Choice Paralysis In Online Distance Learning

January 2022 - Matt Edwards

It’s always better to offer customers options. Or so we are lead to believe. But in the case of digital design and especially online distance learning, this is not necessarily always the case!

What is choice paralysis?

From my previous background of many years in web design and user experience, choice paralysis was always one of the top actions on the list to address. In online learning, it’s as important if not more. But what is choice paralysis? Choice paralysis is pretty much what it says on the tin. The more choices we are presented with, then the less likely we are to make decisions and then engage (paralysed by the decisions).

This recently happened to me when looking to purchase a new pair of running trainers in the January sales. I had an idea of what I wanted and the price range, then the online shop search gave me multiple pages of options. Two weeks later I was still searching and comparing. On a day out shopping, I walked into a sports shop, was presented with five choices on the shelf, and within 10 minutes walked out with a pair that suited my original requirements.

ecommerce website

Other research in sales behaviour shows similar experiences. An example study in America set up an experiment selling jam. One stall would sell just six varieties of flavoured jam whilst another would sell 24 varieties. The results were overwhelming in that the store with six varieties far outsold the stall with 24. The figures showed a conversion rate of over 30% for the 6 varieties compared to just 4% for the 24 varieties. Research shows especially in consumer behaviour that too much choice lowers conversion. You can find more out about the psychology behind this in Hick's Law.

Removing choice paralysis in online learning

Just as in web design and consumer behaviour, the principles of Hick's Law affect our online learners and the environment within which they are learning. We don’t want them to be paralysed or made anxious by being presented with multiple options and choices (I’m not referring to quizzes etc here). We don’t want them to have to stop and think about links and confusing naming conventions. Instead, we want to steward our users and make the learning experience as efficient and simplified as possible. Instead allowing our learners to invest 100% in the learning tasks and experience ahead, as opposed to forcing them into multiple unnecessary decision making exercises. Choice paralysis is also one of the major components in reducing cognitive load on a user. I’ve referenced this in a previous blog post Cognitive Load Challenges Of Online Distance Learning.

How can we address this?

1: User research and feedback
When researching existing homepages in a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) I came across a huge number of choices and links. These pages generally varied from nine to twenty links (these were not including the VLE sidebar navigation options!). Based on user research and incorporating basic design principles I stripped these links and choices down to just five decision making options. Enhancing user engagement and increase conversion.

2: Simplifying and stewarding
Naming conventions were generic and simplified for all learners to understand. They were also distinct from one another, therefore, eradicating any subtle cross-over confusion. By breaking the page into just five smaller manageable chunks combined with distinct and simplified naming conventions learners are now easily stewarded through the VLE to their main areas of interest. No longer paralysed through confusion or cross-over.

3: Hierarchy and Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket
A hierarchical exercise was used to place the five areas into a list of importance. The most used and sought-after link is made the most visible and listed at the top of the page, then working down in a hierarchical order. The most requested and used link is what I refer to as ‘Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket’. This is the ticket that everyone is looking for and gets you into the chocolate factory where all the goodies are. This approach helps to encourage quick decision making.

Note: This does not only apply to a homepage or landing page. The design process is incorporated throughout the learning experience.

Live Canvas VLE Examples

Below are screengrabs of the course homepages and end products of the process above. The left image is a module homepage with five links (top link is Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket). The right image is a programme homepage with 3 links (top link is Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket).

canvas homepages

Take away point

Hick’s Law is a simple idea that says that the more choices you present your users with, the longer it will take them to reach a decision. By addressing choice paralysis we are improving user engagement, and also increasing the speed of decision making which is detrimental to a positive user experience. The more we can eradicate confusion, decision making and frustration the more we can create an inclusive learning experience. Of course, we can’t use Hick’s Law in isolation to create this, it’s only a small part of the jigsaw, but it does go a long way in improving the online learning experience for everyone.


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