Psychological Manipulation in eCommerce Design

Web designers and architects use an array of psychological tricks to manipulate users into specific behaviors. What can be learned from these tricks? And, more importantly, is it ethical?

In the July 2011 issue of Wired Magazine, behavioral economist and psychology professor Dan Ariely wrote a feature on the psychological tricks used by some of today’s biggest websites. The article, “Gamed,” discusses how sites like Amazon and Groupon encourage certain types of spending behaviors through the implementation of design elements—”encourage” is one word, anyway. In another light, this tactic can appear as straight-up manipulation.

Not too long ago, I met with and spoke to Ariely about his book, Predictably Irrational, which delves into the many ways humans act seemingly irrationally, and how businesses have learned to capitalize on such. When it comes to e-commerce sites—shops that benefit from the ease of which users can instantly funnel money into them—Ariely noted that it’s obviously not about getting shoppers to make smarter decisions, but to give them a justification of their spending habits. The better a site’s users feel about their transactions, the more likely there will be repeat visits and, more importantly, repeat spending.

It might go without saying that businesses have long understood how to capitalize on the various manifestations of the human condition. But as these techniques are now more than ever falling, at least partially, into the hands of web and interaction designers, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the ethical responsibility of said designers. As user experiences are crafted, the line between handholding and bona fide manipulation blurs.

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest and brightest examples below; take from them what you will—be it valuable advice or a word of warning.

Defaults and frictions

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen once asked the question, “How gullible are Web users?” only to answer the question himself with: “Sadly…very.” He was speaking to the “power of defaults,” or how quickly users are to jump to the default setting. The default makes things easier for the user, which apparently seems to be one of the most important features of an experience.

“Eliminating small frictions can radically alter one’s decisions,” said Ariely in his “Gamed” article. Think about this in terms of your own browsing or shopping experience—how likely are you to jump straight into the first search result on Google? How about go right to Amazon when looking for a book, even if that book can be purchased more cheaply through eBay or another e-seller?

It’s the obliteration of these small frictions that has turned Amazon into the giant it is. Users are more likely to keep coming back to Amazon, arguably, because of the whole “one-click” shopping. It’s just easier for most of us, since especially our credit card info is already stored on Amazon. Indeed, Amazon has become one of the— if not the—”default” shopping arena on the Web.

Consider Amazon’s checkout page. As well-pointed out by Ariely in “Gamed,” one of the initial hurdles for the first-time online shopper was (assuming most have purchased something online by this point) the idea of shipping costs. Amazon was and is clearly aware of this little conflict, and addressed it head on with some pretty ingenious fixes.

Note in the above image how Amazon has made its shopping cart ease along the shipping method choice by incentivizing users not only to spend over $25 to eliminate shipping costs (see Super Saver Shipping), but also to sign up for Amazon Prime. For those of you unfamiliar with Prime, it requires shoppers to pay $79 annually to get free 2-day shipping with nearly every purchase.

Pretty generous of Amazon, n’est-ce pas? Well, considering that these methods strongly encourage shoppers to spend at least $25 per purchase (I recently fell victim to this with the above screenshot), it’s clear they’re tapping into the urge of the shopper to try and save money—even if that means spending more to do so. Sure feel like we’re getting the party-end of this stick: more books, appliances, clothes, what have you! But really, users are tricked into spending more to avoid the “psychological barrier” of shipping costs, and they feel smarter doing so.

In other words: the smarter retailers make their users feel—even when they may be making not-so-smart decisions—the better.

Coming to terms with the impulse-buy

Online retailers aren’t stupid. They know that once frictions are removed, impulse buys become much easier for users. But impulse buys can lead to shopper guilt and, worse in a retailer’s eyes, product return.

The clever retailers have figured this out. By clever retailers, I’m referring specifically to Apple.

Think about this: you’re out on the town, gallivanting outside of your favorite stores to window shop. You see a handsome watch; you can sort of afford it, but don’t need it and really should just leave it be. Walk on, you tell yourself. But no, that watch calls your name so clearly that you waltz in confidently to buy it. The regret may set in immediately, or perhaps once you get home. But the guilt of the impulse buy is something companies like Apple are acutely aware of.

If you’ve purchased anything recently from iTunes or the App Store, you might have noticed that your receipt doesn’t show up in your inbox right away. In fact, it can take a day or two. When it does show up, users might pause to consider what it is he or she bought, but the “pain of paying” has passed. The guilt of the spontaneous purchase has passed and the emotional exchange that goes along with the impulse buy has dulled.

This is a basic concept of feedback; seeing the consequences of a purchase is considered negative feedback when it comes to the impulse buy. Feedback is more easily controlled in an electronic environment; the digital goods we purchase from iTunes and the App Store aren’t so much like the watch that stares us down as soon as we exit the store—a shining beacon of what it cost.

The lesson here is that when negative feedback is necessary, it’s best (for the retailer) to postpone that feedback as long as possible. It’s a smart move, but also one that feels a bit, well, cunning.

Convince them it’s important

When impulse buys are less likely, the best method seems to be making users feel that not only should they purchase an item, they should do it soon.

Groupon takes this technique to a near-immaculate level. Sure, they’ve succeeded in taking the so-called “old lady factor” out of coupons, and with clever copy have made people excited about coupons. But that’s not where the real tricks are. Also in their tool belt are the ever-effective countdown and a removed form of peer pressure.

As seen in the above screenshot, purchasing Indian food for half-off becomes almost some form of game: there are good deal of other “players” and there’s a running clock. This is a kind of one-two-three knockout: like with Amazon, Groupon shows users how much money they can save (even if the shopper wouldn’t have otherwise even wanted the product); they pressure users into acting quickly with real-time feedback; and they have the added effect of “everyone-else-is-doing-it” syndrome.

The immediacy and appeal with which Groupon coerces its users is hyper effective (evidenced by Groupon’s incredible success), but like the other methods listed above, is undoubtedly manipulative.

Sound off

As I’ve already mentioned, psychological manipulation in business is about as old as commerce itself. But as a great deal of commerce has moved online and the face-to-face interaction of monetary exchange is slowly dwindling, does crafting an experience to specifically get more money out of customers lose any ethics points? Particularly—how do the craftsmen and women of user experience feel about such manipulation/design?

About the Author

Kristina Bjoran

Kristina is in content production at CareZone, a San Francisco- and Seattle-based startup. She helps out the good folks at UX Booth with editorial work when they throw up the bat signal, too (a bat is more recognizable than an editor). When she finds the time, Kristina writes for Wired Magazine, Technology Review, and, occasionally, Scientific American. You can find her on Twitter. She tweets weird science and rants about marketing and SEO.

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Comments

  1. Nathan June 28, 2011

    I’m interested in how the Groupon tactics (tricks?) can be used for lower volume sales.

    For example if you only make 2-3 sales on a product per week, would showing the number of people who bought be a good incentive?

  2. Very interesting read.

    Nice points regarding Amazon, Apple and Groupon. I guess we can all learn something from these online beasts.

  3. I think psychological manipulation is not only prevalent in ecommerce – many businesses use “encouragement” to increase profits, customer attainment and retention, etc. Take this UX Booth site for example:

    - Join the UX Booth Community 23573 Subscribers / 11021 Followers —- doesn’t this resemble the “everybody is doing it” tactic Groupon uses?

    - What about how easy it was for me to make this comment? I didn’t have to sign up for an account and probably would NOT have left a comment if I had to create an account. Does it remind you of “Eliminating small frictions can radically alter one’s decisions”?

    - Although this isn’t directly stated in the article (but is depicted in Amazon check-out screenshot) — don’t the “Latest Resources” and “Related Posts” sections you see on the right on UX Booth seem very familiar to the “If you liked this product you might also like….” similar product offering section on Amazon?

    Every business takes on some form of psychological manipulation – and if you don’t do it, your competitors will. I don’t think it’s unethical – the choice to buy more, consume more content, sign up for a newsletter, or whatever the business model entails, ultimately lies with the customer.

    Follow me on Twitter: @Pr1sL

    • I think there’s an important distinction here between eCommerce sites and sites that survive on advertising alone. You’re absolutely correct about the UXBooth community subscribers (hey look! all the cool kids are doing it), but the key here is that a site like UXBooth isn’t leading each those subscribers into anything that costs them money.

      That said, choice does come into play. Sure, a UX Booth visitor can decide not to click on an ad–the same way an Amazon user can opt out of free shipping by *not* spending that extra 15 bucks or so on another product. But in eCommerce, there’s much more of an angler fish kind of allure than there is on simple ad-based revenue sites.

      There’s a lot to be said about choice and responsibility of the consumer, sure. But consumers don’t always act intelligently (which is why I focused on Ariely in the piece–he’s done a lot of research on irrational human behavior), and there’s something to be said about taking direct advantage of that.

      I don’t think consumer irrationality leaves businesses off the hook to psychologically manipulate however they’d like. Of course your competitors will do it if you don’t, but that’s avoiding the issue of ethics altogether.

      Anyway, thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  4. Apple collects muktiple purchases over a few days to decrease creditcard payment costs.

  5. I wonder how the groupon model works for a limited amount of items instead of a limited amount of time to buy. Any thoughts?

  6. zephyr June 28, 2011

    Too often marketing & advertising aim to take advantage of people’s known weaknesses and fears. In moving more from utilitarian design to persuasion design, I feel I’m often just using these tricks to enable rampant consumerism.

    • It’s the “rampant consumerism” that’s at the heart of this discussion, methinks. That’s where I feel torn; as Priscilla mentioned above, businesses can’t survive if they don’t “keep up” with other businesses, but capitalizing on those weaknesses feels, well, dirty.

  7. I think these are some good examples and points made about how businesses make decisions about design and functionality of their sites. However, I am hesitant to say that we should ever feel bad about making similar decisions in our own design projects. Maybe I have no soul.

    This is no new trick and certainly not something limited to the web. Go to the grocery store and take a good look at the layout of the items in the store. Your most common purchases (milk, eggs, bread, fresh produce) are going to be the furthest from the door and certainly not close to each other. The grocery store knows that the more they make you walk though all of the food the more likely you are to pick something else up on your way back to the milk.

    The point is that consumers know these things. Anyone going through a checkout process should be fully aware that the default settings are almost always in the best interest of the business. We seem to have no trouble finding the checkbox asking us if we want to subscribe to their newsletter and turning it off.

    Are we manipulating people? Sure. Should we be ashamed of that? No. I am fully aware that I am being pushed toward one decision or another anytime I spend money, be it online or in a physical location. You aren’t “tricking” me into anything I haven’t been “tricked” into many times before.

    The alternative would be to just bury my money in the yard. Got a great deal on the shovel.

  8. All sounds logic. Businesses are always looking for ways to increase profits. And on the other hand; if Amazon would not have ‘suggested’ some of those possibilities to me, it would have cost me ‘more’, or i would never have ‘bumped’ into them. Humans are smart enough to make decisions themselves. All online persuasive tactics are borrowed from real life retail experiences anyway.

  9. Arjen van Driel June 29, 2011

    This aims to personalize the psychological manipulation: http://www.persuasionapi.com.
    As the founder states: ‘much too dangerous, never use it on your site’. He suggests to offer an opt-out to customers.

  10. I agree with everything Priscilla Lavoie said. Psychological manipulation is everywhere (not only in commerce), just look at the government. I’ve lived in a couple of latin american countries where this is even more evident and people simply don’t question whether something like this is ethical or not, they just accept it. We live in an imperfect world where everybody is competing and trying to make a living (make money) and communicating is now all about manipulating!

  11. No, it is not wrong at all to be using these tactics.

    Another tactic is when you have multiple pricing options, label one of them as the most popular one and making it bigger and brighter than the others. Example – http://basecamphq.com/signup. Typically, this one is not actually the most popular one but just higher than that. But it tries to get people to pick the “default” option – “Everyone else is buying this option, I think it will be best for me too in the time to come.”

  12. Regarding Apple, sometimes I tend to buy more knowing that the cost won’t “show up” for a few days, and I don’t even know why.

  13. Huh?

    Anyone who works in a professional environment knows that this is mostly what UX Designers do for a living; get users where they need to be and improve a companies bottom line – that’s pretty much the job description.

    UX is a two sided coin, always has been and always will be.

    Was this written from an outside perspective?

    • James,

      From what I’ve seen, there are two side of the UXer coin (at least in this regard)–the idealists and the bottom-liners. It just so happens I’ve spent most of my time time talking to the idealists, and haven’t met as many bottom-liners.

      And I agree that it “has always been and always will be,” but that doesn’t mean that ethical discussions should be abandoned. Just because something is doesn’t mean complacency is acceptable.

      As for your following comment, yes. Psychological manipulation is something that people do when around each other. But this arena is different. There is no face-to-face interaction; everything is done behind a wall. So when it’s getting consumers to buy more products–whether they need them or not–the discussion moves far away from a few drinks among friends, as you said. These things do not equate.

      Thanks for taking time to discuss this–it’s the best part of the writing process.

  14. Also on the subject of morality it’s a completely null point.

    We’re human beings, we use psychological understanding and cues in everything from asking our friends for a lift to work to getting someone else to buy the next round in the pub.

    To insinuate that as UX practitioners we can just ‘unlearn’ our cognitive speciality as to avoid ‘tricking’ someone into buying something (there’s no such ability, btw – it’s called persuasion) then you’re mad.

    I get the impression that this article is SEO fodder; if not then it might as well be deleted as it’s completely moot.

  15. When done ethically — as in, with the intent to map a customer’s desires to a company’s desires, and not to outright deceive them — these are not “tricks,” but techniques. Considering your education in cognitive psychology, I’m a little disturbed by your dismissal of them as such.

    It’s also interesting that you’ve excluded any discussion of the principles at play here and the fact that they actually *help* us on a daily basis.

    The “peer pressure” trick, for example, is a simple application of the idea of social proof; simply, we take cues from the actions of others to help decide what we should do ourselves. “Is everyone else jaywalking? Well, it’s probably fine then. I’ll go with them.” All humans rely on each other for these cues. Without them, we’d never get anything done; we’d spend all our time carefully evaluating every single decision we faced. Social proof is a shortcut. And these shortcuts work *for* us in endless ways. (Imagine a big-game hunter ignoring the cues of the other hunters in his group. He could end up dead.)

    Persuasive design, when done ethically, is about providing these shortcuts. When a lot of people buy the same thing, we believe it’s probably a decent product. When something is more expensive, we believe it’s probably higher quality.

    Groupon simply taps into the idea of social proof by displaying the relative popularity of one of its offers. If it were a low number, this could just as easily work against them.

    And the countdown timer? It creates a sense of scarcity. It’s about to be gone, the consumer thinks, so I need to decide sooner than later. “Limited-time offers” are used to this end every single day. Are they always ethical? Probably not. But do always serve only to “trick” people? Hardly.

    And not to nit-pick, but in your reply to one of the comments, you implied that using such design elements on a site like UX Booth is somehow more innocent because the site doesn’t ask people to spend money. On the web, attention is currency. UX Booth pays its bills through ad impressions. If attention was worth nothing, ads would hold no value. UX Booth is using these techniques to earn and hold its visitors’ attention in the same way Groupon uses such techniques to earn first-time and repeat revenue. The goal of both sites is revenue. Groupon gets it through credit card transactions. UX Booth gets it by convincing people to use the site.

    • Hi Robert—thanks for the response. So you say “when done ethically…” Ethics play an interesting role—hence my bringing them up for discussion—in that the concepts of right and wrong are almost completely malleable, particularly in business and marketing. And considering my cognitive psychology studies, I only try to echo what I’ve heard referred to by other scientists studying marketing as “tactics.” And calling these tactical insights into human behavior—when applied to lead them to make higher purchases—tactical is not a dismissal. I’m sorry if you see them as such.

      As for your other examples (peer pressure, persuasive design, etc), of course they can be used ethically. I would have been remiss to suggest otherwise. But debating on the endless uses of our human psychological knowledge is an exercise in futility—the science behind using it for “good” so to speak is severely underfunded in comparison with the science behind using it to up-sell. Of course there are good sides to all of it. But that’s not what I wanted to look at. I wanted to look at what I felt were murky areas. As many others have suggested, it boils down to consumer choice. But the luring tactics along the way are worth considering, both from a usability standpoint and an ethical one.

      And I’m sorry that I seem to have struck a nerve by saying that UX Booth is somehow more innocent than eCommerce sites. That’s not my intention. It’s just that this site benefits (in the tiniest sense) from traffic rather than direct consumer sales. I could have written a similar article about ad-targeting. But I didn’t. I wrote it about sales. And not to nitpick either—but the goal of UX Booth has never been revenue. If it were, the founders would have stopped a long time ago.
      I agree with all your points—with the same qualification you repeated throughout: “when done ethically” these tactics are great. It was the ethics I find hazy in the examples above, which was why I felt it worth writing about to begin with.

      Thanks again for your response!
      (edited for graf breaks)

  16. Nothing wrong with it at all. In the end, no one is being forced to buy anything, it is all personal choice and we should be responsible enough to admit that. No one makes us physically click the button. Amazon isn’t being deceitful, they are only using clever copy. This is 100% ethical. I find it much more ethical than dealing with the finance department of a brick and mortar car dealership. Those are the guys with no morals.

    • Hi Jason,

      I 100% agree it all boils down to personal responsibility, but if I might pose the question: how different is “clever copy” from the persuasive, sleazy car dealer?

      And again, even in the car dealership office, consumers ultimately have the choice (barring a gun to the head, which I wouldn’t put past many dealers). Thanks for commenting!

  17. As @Jeroen already mentioned, Apple’s deferred receipts are a side effect of their delaying payment processing in order to aggregate as many purchases as possible and decrease credit card fees. If you recall when the iTunes store was first launched, at the time almost no online retailer had managed to sell items for small amounts like $1 with credit cards because the processing fees could eat up all the revenue from the transaction. (Micropayments were a hot topic back then and were going to revolutionize the web, publishing, etc. etc.) Through tricks like aggregating purchases (and, I’m guessing, being large enough to negotiate with credit card companies directly), Apple was able to sell digital goods for $1 apiece.

    So while there may be a psychological effect for some shoppers, I don’t believe this was the intentional goal of the system. At least, this is what memory tells me. I would be interested to know if others have more solid info on this if I’m wrong.

  18. I love that image of the soup!
    Big green BUY button
    I’m saving $15
    546 people already bought it
    WHAT AM I WAITING FOR?!?!

  19. This pretty much sums up what needs to be seen around some parts of the web today, and even I could benefit from some of it http://www.creativeautomaton.com.

  20. excellent post, Kristina. Thanks for sharing. I think one of the largest challenges we face as experience architects is in building products intended to be for the user, but that are measured on sales and conversion

  21. thank you very much excellent article about the behavior of the customers when i am designing the e-commerce website it will be very helpful to me

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