Design Experiences to Nudge Consumers

An ever-increasing body of scientific evidence indicates that humans are not completely rational decision-makers. Instead our default is to make decisions intuitively at the subconscious level, only later engaging the reasoning part of our brain to justify the choices we made. Consequently, our decisions are biased and at times easily influenced by environmental cues.

I just read an  interesting article in the New York Times “Nudged to the Produce Aisle by a Look in the Mirror” that describes efforts to capitalize on the way humans make decision and “nudge” consumers to choose healthier options in supermarkets. Here are some of those techniques:

Researchers placed mirrors in grocery carts, offering customers a glimpse of themselves as they shop for food.

  • Why it works: The mirrors provide shoppers with a “splash of reality,” keeping their physical appearance at the front of their brain as they decide which foods to purchase. This encourages customers to eat healthily because it makes them consciously consider their choices, engaging the rational decision-making processes.

Researches in Virginia used a strip of yellow duct tape to divide shoppers’ baskets in half. A flier in the basket then encouraged customers to place fruits and vegetables in the front half of the cart. Produce sales jumped from an average of $3.99 per purchase to an average of $8.85!

  • Why it works: While everyone is aware that junk food causes health problems, shoppers often conveniently forgot or ignore that fact when faced with an array of tantalizing sodas and chips. By delineating half of the basket to produce, researchers can subtly highlight what a small proportion of customers’ purchases are actually fruit and vegetables. Shoppers get a wake up call when 4/5 of their basket is filled with unhealthy food.

Researchers in El Paso also attached placards to the inside of shopping baskets that informed shoppers of how much produce the average customer bought (5 items per visit) and which produce items were most popular (banana, limes, and avocados). Produce sales increased 10% by the second week.

  • Why it works: Unlike the previous two examples, this tactic makes no effort to engage reason, rather it harnesses one of our intuitive biases—conformity bias. Our brains like shortcuts, and in order to skip unnecessarily lengthy rational calculations, our minds tend to assume that if other people do something we should do it too.

Researchers in El Paso have also put down mats on the grocery floor with giant green arrows leading customers towards the produce section. While studies indicate that most shoppers in retail stores head to the right, when these arrows were laid down people followed them left towards the fruits and vegetables 9 out of 10 times.

  • Why it works: The brain is usually at low involvement during grocery shopping excursions, leaving it susceptible to subliminal messaging. During such mindless activities humans default into taking the path of least resistance. If arrows are prodding you in a certain direction, even if it logically doesn’t make sense, your feet will follow.

Grocers tend to place items they are most motivated to sell at eye-level.

  • Why it works: Unsurprisingly, studies show that eyes naturally linger straight ahead and most frequently return to that part of the shelves. The overabundance of choices offered in today’s grocery stores increases the mental cost of shopping. So rather than spend hours examining all 200 ketchup options, shoppers tend to go for the easiest, most accessible option—which is usually the one right in front of their face.

Grocers often shelve the same product in multiple areas throughout the store in order to boost sales.

  • Why it works: Humans best recall events or objects that occur frequently, so an increase in product exposure means that the product will stand out more vividly in the shopper’s mind, which increases the chances of them purchasing it.

Grocers will put all the ingredients for a single meal in one spot to encourage shoppers who are maybe less creative or comfortable in the kitchen to buy multiple items.

  • Why it works: This tactic encourages shoppers, especially ones in a hurry, to spend more money as it encourages them to believe that they actually need more products than what they originally intended on buying.

There are a couple of lessons from these examples:

  1. Just because human’s often make gut-decisions, they don’t ignore reason all together. By encouraging customers to actually think through  decisions, you can engage the rational part of their brain that usually takes a back seat to intuition.
  2. Rather than trying to change the way customers make decisions, you can try to appeal to the intuitive part of people’s brains by providing clues in their environment.

The bottom line: Sometimes the subtle design of little things can make a huge difference

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

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