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Joel R

The Paradox of Choice: Why A Major Retail CEO Spent His First 100 Days Thinking About Can Openers

This is the February edition of my 20202 Community Management series to help Invision Communities of all sizes build successful communities. Today’s article brings a recent news-worthy event from retail into the world of community management by talking about the paradox of choice, and what it means in thoughtfully designing online communities and forums. 

Read other community management articles and company updates in the Invision Community Blog, a free service to help Invision Community clients start and manage successful communities.    

CEO Mark Triggon, previously the chief merchandising officer at Target, laid out his plans to turn around the beleaguered American retailer Bed Bath & Beyond.  Part of that plan was reducing the number of can openers from 12 to 3. 

Sales rose. 

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Tritton explained how tests conducted in his first few months at the company showed that less is more when it comes to product assortment.  “The big takeaway: Selling too many items in stores that are overcrowded leads to ‘purchase paralysis,” Mr. Tritton said. 

Bed Bath & Beyond exploded across the American landscape in the 1990s and 2000’s with its focus on opening new “big box” stores for home merchandise where it was meant to be a category killer – consumers would shop in stores that offered them anything and everything.  It was famous for its floor-to-ceiling options, and a simple trip for a new shower curtain turned into a shopping spree for every room in the home.  In recent years though, that approach has soured on consumers.  A Business Insider reporter commented on her latest trip, “From our first steps in, the store was overwhelming. There was merchandise packed top to bottom on shelves that lined every wall.” 

The tides have changed.  Consumers are being offered – and overwhelmed – with more choices than ever before.   


One of the great benefits of the modern web is a proliferation of choice: choice in sprawling ideologies, choice in niche interests, and choice in shopping for thousands of products at a click of a button.  All of this, every day.  Unfortunately, that abundance of choice can stress and even paralyze our ability to make decisions. 

Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the term Paradox of Choice in a 2004 book by the same name, where he advanced the idea that eliminating consumer choices can reduce anxiety for shoppers.  In other words, instead of offering 12 options for can openers, offer 3 options.   

What does this mean for online communities?


Across the spectrum of communities and forums, some of the biggest critical mistakes are forum creep and feature bloat.  New features are mindlessly added thinking it will lead to higher engagement, new forums are added for every conceivable discussion, and design choices are automatically enabled at the default without aligning to your strategy. 

Your initial goal is to sweep through your entire community and identify the areas that align with your community strategy.  For categories and boards that are low-value, low traffic, or not aligned with any strategic objectives, you should aggressively consolidate or eliminate. 

There’s no hard rule when it comes to design choices, although 7 has been touted as a magic number for short-term human memory.  You can use this magic number across a range of design decisions. For example:

  • At most 7 Reactions
  • At most 7 Primary Menu options
  • At most 7 major sections or content hubs


Choice overload can actually lead to less sales.  In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University led a much-recited study where they presented passerbys at a food market with two tables: one with 24 fruit jams, the other with 6 jams. 

The one with 24 different jams generated more traffic to sample and taste.  But guess which table generated more sales?  The other table with fewer jams, which had ten times more purchases!   

The moral of the story? At junctures of your member journey where you ask users to make a critical decision such as user information when registering, subscriptions, or selling products, don’t be the table with 24 jams to sample, but never able to sell.      


Invision Community offers an interesting approach where you can act like both a “big box” community for your general audience and still offer “small box” cohesiveness for more intimate groups. The feature is called Clubs, which empowers smaller groups to form and split off from the main audience.  This is an especially consequential feature for mature and large communities looking to organically cultivate their next generation of engagement.   

Indeed, this is a trend happening in a large way among next-gen consumers, who are realizing the perils of broadcasting and oversharing.  In a 2019 white paper “The New Rules of Social” led by youth creative agency ZAK, nearly two-thirds of the under-30 respondents said they prefer to talk in private message rather than open forums and feeds. Facebook themselves launched head-first towards social groups back in 2016 after the US Presidential election.  In a 6,000 word essay called "Building Global Community," Zuckerberg sermonized on the importance of building connections in meaningful groups:


“There is a real opportunity to connect more of us with groups that will be meaningful social infrastructure in our lives ... Going forward, we will measure Facebook's progress with groups based on meaningful groups, not groups overall.”

Forum administrators on Invision Community have been building meaningful communities since day one. When properly deployed, Clubs will allow you to cultivate – and retain – users in a more focused environment without the distractions of your larger community. 


For community managers and forum administrators who have run their Invision Communities for many years, you know first-hand that the power of community doesn’t come from adding another feature, another board, or another category.  Happiness and fulfillment come from actually connecting with members, through education, enlightenment, problem solving, and teamwork.  Overloading your community with theme options, excess reactions, and overbuilt boards get in the way of your true goal. 

Become the CEO to reduce the overwhelming options of can openers.  Sell more jam by offering less of it.  And unfetter yourself from unnecessary choices to discover a clearer connection to your members.   


Executive Summary

  • Bed Bath & Beyond CEO declutters stores, sales rise
  • Concept of paradox of choice: users can become overwhelmed and stressed when presented with too many options
  • Jam experiment: table with more jams gets more traffic, but table of less jams gets more sales
  • For large and established communities, use Clubs to offer intimate and uncluttered experiences.


Recommended Comments

54 minutes ago, The Heff said:

Also known as 'analysis paralysis'. 😉

Also known as 'community paralysis', if you have tons of sections on your community, forums, blogs, articles, galleries, downloads, links, clubs, chats, videos and so on. In this case the user is not able to decide where to start und leaves 😀


Edited by Sonya*
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For community managers and forum administrators who have run their Invision Communities for many years, you know first-hand that the power of community doesn’t come from adding another feature, another board, or another category.  Happiness and fulfillment come from actually connecting with members, through education, enlightenment, problem solving, and teamwork.

True. I've also found that when I participate, my forum is busy. When I take a break, the place quiets down. 

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As a follow-up to this article, I wanted to say that I fully recognize the supreme irony of posting this article in the middle of the feature blast for 4.5 -- we're being inundated with new features every week: blog categories! club statistics! search insights! stock photos! security stuff! mobile mobile mobile!!  But this is meant to be a timely reminder in the middle of all of these feature releases that these new features and settings are simply the starting point for your community.  You should think carefully and thoughtfully in crafting these features to your community's mission. How do they align with your community's purpose?  How do they enhance / improve what you're trying to accomplish?  Are the features necessary, nice-to-have, or irrelevant?  When do the options stop becoming choices, and start becoming distractions?  

These are examples of real things I've seen during my community reviews:

  • 20+ reactions: Users literally can't even select some of the reactions, because the list goes off the page.  You don't need a reaction for every single human expression, agreement, not-so-agreement, totally-not-agree-but-haha-agree. You just need enough to capture simple expressions.    
  • 20+ empty boards: This usually occurs when the ambition of the admin exceeds the subject expertise.  You don't need a board for every possible discussion, subject, or international language -- what value do they offer if they're empty? If you feel you absolutely must offer these boards, then offer them as sub-boards where you still have room to grow but it doesn't overwhelm the forum index.
  • 10+ subscriptions: Humans don't need or want to make complex purchasing decisions, especially over something like a forum membership.  People want choice, but not overwhelming amounts of choice.         

The communities who focus on their core objectives and offer best-in-class resources will be the ones who will continue to thrive as the web becomes more crowded (and with more choices!).  It usually means slimming down and focusing all of your energies to be the best in what you do.  The Paradox of Choice leads to analysis paralysis, to purchase paralysis, and to less satisfaction among your members.

Edited by Joel R
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Those are great examples @Joel R

Another big problem I see (most people won't agree) are the many "directories" (apps) getting added to sites. eg. Articles, Reviews, galleries, Clubs, etc. On some sites it actually does more harm.

If someone is looking for something regarding coronavirus why send them to Articles, Reviews, Galleries app, etc??? (Let's assume people are talking about it in forums, and you have similar content in Articles and Gallery.) 

Just think about the steps one would need to take if they are an active member on the site.

(If you have this topic posted all over the site the only way is to do a SEARCH. You would send them to Articles, Galleries, Forums, etc.)

But what if EVERYTHING about coronavirus was found in one place?

How easy would that be for the user?

How would this affect SEO?

Simplify the steps needed to find answers that people seek.

This is especially important when you want people to stick around. You want them to move from one topic to the next - participating in the community ... engaging with others creating a sense of "community". This will only happen if you make it easy for them.

I guarantee if the same content was posted in 1 central location (Forums) you would end up with more participation, comments, engagement, etc. 

The trick is not to see Forums as forums but to see them as sections of the community discussing and learning about all kinds of topics (niche). EVERY content is an opportunity to share, learn, and discuss.

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