The Paradox of Choice

Man looks at the various options for ice cream flavors at an ice cream parlour
So many flavors, how to decide?

The Paradox of Choice: Are There Too Many Menu Options?

Walk into an ice-cream parlor, and there are so many options! Should you choose banana, chocolate chip, or berry cheesecake? Perhaps butterscotch ripple or almond chocolate would be better? Oh, what about mint or dulce de leche? Or maybe pistachio? Do I want multiple scoops of different ice creams? Oh man, which ones would go together well?

The experience detailed above is the Paradox of Choice, and we all experience it. With so many options it doesn’t matter what you select, you will probably think you made the wrong choice.

The Famous Jam Study

Professor Iyengar speaking at TED about her research
Professor Iyengar speaking at TED about her research.

In 1995, a very famous study was undertaken by Professor Iyengar and her research team. They conducted an experiment in a California gourmet market where they stocked a booth with Wilkin & Sons jam samples.
They switched every few hours from offering six jams to offering 24 jams. They found that shoppers were more likely to buy when they had six to choose from. These findings have gone on to be replicated in many other studies across food items all over the world. So, why is fewer choices better for sales and customer satisfaction?

The Paradox of Choice

Menu with too many options
A restaurant with maybe a few too many options.

In 2004 psychologist, Barry Schwartz, wrote his famous book The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less. His theory is that at a certain point, choice is no longer liberating but debilitating. He says that too much choice can even leave people feeling anxious and depressed both during and after decision making.
The problem of choice has been debated for years, and it has become worse in this digital age when our choices have virtually no limit and this is idea for endless choice is reflected strongly in many parts of the food industry.

What’s for dinner?

We can all relate to this age-old question, but it probably illustrates best how increased choice has drastically changed our lives. Today your choice of dinner is limited only by your own imagination. We often assume that weighing all the options means that we can make informed and responsible decisions.
Take the decision to eat more healthily for example. You will first need to decide which food philosophy to embrace (vegan, paleo, gluten-free, etc.) and this is only the first decision in a long process that will probably make you want to just eat a pizza and drink a beer on the coach in your sweatpants instead.

Restaurant Menus and Digital Menu Boards

Looking at the earlier jam study, you may conclude that a menu in a restaurant, for instance, should contain fewer than ten items. This is not necessarily the case – the way a menu is streamlined can make a difference.

For instance, you can usually find about seven items in each major category in very successful chains. Top QSR brands, like McDonalds, have close to that number of choices. Their menus are designed by expert menu engineers who know exactly how to streamline them for customers to make easy decisions, but you don’t need to bring one of them on to make your menu easier for your customers.

Customers can vary in decision making. Some know exactly what they want and get the same thing every time, most have a general idea of what they’d like, and a few seem like they will never reach a decision. Imagine the wait for the latter two, if they had to take in a complex menu?

Menu with a good number of options
A well designed menu with a good number of choices.

Digital menu boards are growing in popularity because they reduce perceived and actual wait times, help upsell various items, and contribute to a better experience for customers for the simple reason that the food can be seen making choices easier! But, you can’t just post items and wait for the cash to flow in.

Many customers feel under pressure when staring up at a large board offering dozens of choices. When it comes to digital menu board design, an overwhelming selection triggers the Paradox of Choice and make customers default to an option they have bought previously out of fear. When a menu is well designed, they are more tempted to try something different (and perhaps more expensive).

Is it too simple to conclude that too much choice is always bad?

Itamar Simonson and Leilei Gao conducted experiments with 149 study participants using jelly beans and cash. They concluded from their study that people do in fact like bigger selections – depending on where they are in the decision-making timeline. The first decision people had to make was whether or not to buy the jelly beans and the second was about what flavor to choose.
They found that if the decision was about whether to buy or not, more options were conducive to buying. If the decision was about which product to select, a large assortment made identifying one more difficult. They had similar results when conducting experiments with chocolate.

So what’s the take away? If you fully embrace the Paradox of Choice and have only a few meal options, customers won’t come in droves and will feel restricted and unfulfilled. On the other hand, if they’re faced with countless choices, they’ll take longer to order and leave feeling. Both of these scenarios do not end well. The amount of choices offered seems to come down to a delicate balance and will change based on restaurant, city, and season. Just keep this research in the back of your head and adjust them to best fit your location.


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