The paradox of choice and why I stopped using Spotify

CD collection

Whilst I have been a member of Spotify (a very popular music streaming service that you will no doubt have heard of) for a while I bit the bullet and signed up for premium membership a few months ago. Great I thought. I could listen to any music, at any time. No more shuffling of tracks. No more annoying adverts and no more low quality audio that makes the music sound like all traces of bass and treble have been removed (give me a CD over an MP3 any day!). For a while I loved it. I loved the Spotify apps, the love and care that has clearly gone into the UX design (great work Spotify by the way) and the way that everything is so well synchronised and thought through. I loved being able to put together an awesome Christmas music playlist to annoy my family and colleagues with by playing incessantly (apparently listening to Christmas music, over, and over, and over again is not cool, even when it is actually Christmas).

But after a while a strange thing happened. Because I now had Spotify, and access to pretty much every song ever released (apparent from a few notable exceptions, like Taylor Swift and the Beatles) I was paralysed with indecision every time I came to listen to music. What should I listen to? What sort of mood am I in? What are the cool songs, bands and albums that I should be checking out? I found that not only was deciding what to listen to becoming a painful process, but because I had an almost endless Universe of music out there, I was forever swapping to something else. Hmmm… this song doesn’t really grab me, what else can I find? Often I would give up and listen to the radio, or even end up listening to my own music collection through Spotify, which is frankly ridiculous given that I could listen to my own better sounding CDs and MP3s for free!

Spotify search bar

With an overwhelming amount of musical choice on Spotify, where does one start?

In a strange way, Spotify was also changing my enjoyment of music. With so much choice I expected instant musical gratification and blamed myself when I didn’t manage to hit that musical sweet spot. Surely I can find the perfect music for this moment? Worse, Spotify was even changing my relationship with music, and with artists. No longer would I pop in to a music shop to browse the CDs (yes, believe it or not music does still come on CDs) because I could now listen to pretty much any album, whenever I wanted to. Before, I would buy a new album from a favourite artist and listen to it over and over again (well, you’ve got to get your moneys worth!). By buying an album I could show my affiliation with that artist, in a small way support them both financially and musically. But with Spotify I felt like I was severing that bond. Instead of pleasure I felt some pangs of guilt when ever I listened to an album that I hadn’t actually bought, because I knew that the artists would only be getting an infinitesimally small amount of money from Spotify due to me playing it (apparently just $0.00029 per track, $0.00029!).

The paradox of choice

As it turns out this was all largely due to a strange phenomenal called the paradox of choice, something that the psychologist Barry Schwartz has popularised. You see it turns out that as someone’s level of choice goes up; their level of engagement and satisfaction typically goes down. I will show how this applies to Spotify in a bit but first let me explain by talking about food; more precisely by talking about menus. Now when it comes to menus different restaurants take different approaches. Some offer just a few choice dishes of the day, whilst others (like most Chinese and Indian restaurants in the UK) offer a huge number of different dishes. A few options can be good, so long as there is something that takes your fancy. More options are invariably better because it means more choice (of course assuming that each dish is lovingly prepared from fresh!), but when you start to get into the hundreds, you have a lot of different options to consider. Now imagine walking into a restaurant that serves every dish imaginable. Crocodile burger, no problem. Baked Alaska, sure. Vindaloo – absolutely. You’d take forever deciding what to have, and then when you do finally order, would no doubt regret it because there would always be something better on the menu. Now replace, food with music, and you have Spotify!

Huge menu

Spotify is the musical equivalent of a restaurant serving every dish imaginable

Is lots of choice a good thing?

You see it turns out whilst people will invariably ask for more choice, lots of choice is not really a good thing for the following reasons:

  1. More choice means more options for people to consider, and a greater cognitive workload to do so, as all the different options are weighed up and evaluated.
  2. With lots of choice the burden of responsibility is placed on the person making the choice, rather than those drawing up the choices. If a bad choice is made it’s because someone chose the wrong option, not because a poor set of options were made available.
  3. More choice means greater expectations, and a greater probably of not meeting those expectations. With so many options available, people will expect there to be one that is exactly what is need, and will no doubt be disappointed when they don’t choose it.
  4. More choice means less engagement. Sometimes people would rather not take part, than have to go through a million and one different options. For example, an interesting study showed that for every 10 investment funds that an employer offered for their pension scheme (e.g. 10, 20, 30, 40 different funds, and so on), uptake fell by 2%. Employees were put off participating because they didn’t want to have to select from so many different options.

Finding the right level of choice

So why does this matter for UX and for UX design? Well simple, present users with too much choice, and it will generally have a detrimental effect on their experience. Like Goldilocks and her porridge (well actually it was the bears’ porridge) not enough choice is generally bad for people, but then so is too much choice. You want to find that level of choice that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. So, how can I do this I hear you ask? Well here are some ways to avoid burdening your users with the paradox of choice.

Reduce the number of choices available

The best thing to do is often just to reduce the number of options available, or to perhaps create bundles of choices. Car manufacturers will often do this. Rather than having a million options to choose from (seriously, who needs heated seats!), you simply select the right bundle of options for you.

Car instrument panel

Car manufacturers will often reduce the paradox of choice by bundling options together

Take some of the burden off the user

As Steve Krug likes to say, don’t make me think! Rather than presenting lots of choices take some of the burden off the user. Perhaps present some recommended options, or even better choices that are tailored to the user. Spotify sort of tries to do this with the recommendations to be found within the ‘Discover’ area, but to be honest I found the recommendations to be really quite poor (seriously Spotify, the Sugarbabes – I’m insulted).

Don’t show all choices straight away

Rather than throwing all the different options at users, it can be better showing a selection, and then allowing the user to view more. A lot of search filters take this approach. The most popular attributes (e.g. brand, colour, size, style etc…) are shown, with an option for the user to view more if he or she wants to.

Provide some examples and starting points

We now live in the Google age, where every website and app user journey seemingly starts with search. Rather than giving users a metaphorical blank page to start from (often in the form of a blank search text field), perhaps provide some examples and starting points. For example, it’s no surprise that Amazon shows the departments to the left of the main search box because it provides some examples of the sorts of products that can be searched.

Amazon homepage and search

Like Amazon, perhaps show some examples to help provide search starting points

Increase choices as users become more experienced

As users become more experienced, it might be that you can present more choices. Going back to world of food and drink, think about wine menus. There are often some recommendations at the front for those that don’t know their Shiraz from their Cabernet Sauvignon (i.e. most of us) and a more extensive list for those that have an intimate knowledge of every vintage and vineyard.

Racked wine bottles

Like a good menu, increase the number of choices as users become more experienced

So sorry Spotify, it was great whilst it lasted but sometimes too much choice is a bad thing. Now excuse me whilst I see out what I can find in the bargain CD basement bin…

See also