The Art and Science Behind Every “Add to Cart”

Shopping behavior can be explained by science. Here’s how the same principles translate into the online shopping experience.

by Christie Chew

posted on 12-19-2018

Tracy is a creature of habit. She orders a skim latte from the same coffee shop every morning, buys the same brands of toothpaste, detergent, and clothing. At this point, Tracy’s shopping runs on autopilot.

While it’s easy for Tracy — she knows what she wants and where to go to get it — people like she can be a challenge for brands. When we are so wedded to specific products, services, and companies, brands can feel like no amount of marketing or personalization can break through and get us to try something new.

However, there are ways to change shoppers’ habits — to help us overcome the cognitive strongholds keeping us on our singular buying path. Because much of people’s low-risk decisions are subconscious reactions, it’s possible to dig into what makes customers tick — and click. Armed with that intel, retailers can create content and experiences that resonate and drive purchases.

Understanding — and acting on — why customers buy

Neuroscience and the way people make decisions impact what compels people to click and buy. Together, these considerations and best practices can work together to drive customers to take action.

Guliz Sicotte, head of product design and content for Magento, says companies must create online experiences that focus on four principal characteristics — all of which are rooted in neuroscience — to prompt a customer purchase. The experience must be: personalized, reflective, transparent, and use pleasing aesthetics.

Personalization in experiences

Central to driving purchases is addressing the question: “What’s in it for me?”

“Customers should feel that products are relevant to their intentions,” Guliz says. This sense of relevance can be traced back to what Carmen Simon, Ph.D., cognitive neuroscientist at Memzy, describes as habitual decision-making — habits are conscious at first but eventually become subconscious.

“Link your techniques, content, value proposition, or whatever you’re offering, to something that feels familiar to the customer’s brain,” Carmen says. This will increase a person’s comfort level and make them more likely to take action in your favor because what you’re asking of them will feel easy.

Guliz agrees: “In the end, customers are faced with a barrage of e-commerce opportunities. Expedite the shopping experience and increase conversions by identifying products that ‘people like me’ have purchased. Once I can vet a product based on people who closely match my profile, I am that much closer to feeling comfortable in making the purchase.”

That said, once the customer feels comfortable, be sure to move beyond that. “An unexpectedly flawless experience could lull a customer from habitual purchasing patterns,” she says. Driving sales, then, requires twists on familiar mental models — something that syncs with customer expectations, but is unique enough to drive engagement and action.

Reflective experiences

It’s also essential that each step in your e-commerce experience reflects intention. “For example, the category page should include curiosity-triggering components,” Guliz says. “If you’re displaying an array of products online, make it easy to determine the sentiment around each, without customers needing to invest time to dive into each.” From here, be sure to show customers the most important details and features relevant to them and their purchase experience.

This process can help create a series of clicks that drive those customers closer to making a purchase. “Don’t pitch immediately. Don’t make people think too hard. Work toward a series of smaller, more habitual ‘yeses,’” Carmen says. “This creates more momentum and a pattern of ‘yes,’ which can make a customer more comfortable with a bigger, riskier purchase decision.”

For example, if you’re promoting high-end travel, don’t immediately ask the decision-maker if they need a vacation. Instead, ask if they fly at least once per year or if they’re anticipating any travel in the next 12 months. These kinds of questions will likely drive a “yes.”

Asking questions about current travel habits and preferences can lead that potential customer to the critical “yes” — and they might at least consider booking a luxury vacation. By that point, they’ve been habituated toward a positive response and will be more open to bigger considerations — and bigger purchases.

According to Carmen, the brain makes decisions in a reflexive, habitual, and/or goal-oriented way. The mistake some businesses make is asking people to tap into their goals too quickly, at the expense of tapping into reflexes and habits first. Create opportunities for the buyer to take small steps first, toward a larger goal or purchase.

Transparent experiences

Transparency is also essential to ensuring a positive customer experience that ultimately drives toward purchase.

“It’s important to bring high visibility to the critical decision-making factors like return policies and shipping times, by writing them in clear, simple ways,” Guliz says. “If an array of products is displayed, make it easy to determine the sentiment around these products without needing to invest time to dive into each product offering.”

This type of layout will play well to a customer’s need to feel like they’re in control of their environment. Guliz says, “Allow them to easily navigate to different aspects of the product page. Take them to reviews when they click on star ratings. Let them filter product reviews or provide a preset filter for ‘customers like me.’”

“Retailers are making people think way too much,” Carmen says. “If you start with something that feels familiar and habitual, you’ll have an easier time when it comes to persuasion. Show customers something that doesn’t require a lot of cognitive energy to process.”

Aesthetically pleasant experiences

Humans are innately emotional — we react to everything from people to environments to colors and sounds, based on our existing and real-time experiences. This insight can help e-commerce brands better structure their retail experiences.

“The right aesthetics are major elements of trustworthiness in your store,” Guliz explains. “Lots of detailed photos of key features is crucial to a good experience.”

Carmen adds that “there are a series of innate behaviors in which you already know what to do next. In the buying process, that includes your reflex toward something beautiful.”

Creating this aesthetic experience requires having the right visuals, according to Marcia Flicker, Ph.D., associate professor at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business: “E-commerce brands need bigger, more detailed photos.”

It’s especially true when it comes to apparel. “It can be hard for customers to buy apparel online because they want to try it on, feel the fabric,” Marcia says. “Retailers need to reproduce that experience of being able to see the actual item. Customers need to see large images from a variety of angles — or even video.”

This aesthetics-focused notion can, then, be woven into an e-commerce brand’s UX design to help pave a customer’s path to purchase. “When you design an interface, you’re more likely to have people use it if it’s aesthetically appealing,” Carmen says. “Principles like proximity, balance, unity, and contrast are important to this notion of aesthetics.”

The next stage in e-commerce experiences

Understanding why customers buy and designing experiences to match their patterns is just the beginning. Going forward, brands will continue to fine-tune these strategies, layering in more future-forward technologies.

“Augmented reality could be a game-changer, especially for retailers,” says Marcia. “Think about using AR to overlay dress styles on online models that look just like you. This enables you to envision the real-life equivalent without actually being in store, and that has value.”

However, even with the most cutting-edge understanding of what makes us tick — and click — and stunning aesthetics and powerful UX design, none of it matters if the experience doesn’t fill a need in the customer’s purchase path.

“Nothing is going to work if it’s just whizbang and doesn’t solve a problem,” Marcia says. “A virtual dressing room where you can try on different outfits and see how different items go together — that solves a problem.”

With that commitment to problem-solving and your company’s keen sense to get closer to your customer’s deep, underlying purchase drivers, you’ll be better positioned to inspire Tracy — and the countless “Tracys” out there — to make that purchase.

Learn more about cutting-edge e-commerce in the Brick and Click Collection, now on the Adobe blog.

Topics: Digital Transformation, Corporate Marketer