The importance of irrelevant choices

I was recently watching a presentation from Dan Ariely regarding the nature of human decision making and how we all are “predictably irrational”. The example I found most interesting and relevant was a little experiment he ran based on an ad for the Economist magazine and the various subscription choices it offered.

Here’s the setup; suppose you’re offered three options:

1) Digital edition: $59
2) Print edition: $125
3) Print AND Digital edition: $125

Which would you pick?

Well, he found that 84% of respondents chose option number 3 (combo), 16% preferred option number 1 (digital only), and no one selected option 2 (print only). Which did you choose?

Now, considering those numbers, option 2 is irrelevant to users, hence can be removed, right?

(by now you probably know this is a tricky question). He did exactly that and repeated the experiment with the two remaining choices. It just so happens that after doing that, 68% of respondents chose option 1! Even though we could all argue that it was the obvious (less expensive) choice, the interesting part is that the previous option 2 – the one that no one chose – made a huge difference on people’s choice.

This really made me think in terms of UI design. We often find ourselves trying to define which elements belong in a menu, how to order them, and which items to remove/replace with others more “relevant”.

Should we blindly assume that choices with no or very little usage have no impact on the remaining choices? Is there a way we can improve the performance of all “relevant” choices by adding irrelevant ones as part of the set? Could it be that our brains are better tuned to compare choices in pairs so that when two out of three options are easy to compare we tend to make that comparison and chose one of those options, even if by doing that we end up ignoring a third choice even if it aligns closer to our goals and priorities?

Very interesting stuff. Here’s the full session for your viewing pleasure:

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