Self-determination theory, at a high level, would predict that giving people choice is a good thing. Giving people the opportunity to choose seems like it would be a great way to support a sense of autonomy. But research also shows that too much choice makes people unhappy. They may struggle to choose, feel less satisfied with their eventual choice, or even opt out of the choice entirely (Iyengar, 2010). And that’s not even getting into issues of individual preferences around choices.
So no choice is bad . . . but lots of choice can also be bad. Where’s the magic middle spot?
In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar describes the “just right” level of choice as follows:
One person may consider a particular choice important and meaningful, while another person may see the same choice as trivial and inane. We should remember that people appreciate choice and benefit from it only when it enhances their sense of control.
While this answer doesn’t give us an exact formula to follow for designing choice structure, it helps us determine when we want to offer our users choice or not. In talking about designing for autonomy support, I often find myself saying things like “It’s not about the color of the buttons.” Letting people choose the minute details isn’t a bad idea per se, but it’s not likely to enhance a sense of control over the experience. But letting people choose more important aspects, like their health goal, will.
Choice insofar as it enhances a sense of control is also consistent with the idea of constrained choice, particularly important in health-related behavior change. If a person is working toward a health goal, they do not truly have a free range of choice in their behaviors. Losing weight requires a reduction in calories in, an increase in calories out, or both–choices that don’t support that won’t lead to weight loss, period. But within the constraints of calorie calibration, people do have lots of choices about what to eat and how to move.
In essence, designers might have a mantra for offering users choice that aligns with Michael Pollan’s “food rules“: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” For designers, could it be: “Offer choices. Not too many. Mostly meaningful ones.”?