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TODAY’S STORY
24 Oct
,
2022

Too many choices create too many "Hick"ups.

Are you often gripped with the stress of all your saved posts on Instagram and bookmarks on Twitter? I for one struggle to keep up and process all the bookmarked posts. So much is lost even when so much seems to be available.

Similar stress and exhaustion play out when I have to decide what to order from a Swiggy or Zomato after a tiring day. The number of choices in front of me feels too overwhelming, and on bad days I take anywhere from 30-40 minutes only in deciding what to eat.

In fact, I was so annoyed by this behaviour of mine, I decided to figure out why it was happening. And that’s how folks, I learnt about Hick’s Law.

Hick's Law states that the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices present.

The more the number of choices, the greater the time taken to come to a decision. In other words, there is a direct correlation between choices and time.

The crucial components to understanding this law are:

  1. Reaction time
  2. Choices
  3. Complexity

In addition to the case of ordering food, we also struggle when we have to decide which TV show or movie to watch on Netflix.

But the "Top 10 viewed in your city" carousel is a feature that helps narrow down our choices. Imagine if you had to pick a show or movie without having any guiding cues.

These guidance cues are strategically placed on consumer-facing apps to make making a choice relatively easier. These features are practical applications of Hick’s Law.

Basically, the law advocates that complexity can’t be removed completely but helps simplify a decision-making process. For instance, when we use filters on an e-commerce website to narrow down options, we are wading through complex choices by using cues that reduce how many decisions we make.

Machine learning algorithms also reduce the number of choices a person gets exposed to by solving for familiarity and understanding customer preferences based on past choices.

But then, wouldn't you think that an infinite scroll goes against the principles of Hick's Law and simplifying decision-making for users?

Now there are two aspects to this:

For social media apps, an infinite scroll is desirable. The metric they're optimising for is time spent on app, not moving a user down the funnel. Because social media platforms ultimately earn revenue via ads, and for any advertiser to run an ad on a platform, they will first want to know how often and for how long people are using the platform under consideration.

In contrast, for e-commerce, quick commerce, and food delivery apps, an infinite scroll actually works against the user placing an order — which is the main source of their revenues.

I for one, have found myself infinitely scrolling through food places on Swiggy, sometimes for more than an hour — to ultimately get distracted and not order food from the app at all.

Hence, the way Swiggy counters this is by 1. showing you restaurants you've ordered from recently to help you place an order quickly, and 2. by showing you what you've ordered from a specific restaurant and if you'd like to repeat the same order. Again, the purpose with no. 2 is to help you minimize the time you waste browsing the menu on a specific restaurant page.

For a Swiggy, an Amazon, or a Zepto, time spent on the app doesn't matter as much as you finally placing the order. Conversion matters more to their topline than just having their users doomscrolling endlessly on the platform.

So, this is one way in which apps use Hick's Law to speed up your decision-making. But there is another way, too.

Think about the last time you created a playlist on Spotify, favorited a song, or added a movie to your watchlist on Netflix.

These are features that help you simplify decision-making for yourself when you come back to the app. In absence of a feature like a wishlist or a favorites playlist, you have to engage in the act of discovery and consumption anew, every time you visit an app.

If I didn't have my playlists on Spotify or had automatically curated playlists like Discover Weekly, my probability of consuming music on the app would reduce.

So, Hick's Law also applies to features that help you yourself narrow down your search and get you to make a decision faster.

So what is lost even when so much seems to be available?

Well for one, we are forced to make choices on every app we use. And the larger the price-point of the product being purchased, the more significant these choices become, and the more analysis-paralysis is bound to ensue.

Good salespersons use a version of the Hick's Law when they try to first identify what a prospect is looking for and then tune their sales pitch in a way that keeps the feature they would like most front and center while relegating the rest of the features as a side note. If they throw everything a product offers on the prospect at once, it might actually turn the prospect away.

Famed Psychologist George Miller suggests that the magic number is seven, plus or minus two. That’s how many options our mind can process at a single time, according to Miller’s landmark research from the 1950s.

However, it’s really hard to give a universally powerful number that works for all circumstances.

Like in the case of Netflix and Swiggy, it may work against the business to limit choices presented between 5 and 9 because exploration is one of the key features that these apps facilitate.

A business therefore can use Hick’s Law to limit choices and reduce complexity only after a certain level of exploration either exhaust the user or nudges them toward making the decision faster.

While understanding this law could be extremely useful to design smaller journeys that users take on your app or product, it cannot wish away the inherent complexity that surrounds a user’s decision-making process, especially when it comes to high-ticket-sized products.

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