100 Things You Should Know About People: #17 — Your Unconscious Knows 1st

You are shopping for a new computer and the salesperson you are talking to is offering you what seems to be a good deal. And yet there is a part of you that feels uncomfortable and isn’t sure if this is the right computer, or the right deal, or the right store for you. If you had to articulate why you felt uncomfortable you might not be able to say why, or you’d make up a reason, but that might not really be the reason. So what’s going on?

Your unconscious mind is faster than your conscious mind — One of my favorite pieces of research is the study by Bechara and Damasio. It’s a little complicated to explain, so a few months ago I put together a short video “re-enactment” to help describe the research. I have a summary below as well:

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #17 — Your Unconscious Knows 1st”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #10 — You Want More Choices and Information Than You Can Actually Process

candy

If you stand in any aisle in any retail store in the USA you will be inundated with choices. Whether you are buying candy, cereal, TVs, jeans, you name it, you will likely have a huge number of items to choose from. This is because people want lots of choices. If you ask someone whether they would like to choose from a few alternatives or have lots of choices, most people will say that they want lots of choices.

Too Many Choices and We Freeze — In my book, Neuro Web Design, What makes them click? I talk about the classic research in the field of choice. Iyengar and Lepper (2000) decided to test out the theory that if you have too many choices you don’t choose at all. They  set up booths at a busy upscale grocery store  and posed as store employees. They alternated the selection on the table. Half of the time there were six choices of fruit jam for people to try and the other half of the time there were twenty-four jars of jam.

Which Table Had More Visitors? — When there were twenty-four jars of jam, 60% of the people coming by would stop and taste. When there were six jars of jam only 40% of the people would stop and taste. So having more choices was better, right? Nope, that’s wrong. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #10 — You Want More Choices and Information Than You Can Actually Process”

100 Things You Should Know about People: #5 — You Make Most of Your Decisions Unconsciously

You are thinking of buying a TV. You do some research on what TV to buy and then you go online to purchase one. What factors are involved in this decision making process?

It’s not what you think — I cover this topic in my book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? You like to think that when you make a decision you have carefully and logically weighed all the relevant factors. In the case of the TV, you have considered the size of TV that works best in your room, the brand that you have read is the most reliable, the competitive price, whether you should get blu-ray, etc etc. But the research on decision-making, especially the recent research, shows that although you want to think that your decision-making is a conscious, deliberate process, it’s not. Most decisions are made through unconscious mental processing.

Unconscious decision-making includes factors such as:

What are most other people buying (social validation): “I see that a particular TV got high ratings and reviews at the website”

What will make me stay consistent in my persona (commitment): “I’m the kind of person that always has the latest thing, the newest technology.”

Do I have any obligations or social debts that I can pay off with this purchase (reciprocity): “My brother has had me over to his house all year to watch the games, I think it’s time we had them over to our place to watch”

and on and on.

Don’t Confuse Unconscious with Irrational or Bad. I take exception with Dan Ariely and his book, Predictably Irrational. Most of our mental processing is unconscious, and most of our decision-making is unconscious, but that doesn’t mean it’s faulty, irrational or bad. We are faced with an overwhelming amount of data (11,000,000 pieces of data come into the brain every second!) and our conscious minds can’t process all of that. Our unconscious has evolved to process most of the data and to make decisions for us according to guidelines and rules of thumb that are in our best interest most of the time. This is the genesis of “trusting your gut”, and most of the time it works!

So What To Do? — The next step is to think about what this means for people who design things like websites, where you are providing information and/or engaging customers to make a decision. This is, of course, the topic of my book, but let’s hear from you. If we know that people are making decisions unconsciously, rather than consciously, what are some strategies we should employ at the website to encourage them to engage?

And for those of you who like to read, great books on this topic are:

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer — The BEST book on the topic of decision-making in general.

Strangers to Ourselves: The adaptive unconscious by Timothy Wilson — A little bit more academic, but still a great book.

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

and of course

Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?

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100 Things You Should Know about People: #3 — You Can Only Remember 3 to 4 Things At A Time (The Magic Number 3 or 4)

7 +  –  2???

3 or 4???

Those of you who have been in the field of usability or user experience for a few years have probably heard the phrase “The Magic Number 7 Plus Or Minus 2”. This refers, actually, to what I would call an urban legend. Here’s the legend part:

Legend: “A guy named Miller did research and wrote a research paper showing that people can remember from 5 to 9 (7 plus or minus 2) things, and that people can process 7 plus or minus 2 pieces of information at a time. So you should only put 5 to 9 items on a menu, or have 5 to 9 tabs on a screen”.

Have you heard this? If you’ve been reading about usability for a while I’m sure you have. Well, it’s not quite accurate. Another guy named Baddeley questioned all this urban legend. Baddeley dug up Miller’s paper and discovered that it wasn’t a research paper, it was a talk that Miller gave at a professional meeting. And it was basically Miller thinking out loud about whether there is some kind of inherent limit to the amount of information that people can process at a time.

Baddeley conducted a long series of studies on human memory and information processing. And what he concluded is that the number is 3 to 4, not 5 to 9.

You can remember about 3-4 things (for about 20 seconds) and then they will disappear from memory unless you repeat them over and over. For example, let’s say you are driving in your car and talking on your cell phone (ok, you shouldn’t be doing that) and someone gives you a number to call. But you don’t have a pen handy, and anyway you are driving. So you try to memorize the number long enough to hang up from one call and dial the new number. What do you do? You repeat the number over and over (putting it back into short term memory each time, which buys you another 20 seconds). The interesting thing about phone numbers is that they are more than 3 or 4 numbers long. So they are hard to remember for more than 20 seconds.

712-569-4532

We also tend to chunk information into groups that have 3-4 items in them. So a phone number in the US is: 712-569-4532. Three chunks, with 3-4 items in each chunk. If you know the area code “by heart” (i.e., it’s stored in long term memory), then you don’t have to remember that, so one whole chunk went away. Phone numbers used to be easier to remember because you mainly called people in your area code, so you had the area code memorized (plus you didn’t even have to “dial” the area code at all). And then if you were calling people in your town each town had the same “exchange” — that is the 569 part of the phone number above. So all you had to remember was the last four numbers. No problem! I know I’m “dating” myself here by telling you how it used to be back in the old days. (I live in a small town in Wisconsin, and people here still give their number out as the last four digits only).

But that’s not all! Researchers working in the field of decision-making tell us that people can’t effectively choose between more than 3 to 4 items at a time.

So, what does all this mean? Can you really only have 4 items on a navigation bar? or 4 tabs on a screen, or 4 items on a product detail page at an e-commerce web site? No, not really. You can have more, as long as you group and chunk.

Here’s an example: At the Upton Tea site they have lots of tabs, but the tabs are not chunked into groups of 3 or 4.

So people will tend to do a partial scan and not even look at or read all the tabs. (I love their teas, by the way.. just wish they would do some work on the layout and emotional aspects of their site, but that’s probably another blog!).

I’ve covered more than 4 items in this blog post, so I’ll stop now! For those of you who like to read research here are some references:

  • Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Baddeley, A. D. (1994). The magical number seven: Still magic after all these years? Psychological Review, 101, 353-356.
  • Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97

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Watch Out For Spending More Because of Habit

When I go to fill up on gas I always use the middle grade of gas… (this is the principle of contrast, by the way… when faced with choices of varying prices many people will pick the price that is one down from the most expensive… but that is a sidebar… it’s not even what this blog post is about!). And the middle grade of gas is supposed to be in the middle, right?

I don’t know if I’m getting paranoid these days or if this is a random occurence, or if some companies are actually trying to get me to spend more money, but here’s what I’ve been noticing: Instead of having the middle price in the middle… the HIGHEST price is actually in the middle! By habit I put the nozzle in the tank and always push the middle button… And I am therefore, unwittingly, choosing the most expensive gas.

Here are some examples:

And as we all know, once a habit is formed, it’s hard to break.

Anyone else been noticing this type of “switch” at gasoline pumps or in other ways?

Trust Lesson #2: Building Trust Is Not Enough

I choose the vendor I trust and have a “habit” for: I saw the movie Julie and Julia and now am reading the book. I got inspired, therefore, to try making a souffle and a quiche. Except I don’t own a souffle dish or a quiche dish. So, time to do my part for the economy, and actually purchase some kitchen wares. I happened to be in a Williams Sonoma store and even looked at and picked up both a quiche and a souffle dish. But I didn’t purchase them. I was thinking about a news story I had read recently that Amazon is positioning itself to be the major retailer of everything. I’m an Amazon fan (I actually bought their stock when they first went public and then stupidly sold it about 3 months later!), so I decided I’d buy my souffle and quiche dishes online at Amazon.

Uh, oh, something goes wrong: I quickly found what I wanted and ordered with “one click”. Two days later they arrive — each broken into little pieces.  Next I go online to let them know and get a refund. You can’t talk to anyone when you have a problem at Amazon, and the refund process is NOT easy. I have to find the right form online (took several tries). I have to fill out the form correctly (several more tries). I have to print labels (they want the broken dishes back). I have to send the dishes back separately. One has to go back via UPS and the other through the US mail (why is this?!?).

Trust is gone: I am a loyal Amazon fan. I buy hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise from Amazon each year. But I can tell you I will not buy anything breakable from them again, and I will think twice about buying anything that may have to be returned. This experience has eroded my trust, and not because the dishes arrived broken, but because it is so hard to get things rectified if there is a problem. Not being able to talk to a person makes me feel like Amazon doesn’t care about my experience as a customer.

Building trust isn’t enough: It’s one thing to miss out on an opportunity to build trust with a new customer. But it’s even worse to erode trust with someone who was loyal. Pay attention to the customers you have now. Make sure you evaluate your website, not only in terms of building trust, but in terms of keeping trust.

New Research Shows Herd Behavior When Shopping Online

In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click, I have a chapter on Social Validation: When we are uncertain we look to others to see what our behavior should be.

Now some new research tests this idea online. In a series of research studies by Chen (see end for full reference), visitors to a simulated website were given two holiday traveling books to choose from. Both had similar sounding titles, were hardcover, showed similar number of pages, list price and availability.

In the first study Chen showed different consumer ratings. In some cases people saw that one book had 5 stars and the other had 1, or one had 4 and the other had 2, or both had 3 stars. The books with more stars were chosen signficantly more often. Ok, it’s not a big surprise, but it’s good to have some actual data. But read on, the rest of the studies got curiouser and curiouser…

In the second study Chen compared book sales volumes instead of star ratings. People chose the book that was selling the best.

In the third study Chen tested consumer recommendations vs. expert recommendations. One group got this info: “Name of Book Here” is the leading book in the tourism area as voted for online by readers” vs. “Our advisors, experts in the tourism area, strongly recommend “Name of Book Here”. People chose the book picked by consumers more than the book picked by experts.

And in the fourth study, Chen tested a recommender system, (“Customers who bought this book also bought”) vs. the recommendation of the website owner, (“Our Internet bookstore staff strongly recommends that you buy…”) People followed the recommendation of the website owner 75% of the time, but they followed the recommender system 88.4% of the time.

Consumer recommendations are powerful. Social validation at work. Welcome to the herd!

Reference: Chen, Yi-Fen, Herd behavior in purchasing books online, Computers in Human Behavior, 24, (2008), 1977-1992.

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Irrational or Just Human?


A favorite theme these days when writing about the unconscious mind and decision making is about how bad we humans are at making decisions. A perfect example is Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational.

Don’t get me wrong… it’s a great book, and I recommend that you read it BUT I take issue with one of the basic underlying and overt assumptions. The book explores human decision making, and describes (in an easy to read and entertaining way) some of the research on how people make decisions. I write in Neuro Web Design about all the myriad ways the unconscious mind guides, decides, affects the decisions we make. No disagreement there. But where we disagree is Ariely’s assumption that if we would all pay attention to how irrationally we are making decisions then we would see the light and start to change. He is saying that we can overcome our innate tendencies to be irrational and instead choose to make rational choices.

He’s missing the point. We aren’t actually irrational. We’re perfectly rational — according to the UNconscious mind. It’s an adaptive response (see Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: The Adaptive Unonscious). And we can’t change. That’s like saying that people should stop seeing color. We can’t! It’s just the way we’re built. Our seemingly irrationality comes from the way the unconscious mind has learned to deal with the huge amounts of data that that logical conscious mind can’t begin to process in a quick manner.

I say we accept and embrace the unconscious mind and celebrate what it does for us rather than judging us as irrational. It’s not irrational. It’s being human.

Creative commons photo: http://www.flickr.com/people/christinasnyder/

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