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One of the projects I'm working on at the moment involves offering users related content once they've consumed whatever content is on the page. It's a bit like the Amazon-esque "users who liked this also liked" idea, though in fact recommendations will be based on semantic relationships between content rather than on other users' behaviour. You can assume that links to each piece of related content would constitute a thumbnail and a few words of text describing what that content is about.

This is a web-based product for a very broad user base who will come to the site with varying levels of expertise. My concern is that knowledgeable users who know what they want will have no trouble scanning through 10, maybe 20 related content items to find the one they want (i.e. the items that best match what they are interested in), but that someone who isn't very familiar with the domain, and maybe isn't sure what content they should engage with next, might feel quite overwhelmed by 10 or 20 choices and might be better served by maybe 3 to 5 suggestions.

In the interests of serving less expert users well, I'd generally err on the side of including fewer choices, not least because users who are more familiar with the content are probably in a better position to use the Search function if they don't see the related content they want in the initial recommendations. However, I can't assume a very high level of tech-literacy — even users who are more knowledgeable about content on the site may be quite unlikely to think of or use site search, and may in fact just go back to Google and try again with different search terms.

Has anyone encountered this problem before and found a solution that was satisfactory to the vast majority of users? Please don't break out the old 7 +/- 2 here, as that really doesn't apply (for reasons summarised quite well in this comment). I'm talking about visual and semantic overwhelm when given multiple options.

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In this situation, you're correct to reject the 7+/- approach. Really, the answer is that too much choice results in no decision being made.

This is a variety on the Analysis Paralysis.

Analysis Paralysis refers to over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome. A decision can be treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options, so that a choice is never made, rather than try something and change if a major problem arises.

There have been studies undertaken where offering too many choices not only resulted in less people taking any of the options, but also that when provided with fewer, more relevant options that user satisfaction was greater than when presented with numerous options.

A study from Columbia / Stanford university titled When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? found this to be the case (emphasis mine):

Current psychological theory and research affirm the positive affective and motivational consequences of having personal choice. These findings have led to the popular notion that the more choice, the better—that the human ability to manage, and the human desire for, choice is unlimited. Findings from 3 experimental studies starkly challenge this implicit assumption that having more choices is necessarily more intrinsically motivating than having fewer. These experiments, which were conducted in both field and laboratory settings, show that people are more likely to purchase gourmet jams or chocolates or to undertake optional class essay assignments when offered a limited array of 6 choices rather than a more extensive array of 24 or 30 choices. Moreover, participants actually reported greater subsequent satisfaction with their selections and wrote better essays when their original set of options had been limited. Implications for future research are discussed.

Source: http://www.columbia.edu/~ss957/articles/Choice_is_Demotivating.pdf

Wikipedia also has a useful article on The Paradox of Choice, a book by psychologist Barry Schwartz.

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.

—quoted from Ch.5, The Paradox of Choice, 2004

Finally, hooking this all back to User Experience in web design, UXMyths have a good article on this, in particular the reference to Hick's Law is of note here.

Myth #12: More choices and features result in higher satisfaction

Hick’s law states that the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices. And as the decision time increases, the user experience suffers.

So there you go. Offer fewer, more appropriate options rather than a huge swathe of suggestions if you want people to pay attention and appreciate the options. There is no magic number really.

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Hi Jon — thanks for taking the time to give such a comprehensive answer. Hick's law was a nice touch too. Thanks! –  finiteattention Dec 21 '12 at 14:58
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