Designing choice infrastructure to incorporate decision making biases

Decision-making and choice paralysis

Consumers are paradoxical creatures who crave both simplicity and sophistication in their choices. This tension varies both between individuals and different decision-making occasions.

Choice is good – up to a point

When building choice architecture for consumers, complete flexibility is the natural starting point, but this actually alienates a large proportion of customers, many of whom vote with their feet and make no choice at all. The seeming strength of ultimate customisation – that is, being able to build up to an overall choice from multiple micro-choices – is actually more effort than most consumers are willing to apply.

Rather, the optimal infrastructure has complete flexibility as just one option. Other options need to be inherently less flexible: adding shortcuts that implicitly resolve typical decision-making biases. The result means those who want to spend hours tweaking their product can do so, but everyone else reduces the effort involved in coming to a ‘satisficed’ decision.

How do you build a single infrastructure system that can meet the needs of all? First you need to know the different decision-making types that individuals have, and from that you can serve up the information in different ways to satisfy not just their end product requirements, but their decision-making needs to get to that choice with minimal cognitive expenditure.

1 / The deferential listener

There are those who will be glad to defer their decision-making to a more authoritative advisor [1]. In this instance a pushed notification of a proposition that is tailored to the individual’s needs – typically a “Recommended for you” positioning – will work on its own and not require further action from the consumer. The Authority Bias alone determines this individual’s choice.

The need for choice

However, most other consumers have a desire to explore their options, or there is a lack of trust in the authoritative figures offering recommendations. For them, simply presenting the “Recommended for you” option will trigger the Single Option Aversion. [2]

Single Option Aversion states that consumers are unwilling to choose even an intrinsically attractive option when there are no other options available. Consumers don’t feel they have enough material in front of them to make an informed decision, even if the option in front of them is the perfect choice for them. To proceed, they need the perception of choice.

A desire for choice, though, does not guarantee confidence, comfort or competence in choice-making.

2 / The unconfident chooser

Many consumers do not fully understand their own needs or have low engagement in the category. When faced with a wide variety of choices, they can choose arbitrarily, based on flawed guesses, and often pick the wrong feature to focus on [3].

This presentation of overwhelming choice can result in a state of paralysis where the uncertainty over decision criteria prevents them from making a decision at all [4]. If they do manage to decide, they question their own choice, set unrealistically high expectations, and blame themselves for falling short [4]. Worse still, this blame can then be reflected on the product and brand itself. Most will hold anybody or thing accountable for the mistake than take the rap themselves (cognitive dissonance) [5].

For these consumers to make further progress they look for shortcuts to resolve their paralysis. Speaking to staff members (deferring to a different authority bias) or relying on what other consumers have done to navigate the same problem (herding effect) are common resolutions to choice paralysis. It is for this reason why shortcuts such as “other customers bought” or “our most popular…” are such powerful attractors. These overt shortcuts signpost routes out of the choice paralysis and are key tools to ensure consumers can continue onward in their journey.

Not only does the shortcut resolve the paralysis, the decision to take it is perceived as a proactive choice and this can protect against potential dissonance down the line.

3 / The confident chooser

A third group of consumers have a clearer view of their needs and are often sufficiently engaged in the category to invest the time and effort required to search for, and optimise, their choice [6], and many can enjoy the process. When faced with a range of options, these consumers will always desire complete autonomy in customising their choice.

However, while this may meet their decision-making needs, it doesn’t always mean they end up with a customised proposition that will satisfy their product needs. Some consumers – best described as the ‘overconfident choosers’ – overestimate their ability to engage in the process of personalising their choices. At worst, the Dunning Kruger Effect [7] comes into play and those most unable to make competent choices are also those most blind to their own incompetence. Satisfying these poor souls will always be a challenge, but is best met by giving them reasons to see the shortcuts designed for unconfident choosers as more savvy and sophisticated choices for them.

In summary

When building a customisable, consumer facing proposition, the best system is a three tier solution that offers a single, pushed, recommended option; a link to ultimate flexibility/customisation; and overtly highlighted pre-build packages (or shortcuts) that allow consumers to avoid either choice paralysis or the bad outcomes of their misplaced self-belief.


1 / The Authority Principle from; Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion 1984, 1993
2 / Daniel Mochon Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 40, Issue 3, 1 October 2013, Pages 555–566, / Daniel Mochon (2013) ,”Single Option Aversion”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 41, eds. Simona Botti and Aparna Labroo, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research
3 / Is the famous ‘paradox of choice’ a myth? Barry Schwartz responds to the challenges on his theory
4 / Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice
5 / Leon Festinger A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance 1957
6 / BJ Fogg A model for Persuasive Behaviour Design states that people need ability, motivation and the trigger to enact a desired behaviour
7 / Dunning Kruger: Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead