regret their choices, spend time comparing a choice they passed up, escalate their expectations, and blame themselves. You can help. Keep the user scanning quickly, limit navigational options, and identify the primary action with a distinct button design. Get rid of duplication and clutter in your information architecture. Instead, think of “IA” as “immediate action”.

Good design can help people feel effective and efficient. Keep your users’ task paths in mind as you manage the number of choices you present to them at every step – search, arrival, navigation, and destination. Knowing your top tasks and making sure they’re clear to your user at every step will also help provide them with a seamless journey.

How do you plan for usability? Have experts observe and track people performing tasks on your site and see for yourself when users get hung up on too many choices. You can request behavioural analyses. Understanding and tracking customer behaviours will allow you to make data-based decisions about improvements to the digital service or product to allow for better usability.

Another option is to identify your users’ top tasks and measure how well your site supports these actions. Let us show you. We are experts in usability testing and behavioural analysis. Check out some of our work with HRSDC, WorkEverywhere, and Research and Behavioural Science Guide Development of Mental Health Platform.

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