Six steps to overcome online indecision

Stephen Evans
Tuesday 15 December 2020

How do we make it easier for users of the University website to find the right link, the right information they need? The current landing pages for current staff and current students provide a plethora of choices – there are 145 links on the current staff page alone! What could we do to improve the user experience?

Choice paralysis

The time taken for a user to make a decision is described by Hick’s Law. It states that the more choices a user is presented with, the longer the person will take to reach a decision. Therefore, given the large number of links on the staff home page, it can be assumed that users are wasting time making the right choice.

Screenshot of current staff home page


Google analytics show that the average time spent on the current staff page is about three minutes. For the current students page, it is about two and a half minutes. The Hotjar reports show that users only interact with a fraction of the links on the page. For example, the heatmap for the current staff page show that most users click on the top menu bar, with link to Office 365 proving to be the most popular.

Hotjar heatmap showing current staff homepage

The Hotjar report on scroll depth reveals that only 25% of visitors go beyond the ‘fold’ of the page. Only 3% of visitors scroll to the bottom of the page.

Hotjar report showing scroll depth on the current staff home page

How could we improve user engagement and reduce time on the page? Paul Boag has summarised six steps to overcome online indecision.

1. Limit options

A grocery store in California set up a display to sell jam. At certain times, the stall had six flavours to choose from. At other times, the stall had 24 choices. The experiment revealed that the lower the number of flavours on offer, the more likely a user will buy the jam, with 31% choosing to make a purchase.

Number of jam flavours available vs. probability of user buying product

How does this relate to the University website? Paul advocates limiting the choices to show the most popular ones with an option to see all the options if the user wants, but the default should be to just show a limited number of links.

A simple improvement could be to modify the main navigation to only show the most popular links. Here is the current navigation.

Current navigation menu for the current staff home page has eight links.

Here is a slimmed-down version.

Example slimmed down staff main navigation with only links to MMS, Moodle, Office 365, and Self Service

2. Make the choices distinct

We need to be careful that the choices available to users are clear and distinct. At the bottom of the current staff and student pages, there is the latest news and memos. But do users know the difference between news and memos? Perhaps these should be merged into one news feed?

News and memos from bottom of current staff page

3. Break choices down

Sometimes users have to make a decision based on a series of choices. User can be helped by providing a summary of key features and guides. An example of this is information about accommodation at the University, which is currently spread across several locations across the website. While undergraduates cannot choose the hall they go to, they can do have express a preference for factors such as catered vs. self-catered. For postgraduates they can specify a preferred residence. All these pages need to be reviewed to remove duplicate information and break choices down.

Example postgraduate residence page


4. Encourage fast decisions

Paul comments that the longer we take to make a decision, the more we lack the confidence in the choice we make. For the website, we need to find a balance between encouraging someone to make a choice in less time without pressuring them too much. They will either see this as manipulation or suffer from buyer’s remorse afterwards. Either of these is bad as it can undermine a brand. Paul says that choices need to be ‘no brainer’ decisions (for example, have a clear returns policy if a user changes their mind). Another approach to encourage a decision is to suggest which choice a user should make.

At the moment, important information that might help students make a choice (for example, apply for accommodation), is buried in a frequently asked questions section. This information should be reviewed and moved to the appropriate places elsewhere on the site.

Example accommodation FAQs

5. Make a recommendation

Users sometimes need recommendations to help them make a choice. This is common within online shops, but is not seen on the University website. Perhaps the website would benefit from user reviews to help others make a choice. Or, provide recommendations for accommodation (for example, if you are studying maths, then a great place to stay would be Agnes Blackadder or Andrew Melville as they are close to the School).

6. Set good defaults

Paul notes that pages with a high exit rate indicate where users are given a choice they are not prepared to make. The current staff and student pages have an exit rate of about 50%, whereas other pages see an exit rate of around 20%.

We often ask users to make decisions that we could make on their behalf. We do this for two reasons.

  1. We become obsessed with edge cases – we worry about the minority who want something different – but the user experience of the majority suffers to cater for the needs of the few.
  2. We believe users want choice because that is what they say they want. But this leads to the choice paradox – people say they want choice, but when they get it, they become paralyzed.

The solution is to default to the most common choice while allowing the option to customise. Perhaps the provision of a current staff or current student page where users are presented with the most common links with the option to customise the interface or links to suit them would help.


These six steps to avoid decision paralysis are very relevant to the University website. We need to bear these in mind as we look forward to redesigning information for current staff and students.

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