How human brains drive anti-customer design decisions on shopping sites

Or, “The reason no one strictly obeys your shopping filters (the reason is money)”

Why do sites sometimes disobey filters? Often only a little bit, but noticeably, enough that it feels like an obstinate toddler testing your boundaries?

“You said you wanted a phone that was in stock and blue, huh? Got so many of those!”

“I’ll lead off by showing you some white phones that are really cheap… and hey if you want to narrow it down further, try narrowing it down –“

“Then I’ll show you phones that are blue. Mostly. More than this result set at least.”

I have cracked from frustration yelled “I told you morning departures!” while searching for flights at a travel site that employed me to work on those shopping paths.

So why? Why does everyone do this when it annoys us, the shopper?

Because our brains don’t work right, and we’re not rational beings, it ends up forcing everyone to cater to irrational cognitive biases to compete. I’ll focus here on availability and price, and in travel, because that’s where I have the most experience, but you’ll see this play out everywhere.

The worst thing from a website’s view is for you to think they don’t have what you want, or that you do and it’s too expensive, and this drives almost all the usability compromises you see that cause you to grind your teeth. And from the perspective of the people who run the website, they know — and they have to keep doing it.

Let’s start with availability. Few sites brag about the raw number of items they stock any more, but the moment you start shopping, they want you to know they have everything you could possibly be looking for. They want you to not bother shopping elsewhere.

Even when a site wants to present a focused selection, that they might not have a million things, they want you to think they have all of that specific niche.

Tablet Hotels focuses on expert-selected, boutique hotels. And here’s them walking you through their selection:

Do you believe there are 161 hip golf hotels? I didn’t. 161 hip golf hotels seems like it’s all the hip golf hotels that might be curated by hotel experts at the MICHELIN Guide(tm).

The desire to seem like they have all the available things makes sites compromise to make the store shelves seem full:

  • You search for dates and you get places that have partial availability
  • You search on VRBO for a place and get 243 results, all “unavailable”
  • You search for a location and get 3 in the city and then results from increasingly far away until it gets to a couple hundred results

As long as they can keep you from thinking “ugh, they don’t have anything” they’re winning — because the next time you’re shopping, you will shop where you think there’s the most selection.

They must also appear the cheapest. Our brains are terrible about this (see: the anchoring effect), and it creates a huge incentive to do whatever you have to in order to have the cheapest price even if it is irrelevant.

This sounds crazy, but I’m here to tell you having spent a wild amount of time and money doing user studies in my shopping site career, if someone’s shopping for non-stop flights between Los Angeles and Boston, and

  • Site A leads with a $100 14-hour flight that stops in Newark, Philadelphia, then La Guardia to give you the highest possible chance at further delays, followed by ten non-stop results for $200
  • Site B shows the same ten non-stop results for the same $200

Shoppers will rate Site A as being less expensive.

I have sat in on sessions where I wanted to scream “but you wrote down the same prices for the flight you ended up picking!” I have asked people why they thought that, and they’ll say “they had the lower prices” even though that lower price was junk. They will buy from that site, and return to shop there first next time.

It’s incredibly frustrating, and it happens that session, and the next, it’s not 50% of people in sessions — it’s 75, 90%. We all think we’re savvy customers, but our brains… our brains want to take those shortcuts so badly.

This drives even worse behavior, like “basic economy” — if an airline can get a price displayed that makes it look like it’s the cheapest, even if after adding seat selection, a checked bag, free access to the lavatory the person will pay far more than a normal ticket on a different airline, they’re going to be perceived as the better value, and the less expensive airline, in addition to having a better chance to make that sale because fewer people will go to the trouble of making all the add-ons and then comparing the two.

(And even then, and I swear this is true, once a shopper’s brain has “Airline A is cheaper” there is a very good chance even if they price out the whole thing, taking notes on a pad of paper next to their computer, when they do the math that shows Airline B is cheaper for what they need, they will get all consternated, scrunch their face, and say “well that can’t be right”, at which point there’s a crash in the distance as a product manager throws a chair in frustration.)

All of this combines to put anyone working on the user experience of a site in an uncomfortable situation:

  • Do we show a junk result up top that shows that we could get the lowest price possible, even though it’s not at all what the customer asked for, or
  • Do we lose the customer’s sale to the competitor who does show that result, and also risk them not shopping with us in the future?

The noble, user-advocate choice means the business fails over the long-term, and so eventually, the business puts junk in there.

So what do we do, as people who care about users and want to minimize this, do?

We can start by trying. It’s easy to sigh, give in, make the results set “get result set for filters, then throw the cheapest option at #1 no matter if it ranks or should appear” and then move on to something that’s seemingly more interesting. But this seemingly intractable conflict is where we should be dissatisfied, and where we have a chance to be creative.

We can approach with empathy: how can you be as open or helpful as possible when we’re forced to compete in this way. Instead of presenting a flight result in the same way as the others, we can say “$200 if you’re willing to compromise on stops, see more options…. $300 without your airline restrictions…”

Let customers know there’s another option, and don’t pass it off as part of the result set they asked for, call it out as a different approach.

Or, for example, the common “we have 200 hotels that aren’t available” — don’t show me 200 listings of places I can’t go, that doesn’t help anyone. If you have to tell me there are at maximum 200, tell me 50 of your normal 200 have availability if I move my dates, or here are 75 but a ways off.

Or think about this in terms of a problem you’re having — even if you write a sigh-and-an-eye-roll of a user story like “as a business, I want to build trust with users, so I can survive” that’s a starting point. What’s trust? What builds and undermines trust with your customers? Can you show your math? Can you explain what you’re trying to do to them?

It’s unrealistic to expect that you can start a conversation with a random shopper about how anchoring works and how to combat it, but what would you want to say? Are there tools you would arm them with so that they don’t fall prey to CheaperCoolerStuffwithFeesFeesFees?

Because if nothing else, knowing that this is all true, we can at least apply this to ourselves. The more time I spent in user studies watching smart people lose their way and come to entirely reasonable but incorrect conclusions because they’d been misled by having their brain trip up, the more I was able to not only ask questions like “which of these sites has the best prices for the thing I want?” but also questions like “which of these sites helps me find the thing I need?”

Concede what you must, but in seeking to help customers get what they want, instead of annoying them or seeming untrustworthy, and feeling like you’re only doing it because you’re forced to, you should be able to compete, help them succeed, and build a better and more durable relationship.

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