Asking people directly what they think can confuse them and lead them to make poor choices. Giving them too much choice makes them choose less, and regret the choices they make.Do you like jam? Could you give a detailed explanation of why you like one particular jam over another? As part of a study, a group of people were asked to sample five strawberry jams. These jams had been chosen from a list of 45 jams that had been ranked by experts for the Consumer Reports magazine. The jams used included the highest ranked (1st), 11th, 24th, 32nd, and second-to-last ranked (44th).
"Left to their own devices, control subjects formed preferences for strawberry jams that corresponded well to the ratings of trained sensory experts," study authors, Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler, wrote. "Subjects asked to think about why they liked or disliked the jams brought to mind reasons that did not correspond very well with the experts' ratings."
Basically, the more people were asked to explain their choices, the worse their choices became. "By making people think about jams, Wilson and Schooler turned them into jam idiots," Malcolm Gladwell writes in his excellent book Blink.
In another study on jams, behavioral scientist, Sheena Iyengar, found that the more choices people were given, the less choice they made. The study involved setting up a taste-test booth on two consecutive Saturdays in a grocery store. On the first day, six jams were placed for tasting, on the next Saturday, 24 were placed.
While the greater selection of jams attracted more people to the booth, the smaller selection of jams resulted in significantly more sales. In fact, 30 percent of those exposed to the smaller jam selection bought, while only 3 percent bought from the larger selection.
There are two key lessons to be learnt from these studies:
- We can't necessarily find out what people want by asking them directly. We therefore need to do a lot of observation.
- Simply giving people lots and lots of choice is not necessarily the right approach.
"In subsequent studies we found that people are actually less satisfied with the choices they make if selected from a larger set of options," Sheena Iyengar writes. "It is not simply that thinking leads to decisions we may later regret," Malcolm Gladwell states. "It also appears that thinking too much can lead to choices that by an objective standard can be called bad or wrong."
Choosing jam is something you tend to do quickly and without much conscious thought. You are in unconscious thinking mode. This is a typical type of behavior on the Web where things tend to be done very quickly.
Traditional types of research such as focus groups and surveys will rarely work well in understanding web behavior. In fact, they are more likely to deliver misleading than accurate information.
That's why disciplines such as usability are so crucial today. Usability is about observing human behavior. Successful web managers must become skilled observers of how their customers use their websites. Know your customers better than they know themselves. There is no other skill remotely as important to the web manager as this.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.