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Three reasons why you only need three choices on a web page


We live in an age where there is an almost endless choice. If you want some new trainers, for instance, there are dozens of different companies, with hundreds of alternative options. Similarly, if you want advice on website ranking, there is a seemingly endless array of choices for you. Just type in “website ranking advice” into Google and you are faced with a selection of more than 36m pages.

Choice sounds good. It suggests we can get exactly what we want, rather than being forced to accept something from a limited range. However, the choice is not as good as we think it is. That is because when we are faced with too much choice, we become overwhelmed.

Choice paralyses thinking

Studies show that when we are given an extended amount of choice we freeze. We are so overwhelmed by the possible options that the only choice we make is to do nothing.

This was demonstrated in a classic piece of research in California in 2000, known as the “Jam study”. In this experiment, a stall was set up in a store offering jam to try and then buy. On one occasion, there were only six jams to test. On another day, there were 30 jams for customers to try. When there was more choice – 30 jams – more people stopped, and tasted a couple of jams. The array of choice seemed attractive, especially when you compare it to the fact that when only six jams were displayed far fewer people stopped to test them. However, when it came to purchasing, 30% of the people who looked at the six jams bought something, whereas only 3% of the people who stopped to look at 30 jams made a purchase. In other words, people were ten times more likely to buy something when there was less choice.

Similar studies have found the same results. Too much choice prevents us from making a selection, something known as “analysis paralysis”.

Do we know what we have chosen?

Another experiment extended the “jam study”, with a twist. It swapped what people had chosen, presenting them with an entirely different smell and flavour to the item they had selected to test. Two-thirds of people failed to notice the deception. They appeared to believe that what they were tasting was what they had chosen when it was something completely different. This shows that even though people think they have made a selection, they are not really sure of what they have chosen. We are “blind” to choice.

Website choices

Online, we need to think about choice blindness because most websites are filled with options. They have different menus to consider, a range of categories for people to choose from, or a long list of products to select, Wherever, you look online, there is a vast array of choice. All of which is confusing to people.

It is counterintuitive, but the fewer choices you have on your website, the better it is for visitors. They will be able to make more instant decisions about what it is they want to look at and where they want to go on our site. If you give them too much to choose from, they get confused. It is likely that a significant proportion of the “bounce rate” from websites is because visitors are overwhelmed – they have no idea what to do or where to turn.

And if you think it is a problem for people, just imagine you are an algorithm. Google’s search engine algorithm – and others from other search companies – have a problem when there is too much choice available on a website. The algorithm sees such a wide variety of material it cannot be sure what your website is really about. Limiting choice also helps search engines because it means your site is obviously much more focused. That makes it easier for algorithms to rank your site appropriately. So, limited choice helps people, but it also helps search algorithms thereby improving your SEO.

Think about Goldilocks

The fairy story of “Goldilocks and the three bears” is something that many children are told when they are very young. There was Daddy Bear, Mummy Bear and Baby Bear who came back home to discover that someone had been sitting on their chairs, eating their porridge and sleeping in their beds. Three individuals and three actions. Children might also learn the song “three blind mice” or the story of the “three little pigs”. Santa Clause, these children will discover, says “Ho, Ho, Ho”.

As they get older, youngsters may well read the book “The Three Musketeers”, and if they are Christians, they will learn about the “three wise men” who visited the baby Jesus. Later in life, they might watch old movies, such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” or “Sex, lies and videotape”. Scholars will notice that Julius Caesar, came, saw and conquered or that Dickens provided Marley with three ghosts in the Christmas Carol book.

Whether you look in history, literature, children’s stories, famous speeches or even in simple sayings, the number three dominates. Human brains are fine-tuned to things being in threes because we are brought up with things in threes, and they surround us in much of what we do. After all, you might have built your website with “time, effort and money” or perhaps even “blood, sweat and tears”. Moreover, if you have a video on your site, you might even have said: “lights, camera, action”. Three words, three things – they simply dominate our world.

What does this mean for your website? It means that if you display things in threes, your visitors will find it much easier to cope.

But what if you have more than three items?

Only displaying three things on a website is troublesome. After all, most website owners have more than three things to deal with. Only very small websites, such as single product sites will have few choices for visitors. The clear majority of sites will have dozens, if not hundreds of things to display. So how can you use the impact of “things in threes” if you have multiple elements and items on offer?

The answer is to consider the concept of “drilling down”. People are happy to make several clicks on a limited number of choices but are unhappy at having to make one click when faced with a plethora of items to select.

Imagine your website sells candles. You have hundreds of different types of candles, so if your site merely shows such a wide variation, your visitors will be confused. You could start by asking them to choose from three options: short candles, medium sized candles and tall candles. Then, once they have selected their first choice they might choose, from plain, fancy and glittered. The visitor makes their selection and gets another three choices, such as white, coloured, luminous. In just three clicks, the visitor could have landed at exactly what they want, luminous, plain, medium sized candles.

Often, website owners believe that having too many clicks is a bad thing. However, clicking is fast, and people want to get to what they want quickly. When clicking enables people to get to their desired item rapidly, the number of clicks it takes is less important than the ability to “drill down” to specifically what is required.

If your website does not sell items but is a service, you can still use the “drill down” technique starting with the types of visitor. For instance, if your website was about accountancy you could ask “are you a business owner?”, “are you an accountant?” or “are you a bookkeeper?”. Then people could click on what is most appropriate and then you might ask “are you looking for advice?”, “do you want our software?”, or “would you like us to call you?”.

The key to website success in engaging your visitors is in initially determining the three starting points and how they will “drill down” into further subsets of three options. Each time you do this you are tapping into the psychological impact of the concept of “threes”, plus you are making it faster for people to reach what they want.

Three is convenient

From a psychological perspective “convenience” is about being able to achieve something with the least amount of effort. Our brain is constantly monitoring what we do and trying to get us to do it without expending too much energy. The reason for that is our inbuilt instincts of survival. If you use up all your energy each day and then face an emergency, you will not be able to cope as you will have no energy left. So, everything we do is monitored so that it uses the least amount of energy possible, providing us with some spare capacity should we face some kind of threat to our existence.
When someone visits a website, and they have to choose between lots of options, it takes a long time and requires more effort than selecting one of three, fairly obvious, options. So, most websites appear to require lots of effort, which is off-putting to people. The psychological convenience of having just three options means that sites which take this approach appeal to our survival instincts.

The three reasons for using three choices

The first reason for only providing three choices is that a small number of things to select is much easier for people and avoids “choice blindness” or “analysis paralysis”.
The second reason for having three choices is that the concept of three things is ubiquitous and is something we have all grown up with. Three is “natural” to us.
The third reason for having three choices is that it helps speed up the use of websites. The faster it appears that we can use the site, the more that visitors like it because that appeals to our survival instincts.

Giving people three choices will work well for any website. So, you could do one of three things now – turn your website into a world of threes, turn your website into three separate sites, or take three days off while you ponder your next step…!

Three tips on making three choices

So, you’ve decided to limit the choices on your website, but how? Here are three things you can do to make your choices easier.

  1. Check your website analytics and look for the three most popular words used in searches and in the most visited page titles and URLs. This will show you the top three things in which your visitors are interested. Those three are a good place to start.
  2. Look at the main pathways that people take through your website. Your analytics will help you identify them. These pathways will show where most your visitors end up. Take the top three of them as your starting point for your three choices.
  3. Ask your visitors by conducting a quick poll on your website. Or use your sign-up forms to ask people the main reason they were visiting your site. The top three of the answers to a poll or to the reasons given on a sign-up form will also point the way to the three options your website could offer.
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