The ability to control certain situations can motivate human action: people tend to evaluate the outcome of an action or process more positively if they were able to influence the action or process themselves.
This is grounded in the Illusion of Control behavioral bias – the bias that we are able to control certain processes that have been shown as being beyond our control.
Understanding behavioral biases like the Illusion of Control can be incredibly helpful in online marketing, specifically in an eCommerce context. They can be used to optimize user experience, encourage engagement, and ultimately increase conversion rates.
In order to understand the cause and the effect of behavioral biases, one must quickly abandon the idea that humans are rational beings and make their decisions in a very deliberate manner: only about 5% of our purchase decisions are dominated by rationality. With the remaining 95 %, our feelings and unconscious behavioral biases have the upper hand.
According to the current status of science, we have two decision-making systems, an intuitive one and a rational one, also called System 1 (intuition) and System 2 (reason). The majority of our decisions are made by the intuitive System, at a subconscious level. As a result, we are unable to apply a rational decision-making process in many situations. This is exactly what you can make use of in eCommerce.
Thinking and/or decision-making with System 1 is fast, spontaneous, intuitive and made without cognitive analysis. The speed of intuitive decisions is due to the ease with which we can fall back on underlying heuristics and/or learned behavioral patterns. System 1 is influenced by implicit stimuli, i.e. stimuli that are not consciously perceived.
This decision-making system functions differently: it is attributed to one’s own consciousness and processes information rationally and cognitively. The use of System 2 means effort and physical strain. It is activated when power-sapping mental activities require our attention, such as complex mathematical calculations or when certain recorded information does not fit into the context and therefore needs to be considered again.
Therefore, if we actively think about something, we apply the slow and rational System 2. It also functions as a kind of monitoring entity, activated in rare cases, when making difficult decisions.
These two decision-making systems and the knowledge that almost all of our decisions are intuitive, help one better understand consumers in an eCommerce context. Our decision-making systems are often exposed to the unconscious, cognitive distortions, resulting in false interpretations of perception, memory, and evaluation. These misinterpretations are often followed by a behavioral bias that you can use for your online shop: by deliberately setting triggers you can force the user to behave in a certain way or give him a “push” in the desired direction.
Behavioral biases are cognitive patterns of behavior that all of us have internalized to facilitate decision-making. These fundamental process plans influence our perception, purchase behavior, and the motivation to perform certain actions. These behavioral biases vary in degree from person to person.
The use of behavioral biases in eCommerce and/or websites is not about manipulating your users for fast sales. They also can’t be employed as universal templates: their effect is very individual and depends on context.
If you want to employ behavioral biases, you need to know and understand your target group beforehand. It is essential to internalize that people make decisions subconsciously and, at the same time, on the basis of clearly defined patterns. The use of behavioral biases will help you to reduce the cognitive effort of your users and to make online shopping a pleasant experience.
In eCommerce, behavioral biases have a positive effect on the user experience and the conversion rate at several points of the sales funnel. Their use:
As already mentioned in the introduction, we assess a situation or action more positively if we can control it, or at least believe that we have control. This behavior can be attributed to the ‘Illusion of Control’ behavioral bias. A simple example of this is that when people play dice, they roll the dice with more force when they want to roll a higher number.
This pattern was discovered during a card experiment which has since become quite famous. The participants in the experiment received two cards face down, a winning and a losing card. The participants estimated the probability to win as much higher when they could select the card themselves.
It, therefore, follows that people delude themselves into believing that they could influence the outcome of a random situation in their favor if they have a certain degree of control.
The Illusion of Control is a valuable tool, which can be employed in the decision phase of the path to purchase. When a user believes to have control over processes that cannot be influenced, then you should not take this belief away in the context of the sales funnel. Control-affirming elements have a positive effect on the further course of the customer journey and reduce the cancellation rate.
When a user actually believes they can control a process, whether in the product search or during the order process, then they subjectively experience a lower risk and, in return, are willing to take an objectively higher risk. They are therefore guided by System 1 and decide to purchase more quickly and intuitively. For your online shop, you can employ various elements that come under the Illusion of Control pattern. In the following examples, you will find some examples of websites that skillfully use this behavior pattern in order to trigger the desired action in their users, i.e. the purchase.
Shops such as Outfittery or JustFab deliberately set a number of triggers before the actual purchase or order process and provide their users with various options in order to create a personalized product package.
In the case of Outfittery, for example, the user decides on different styles in a selection process, going through a sort of decision sequence. As a result, the user has the impression that they are positively influencing the result. At the end of the process, the user has no possibility to order anything in line with their preferences – they receive a set selection of garments. However, this is beyond the user’s control again.
Figure 1: Selection options on the Outfittery website
Another example of a similar procedure being employed is on the IKEA website: this involves the sorting of products and product categories. The user can decide how they would like to have the items displayed. Various overview options are given and the user can set filters. In addition, the user can activate a display of individual categories that list the relevant products or select a specific area. All these options are always prominently displayed in the navigation area.
Figure 2: Sorting products and product categories on the IKEA website
This provides the user with a certain degree of control over how they utilize the online shop and they can select which display they find easiest to view.
Statements in online shops such as e.g. “You decide how you pay” and “You have full control over the payment process at all times” support System 1 and promote the conclusion of the purchase as these sentences also suggest that the user retains some degree of control over the ordering process in the form of a flexible list of payment methods. RegioJet also takes advantage of this strategy by boosting the sale of online tickets with precisely these sentences. The potential customer has full control over their payment method. As additional support, the different payment methods are categorized and described in detail.
Figure 3: Illusion of Control on the RegioJet website
This also includes the option of deciding how the potential customer wishes to place an order in an online shop or how they are to be recorded as a customer. On the Xucker website, for example, the user has the option of ordering once as a guest, registering and creating a customer account, or logging in with their Amazon access details.
Figure 4: Payment options on the Xucker website
In the case of online shops that advertise a large number of items in the individual product categories, page numbers or “more” buttons are more useful than infinite scrolling to give the user more control. This enables the user to decide independently whether they want to continue the search to view other products or, for example, look at another category. In addition, they can easily switch from page to page in order to view a product again on page a certain page. They also have control over their own orientation in the product category. A good example of this is Amazon, where users are always shown page numbers within their search.
Figure 5: Page numbers at Amazon
An additional element that helps create the ‘Illusion of Control’ is to provide feedback on actions executed in the online shop. As soon as the user has placed something in their shopping cart or removed something, it is useful to confirm this action once again. This also provides the user with the feeling of having everything in sight and under control.
Figure 6: Receive feedback straightaway on the roastmarket website
This is exactly what happens at roastmarket. As soon as a user adds a product to their shopping cart, they receive feedback. In addition, the user’s product choice receives positive reinforcement.
Information that is important to the user should be permanently present in the shop and quickly accessible. This provides the user with an overview of their options and possible additional actions. They retain control over the purchasing process. One example is the embedded shopping cart as a sticky element at the top of the page. This can be found in the online shop of H&M. The shopping basket – or shopping bag, as it is called here – is permanently visible on the website during any action that is executed and is always uploaded as well.
Figure 7: Sticky shopping basket at H&M
However, in this case, an interesting addition further reinforces the applied pattern. As soon as the user moves the mouse over the shopping bag, it opens as a pop-up; the user sees the content and is provided with another two options. With one click on the “Shopping Bag” button, the selected products can be edited or deleted, while the “Checkout” button concludes the purchase.
The so-called important information also includes other contact possibilities. These should also be clearly visible as buttons or flags at the right edge of the screen. If this also includes a selection such as live chat, telephone, email or appointment, then the user will once again feel reinforced in their belief that they are able to decide for themselves. The OTTO website shows how this can be implemented. In this case, clicking on one button reveals all the different contact options.
Figure 8: Contact options on the Otto website
Triggers to elicit a certain pattern of behavior can be used in various places and for a wide variety of purposes, especially in eCommerce. Naturally, you need to think about where the Illusion of Control pattern will prove to be expedient and whether it will work. You can, of course, test different variations and compare the results. However, you should never lose sight of the user experience, particularly with this behavior pattern.
When using the Illusion of Control for your online shop, you should take care to use the necessary elements in a restrained manner as it may collide with common UX conventions, especially in the case of overuse. Successful user experience is usually characterized by the fact that the websites are as slim as possible and require as few decisions as possible in order to simplify everything for the user and quickly result in the desired goal. Therefore, excessive use of triggers that elicit the Illusion of Control in your users could result in a worse UX. As anywhere else, the same principle applies here: everything in moderation.
The use of behavior patterns in different parts of your online shop is not rocket science. However, you should not forget one important condition: you must know your users and customers and understand what is going on in their minds during the customer journey. This understanding will enable you to utilize patterns, such as the Illusion of Control, in a meaningful way. At the same time, you should also be aware of the fact that behavior patterns do not work miracles – rather they just constitute one of many factors and should not be used to excess. Nevertheless, the Illusion of Control provides you with a way of reinforcing the intuitive actions of your users and to guide them in a certain direction without reverting to manipulative strategies.
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Published on 11/08/2019 by Tatjana Hein.
Tatjana Hein feels at home in the field of content marketing, PR, and the analytics realm. She has a great overview of the newest trends and developments. For analytics provider Piwik PRO, she uses her expertise to manage the balancing act between the areas by skilfully linking topics.
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