UX For #togs – The Conundrum of Choice

April 20th, 2012 by Theodore Stark

Note:  This is the second post in a series about User Experience for photographers by Ted Stark.  You can see the first article here.

In life, people are barraged with choices. Ask any person, how many choices they want and they will say “a lot” (or some derivative of that). Physiology tells us that people equate choices with control. Choices are not always sensible. And control (or the illusion there of) is fleeting.

This is not a new concept. Applied to websites, users have tons of options (or choices). Everything from how many items are in a menu, to seeing a year’s worth of blog posts in an archive. On most photography websites, there are ample choices in terms of photographs on display in a portfolio or for sale.

But, there’s a limit to the effectiveness of “a lot” of choices.

How people decide is a topic that many researchers delve into. During their graduate studies at Stanford, Sheena Iyengar and a colleague posed as store employees manning a booth where they offered samples of fruit jam. Half of the time, store customers were presented with six choices of jam and the other half were presented with twenty-four. This study is now known as the “jam” study.

Iyengar and her colleague wanted to know how likely people were to sample based on the number of jam choices available. Additionally, they were curious if there was a correlation between number of jam choices and a customer’s decision to purchase one of the sampled jams from the booth.

With twenty-four choices, sixty percent of passersby stopped and sampled. Only forty percent of passersby stopped when only six choices were available. Probably not surprising, right?

When Iyengar and her colleague looked at how many people actually purchased jam based on the number of choices they encountered at the sample booth, things got a little more interesting. Customers who encountered six choices for jam, purchased thirty-one percent of the time. When customers faced twenty-four choices, it resulted in a sale only three percent of the time.

The mind has a limit to how many choices it can hold and process, regardless of how many it thinks it wants. Most research suggests the maximum number of choices that people can simultaneously process and remember is three to four.

Number of jam samples is not too far from the conundrum that many photographers face – how many photos to show on their website? Many, if not all of us, have more than three to four photos we want people to see and possibly buy.

Iyengar, in a TED talk, suggests that one useful mechanism to show users multiple choices is to categorize them into smaller chunks. For photographers, this would suggest by categorizing your image library of 400 photographs into smaller chunks, the liklihood of overwhelming your user/potential buyer decreases. Categories help filter and enable the user to predict what they will discover inside.

You want to make the user’s happy, they must feel as if they are in control. But, you can help effectively guide them through a field of choices by implementing categories. In control and not overwhelmed.

This notion of categorization extends far beyond photographs on your website. The same logic applies to blog posts, drop down menu items, etc. It can even extend into the number of bin items to sell in a gallery.

One technique to match your categories to that of your users is to perform a Card Sort. Essentially, you write all of the categories you want to include (from our photo example) onto note cards. You ask people to place the cards in the order in which they would expect to see them laid out.

During a card sort, you will see some interesting things. Perhaps some people want to see Landscape as a parent category and then the children of that to be Color Landscapes and B&W Landscapes. Others may want Color and B&W to be the parent categories and then have Landscape as a child.



The thing to keep in mind here is you want to structure your categories so that it makes sense to the majority of your users.

You will hear me say that for most usability testing, you need no more than 5 participants. Card sorting is different. I would recommend you find 15 participants to partake in the sort activity.

Although not as common, if you have a reasonable amount of photos you are looking to categorize, you can even perform a card sort on the images. The method of a card sort is just that, a method. Use it and adapt it to your needs.

If you’d like to learn more about Card Sorting, refer to Jakob Nielsen’s article. It should steer you in the right direction.

Categories help set the expectation of what a user will discover. Users will be able to more easily find the information (or photos) they are looking for. You always want to make it as easy as possible for a credit-card-in-hand visitor to find and buy the photographs they want. Keep the categories reasonable. Then sit back, and perhaps, enjoy some toast with your favorite type of jam.

Ok, now get out from in front of the computer and go chase the light.

Check out Ted’s work on his website, and follow him on Twitter.



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