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When Collecting Data, Don’t Overwhelm With Choices

In the now-famous “jam experiment” conducted by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, on one day, shoppers were presented with a display of 24 varieties of gourmet jam. On another day, only six varieties of the jam were being sold. While the larger display attracted more interest, people who saw the small display were ten times more likely to buy as people who saw the large one.

The experiment, in a nutshell, demonstrated that, when faced with too many choices, humans choose not to decide.

This is a critically important concept to keep in mind when it comes to data collection. Because it’s easy and relatively cheap to collect lots of data about our members and customers, it’s tempting to ask for more information, and to provide more options for answers. But because humans don’t like to choose, this can be self-defeating.

For example, suppose your organization wanted to collect the engineering degrees of your members. There are dozens of possible engineering degrees. But because there are so many degrees possible, it can be overwhelming to the user to choose the degree from a picklist (and worse if you leave it as it open-ended text field). As a result, you’re likely to get far fewer responses (i.e., lower compliance) from your members and customers when asking this question.

Relatedly, offering and collecting that broad a range of potential answers can actually make marketing and communication efforts more difficult, not less. Using the example above, suppose your association has collected data on 25 different engineering degrees earned. How many individuals will fall into a given degree category? You may find (as my clients often do) that only a couple of dozen individuals have selected any one of those 25 degrees.

My advice is to make the lists broader, and thus shorter. Not only will you increase compliance, but you’ll also have a more manageable list to communicate with.

For example, with the list of engineering degrees, you might limit the list to the broadest types of engineering (e.g., civil, mechanical, aerospace, etc.) and explain that users should pick the degree that most closely resembles their own.

Sure, you probably will not get 100% compliance, but you’ll get much higher compliance than with a larger list. And because the list is shorter, “slicing and dicing” for marketing will be much more efficient and effective as well.

The simple fact is it’s easy to ask for data. It’s not necessarily easy to get your customers to give you that data. So make sure you’re not making it even harder for them.