It was a California gourmet market, known for its wide selections. A researcher set up a tasting booth ostensibly to sell jam, but with the secret mission of observing people make choices. She alternated between a small display of products (6 flavors of jam) and a large display (24 flavors).

Real people, real jam.

What she found out was that although more shoppers approached the large display, fewer shoppers actually bought anything from it. From this and related studies, she realized that “the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory, but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.” [1]

“But we need to show people all of their options!”

Since the first moment of commerce, vendors have had the urge to display the breadth of their wares. Having just returned to the U.S. from Europe, and walking into Walmart, I’m reminded that we in this country can be a little obsessed with quantity and variety.

Does seeing lots of options help users find what they want?

We feeble humans have a harder time making good choices when offered too many. When my kids were toddlers, I learned to provide two options: “Would you like this apple or this banana?” (omitting the Oreo they were staring at, of course).

Maybe adults can outgrow the either/or, but we start getting nervous around six. I survived that Walmart trip by clinging to my short shopping list like a flotation device. Imagine if I walked in and every product in the store lay piled at my feet, as on some old-school home pages!

Just two of many archived home pages that show content managers used to try to put evvvvverything on the homepage.

What’s this jam experiment got to do with medical boards?

A jam vendor can’t guess each passerby’s tastes to switch out all the blueberry for raspberry based on who is approaching his table. On the web though, we know from the moment of log-in who is looking at a page. And while we may have many fancy flavors under that red and white checkered tablecloth, each physician probably needs to see only a couple of them. By taking on a bit of work behind the scenes, we can eliminate unneeded choices and make the physician’s online experience just a little bit tastier.

UX Research Tip: Reducing Jam Jars

Looking to streamline the user’s experience and eliminate unnecessary choices? Here are a few suggestions requiring Small, Medium, and Large levels of effort, respectively:

Small: Provide simple action labels (“Add,” “View,” “Resume,” “Cancel”) rather than long descriptive instructions.
Medium: Include clickable definitions throughout the site for terms that aren’t intuitive so they’re available on demand but don’t crowd the page.
Large: Work with IT to personalize the system, showing each user only those actions which he/she actually can do, or needs to do.