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Decision fatigue

Early this year I was part of a discussion around ‘how many design options to present’ and the topic of decision fatigue came up. Decision fatigue is defined as:

Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.


It got me thinking about the role of decision fatigue in design and further, eCommerce. The popularity and continuing emergence of ‘curated’ product offerings is a clear indication that consumers are faced with too many decisions – and they are now happy to allow a company or service to help them make these decisions. Companies are continuing to invest in building ‘intelligent’ systems that leverage the data they have on our behavior to automatically curate our experience – thus reducing the number of options we are presented with and ultimately the number of decisions we need to make. As a result eCommerce has transformed from being a – come and look at everything we have process to rather a let me recommend the right products to the right customer at the right time process.

I would suggest that as designers and product managers we need to start including a decision fatigue audit as part of our design process – and not just looking at the final product page – but rather the entire decision making process and see how we can better understand the products we are selling, the differences between them – and look at ways to better recommend these products to the customer – either by using data tools available to you – or by being bold and simplifying the options and pre-empting their decisions. Rather let you customer say yes or no –  instead of I don’t know.

Research suggests that our short-term memory capacity allows us to simultaneously consider 6-9 choices – maximum – without starting to suffer from decision fatigue. I recommend walking through your product as a user to see how well your design accommodates this research. It’s also important to understand that choice doesn’t only relate to content – the more complex your navigation and interface is the more time it takes a user to understand how it works, and what to do next.