Is your website overwhelming users with too many options?
One of the foundational concepts of user experience (UX) design is Hick’s law, named after research performed by psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman. Through research, the psychologists found that when people are presented with more options — or more complex options — they take more time to make a choice.
However, the relationship isn’t direct: Providing users with twice as many choices won’t double the time they spend making that decision.
In other words, as you add choices for users, they pay less attention to the differences between the options; they may feel overwhelmed or confused, and they’ll simply want to move forward in the process.
Here’s why that’s important for web design: People want certain types of options — for example, different ways to login to your website or different ways to make a purchase — but too many options can overwhelm users, forcing them off of the page.
So, how can you find the right balance? The best practices of digital accessibility can help.
Limit the number of choices on each page
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the international standards for digital accessibility, and they’re based on four principles: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
Understandability is an especially important concept for UX design. There’s a good chance that you’re asking users to complete complex processes — on an eCommerce website, this might be the checkout process, which might have a dozen distinct steps.
Throughout that process, users will need to make choices. They may need to choose payment options, shipping options, and product specifications — and if you put all of those choices onto a single page, you can expect your bounce rates to increase.
The solution is to break up the process into smaller steps. Each page of the process may only require users to make a single choice, which makes the content more understandable.
Breaking your content into smaller “chunks" helps users pay attention
The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C-WAI), which authors WCAG, recommends this approach.
“Where possible, divide long forms into multiple smaller forms that constitute a series of logical steps or stages,” the WAI writes. “This helps make long forms less daunting and easier to understand, particularly for people who are less experienced using computers or who have various cognitive disabilities.”
When breaking up processes into smaller chunks, keep these tips in mind:
- Make sure every page has accurate instructions. Repeat the overall instructions for the process on every page.
- Categorize similar choices. For example, one page in a process might request shipping information, while the next page requests payment information.
- Give users an easy way to skip optional steps. For example, if your eCommerce site has a mailing list, the signup page may be part of your checkout process — but customers should understand how to skip that part of the process.
- Don’t set arbitrary time limits. If you must use time limits for a process, make sure you follow the best practices for accessible timeouts.
You should also provide progress indicators where possible. You can do this by using the page title or main heading; indicators like “Step 2 of 4" may be helpful for keeping users engaged.
Make sure that your content provides the same essential experience for every user
As you review your website and find ways to simplify your content, remember: Not all users will browse with a mouse and keyboard. Some may use screen readers or other assistive technologies, while others may enlarge their viewports (via screen magnifiers or browser zooming).
This is why inclusive design is so important. You want people to stay engaged with your content; if you’re designing your content for one specific type of user, you’re missing an opportunity.
By following WCAG, you can provide a consistent experience for your users. WCAG addresses common mistakes that impact engagement:
- Relying on color alone to convey information (for instance, instructing users to “click the green button"), which can make content difficult to understand for people with vision disabilities.
- Forcing important toolbars and other elements offscreen when the user’s viewport changes. Learn more about responsive design and accessibility.
- Using low-contrast text, which may impact users with vision disabilities and add unnecessary visual complexity to your content.
- Using autoplay, which can create issues for screen reader users (and annoy all customers).
The best practices of accessibility can help you increase engagement, limit complexity, and create stronger content. To learn more, download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset.