E-Commerce Optimization: The Brains Behind E-Commerce
Our brains evolved for survival and largely work on auto-pilot. Instead of using deliberate conscious thought, we often make impulsive decisions that show a number of consistent biases.
Cognitive biases are shortcuts used by the brain to speed up decision making. They’re the reason that we have near-automatic behaviors for certain tasks.
If you want your e-commerce website to convert most visitors into customers, here are some cognitive biases for designing its pages.
Category pages are often lists of individual products. How we process lists can often influence what products we focus on.
- Serial position: The serial position effect is our tendency to allocate a disproportionately larger amount of attention to the first and last entries in a list. This means that you should always put the most important items (determined by a number of factors, including sales, gross margin, inventory levels) at the beginning and end of a list. Items placed in the middle are likely to be scanned over and quickly forgotten. On your category page, for instance, the most important products should either be first or last when displayed in list form. That said, if the list requires you to scroll, you shouldn’t put one of your most important products below the fold.
- Anchoring: This refers to the tendency of people to compare all other items to the first thing they see. Therefore, list more expensive items first so visitors will have an “anchor” that all of your other products will be evaluated against. Since the first item they see is pricey, the next items will automatically be perceived to be less expensive (relatively speaking).
Once visitors have zeroed in on a specific item, make the next steps — choosing options, adding to cart, etc. — as easy as possible with simple, uncluttered pages. Use these mental shortcuts to make decision making a no-brainer:
- Isolation: The isolation effect predicts that when humans are presented with multiple items of the same type, they’re most likely to remember the item that’s most unlike the others. On the web, this translates to the user being always on the lookout for anything that looks different. Use the isolation effect on your product pages to direct visitor attention. If you want your call-to-action button to stand out, for instance, use a color and shape that starkly contrasts with your site’s theme. You can apply the same principle with other elements (e.g., key marketing messages) that you want users to immediately notice or remember.
- Bandwagon: The bandwagon effect is the tendency for humans to subscribe to the beliefs and follow the actions of others. The bigger the bandwagon gets, the more influential it becomes in persuading outsiders to adopt the ideas, preferences and behaviors of others. On your product pages, you can harness the bandwagon effect by putting social proof elements such as star ratings and reviews, share buttons, and the number of customers who bought the product. When used correctly, these features become an automatic form of social influence that reassures visitors that they’re buying something that they won’t end up being disappointed with.
The cognitive biases below can help minimize the pain that’s almost always felt by visitors when they’re about to part with their money:
- Choice supportive bias: Choice-supportive bias is the tendency to view one’s decision or choice to be the best that could be made. Humans tend to remember mostly positive aspects of the option they’ve chosen for themselves, and attribute more negative features to rejected options. This is good news for marketers since you can easily bolster visitors’ confidence at checkout by confirming that they’ve made the right choice. Commend them when they add something to their carts, indicate that something is a popular item, and praise them on their way to completing the transaction to reinforce their positive memories of the choices they’ve made.
- Optimism bias: Here’s even better news for marketers: The human brain is hardwired to be overly optimistic. Visitors who are nearing completion of their transaction are more likely to be experiencing the optimism bias — i.e., the tendency to overestimate favorable outcomes from their decisions. Therefore, they also underestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes. It’s your job to make sure your checkout process doesn’t conflict with your visitors’ optimism. The last thing you want to do at this stage is to trigger the brain’s fight-or-flight reflexes. Don’t surprise visitors with additional costs (e.g., shipping and taxes), and don’t give them reasons to doubt their product choices or the security of the transaction.
Buyer’s remorse can set in right after the purchase. This can lead to frequent returns from disgruntled customers. Use the following bias to minimize the risk of buyer’s remorse:
- Post-purchase rationalization: Humans tend to make decisions and then rationalize after the fact. In e-commerce, this is called post-purchase rationalization — we buy first and then justify our choices later. This can even make us overlook things like high costs or minor defects. Post-purchase rationalization helps lessen buyer’s remorse. Furthermore, you can affirm your customers’ rationalizations by continuing to reassure them that they’ve made the right decision. Congratulate them on your thank-you page, list key benefits of the product they’ve purchased, encourage them to share on social media or ask them for feedback on their purchase. All of these tactics will remind them of the reasons for their choices and the benefits of their purchase decision.
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Tim Ash is the author of the bestselling book Landing Page Optimization, and CEO of SiteTuners. A computer scientist and cognitive scientist by education (his PhD studies were in Neural Networks and Artificial Intelligence), Tim has developed an expertise in user-centered design, persuasion and understanding online behavior, and landing page testing. In the mid-1990s he became one of the early pioneers in the discipline of website conversion rate optimization. Over the past 15 years, Tim has helped a number of major US and international brands to develop successful web-based initiatives. Companies like Google, Expedia, Kodak, eHarmony, Facebook, American Express, Canon, Nestle, Symantec, Intuit, AutoDesk and many others have benefitted from Tim's deep understanding and innovative perspective.
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