The design of limited choices

Websites are like an oriental rug store, if you think about it. An article on Smashing Magazine that argued it’s important to limit users’ choices through design drew this interesting comment.

Having all the choices is still important, but having an interface that guides users to the right choice is required.

Anecdote: I used to work in an oriental rug store. Literally every rug was different. Choices abound. We killed our smaller competitors who had fewer choices. We did it by having salespeople who could look at your color swatches and immediately take you to the 3-5 rugs that would work best with those colors in the desired size.

Rugs were aranged by size and type, but that was mainly to help sales find them. In fact, the rugs were moved around the store regularly to keep the appearance of moving stock. Customers would never find what they wanted alone.

The business fell apart when we got a new manager who thought the best approach would be to reduce the selection to the best selling machine made rugs, arrange them on racks in some rigid categorization, never move the racks (getting rid of stock help), and reduce overhead (get rid of sales people). Sales went through the floor and that store still hasn’t recovered.

Translated to the web, our salespeople were the search box. Type in what you want, we’ll find it for you. Designers are the stock help, they keep things moving around and looking fresh.

If you’re arranging your products behind huge lists of categories, you’re just doing it wrong. The number of choices isn’t the problem. The user doesn’t know or care what category you’ve selected for that piece of info or merchandise. They want to tell you what they are looking for and you produce your short list of *relevant* choices.

I love this anecdote, because it pinpoints user troubles around the web, including my own. I recently tried to find information on the Adobe website, and failed for exactly that reason. The search box didn’t turn up any relevant information – and I was searching for one of Adobe’s main products.

The paradox of choice. Photo by Harry Brignull on Flickr, via Smashing Magazine.

News sites face a problem similar to the rug store with the overflowing stock: An overabundance of content. Organizing all the stories, blog posts, videos, photos, updates, breaking news, feature stories and everything else a newsroom churns out in a day is a huge design challenge. Add the fact that many newsrooms have separate versions of stories for the printed and digital product, and you end up with a tangle of loose ends.

Cramming all of this onto a homepage can lead to overload, something comic Brad Colbow poked fun at last year with a mockup of an “alternative” design for the New York Times homepage. The idea was much criticized for its lack of pragmatism (no ad space, no sharing links, very few stories and even fewer images on the page). But his point was that news homepages are often so crammed with content they leave readers scratching their heads.

There is also a trend away from section fronts such as entertainment, sports, etc. Increasingly, the individual story page becomes the entry point for readers who arrive through search or social media. That means the story page itself has to offer relevant context, leading readers to other parts of the website.

Implementing all this is a huge challenge for which I certainly don’t know the answer, but how to design for news is a fascinating question as our news consumption evolves.

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