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So, I am well aware that it's not true that in menu's etc. one should show only 7±2 options, because the original research by Miller was about working memory. However this does not necessarily mean that more is better (though in some cases it might), given too many options it does become harder to choose and choices that are too complex will be postponed or even skipped. Thus my question is: has there been any research done as to what the optimal number of choices is when a user is actively comparing the various options?

And to give a concrete case to discuss:

There are 200 products of a certain type. The user wants to buy one product of that type. The system knows which products are best and worst (put differently, the 200 products are sorted by likelihood that the user will want to buy them). How many products should the system actively present to the user to maximize sales?

The thing is just that in a case where a user is bound to make a choice I don't see any downside to showing more choices (except a worse UX), but in cases where a user already is in a stable state: for example when he already has a mobile phone subscription and is vaguely interested in switching giving too many choices can easily lead the user to postponing the choice to another time.

  • So you want to know how many items to show at a time? Or you want to know how many items a user can have in working memory? Personally I think the number of items to show is irrelevant, since the buyers interest is only around the items she/he is interested in. Or do I miss your question completely? – Benny Skogberg Jan 24 '15 at 21:56
  • @BennySkogberg I don't (really) care about working memory (directly), that's why I disregarded Millers research. The user technically cares about all 200 hypotetical items, but nobody wants to go through for example 200 different mobile phone subscriptions and showing 200 different mobile phone subscriptions would quite definitely intimidate a user (even disregarding the entire part where he just gives up when presented with too many choices after starting). – David Mulder Jan 24 '15 at 21:59
  • This isn't new, but still very valid research that essentially says it's not the amount of navigation, but that the navigation helps the person get to the next place: uie.com/reports/scent_of_information – DA01 Jan 25 '15 at 4:23
  • And it doesn't seem like your issue is the number of items, but how a person can sort through them. You are correct, no one wants to sort through 200 items, so the goal is to figure out how a person would want to sift through them all. Consider faceted search. – DA01 Jan 25 '15 at 4:25
  • @DA01 Nah, faceted search is exactly the evil I want to prevent. It's great for 'geeks' like you and me, but it's an incredibly intimidating interface and mentality for the average user. Oh well, in the end I will be going with around 7 items and then do some practical user testing later on. – David Mulder Jan 25 '15 at 11:55
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Your example seems to ask the age-old question: is the Paradox of Choice is actually real?

What we do know is that, whether it is real or not, there are still better and worse ways to show lots of information. Images in grids are better than lists (evidence: Academic study summarised by Wikipedia and Neilsen UX research.)

While the jury may still be out on the paradox, there are certainly some field examples:

  • Sheena S. Iyengar's jam display showed (not empirically) that 6 jams were better than 24
  • Apple has decided that two iPhones convert better (online) than all the Samsungs
  • Fashion stores typically only show 25 items per page

In conclusion: either even the brightest minds in UX don't know, or it seems like it entirely depends on the situation/product/item.

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    To add to your list, Trader Joes did extensive research and determined that fewer choices in food was a much better user experience (for example, 2 types of peanut butter vs. 30) – DA01 Jan 27 '15 at 2:28

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