Recent technological advances are reshaping how and where consumers make choices.
For example, 81% of U.S. adults now own smartphones and increasingly rely on them not just to communicate but also to shop, bank, gather information, and have fun. Emerging technologies are being designed to augment and automate many of the behaviors and decisions traditionally reserved for human decision-makers. More than 20 billion “smart” interfaces such as Amazon Echo devices, chatbots, social robots, and sensors are currently connected to the Internet, already dwarfing the 7.35 billion people on the planet.
Given that these technologies connect with humans and each other, they have become integral elements of the consumer decision-making process. Accompanying these changes is a flood of data that permits studying, not only how consumers use their smartphones and smart devices, but also how this technological ecosystem is affecting the underlying psychology of how consumers gather information, interact, and decide.
Digital innovations are also revolutionizing markets, changing how goods and services are made, sold, and consumed. Choices in today’s marketplace are often the outcome of a technology-augmented process in which behavior is partially a reflection of consumer preferences but also a reflection of the medium in which those choices were formed and/or certain algorithmic representation of known preferences. How can we characterize this set of human-technology interactions? And, what do we know about its nature and consequences?
One of the central features of this change is the idea that consumer preferences—and, in turn, choice outcomes—can be affected by the technological device’s physical properties. A good example of this can be seen in an experimental study by S. Adam Brasel and James Gips, who found that when laboratory participants chose a hotel room using a touchscreen instead of a mouse, they focused more on the room’s tangible attributes (e.g., sheets and décor). This effect was consistent with a psycho-physical transference process, in which physical hand actions selectively activated congruent semantic elements in the subjects’ memory. Here, the physical act of touching room elements on a screen enhanced the salience of the room’s tangible attributes when making a choice.
Hao Shen and other researchers reported similar effects in their investigation using the context of online food preferences. They found that ordering food on touchscreen tablets enhanced revealed preferences for hedonic or affect-laden options compared to ordering via keyboards. Likewise, Christian Hildebrand together with a set of other researchers report that using a wider range of easy-to-perform gestures on touch-enabled devices increases perceptions of playfulness, which leads to a greater tendency to add more features to custom-made products. Similarly, Rory Francis Mulcahya and Aimee S. Riedel found that adding haptic features to in-store ad displays increases their effectiveness.
A related body of research has attempted to understand how haptic feedback (e.g., vibrations emitted by a device) can affect consumer preferences and choices. One example is a study by William Hampton and Christian Hildebrand who examined the behavioral impact of vibrotactile feedback on consumer choice. They found that shoppers on an online grocery shopping website who were randomly assigned to feel a vibration when hitting the “add item to cart” button included more items in their basket than those who felt no vibration.
Also, in a recent research study I conducted together with Rhonda Hadi we demonstrated that haptic feedback accompanying message content can even improve consumers’ task performance. In a series of lab and field studies, users received motivational messages from a virtual coach on their mobile phones or smartwatches (e.g., encouraging them to be more physically active). Participants who received messages paired with haptic alerts did better on related tasks (e.g., taking more steps) than those who received the same messages without haptic feedback. This occurred because haptic feedback increased the sensation that the coach was actually present. Without this feedback, it felt like an impersonal technological exchange.
There is also evidence, however, that the effects of vibrotactile feedback may not be universally positive. Rhonda Hadi, O. H. Groth and I studied how augmenting mobile ads with haptic sensations, that dramatize content actions, might affect consumer responses to brands. Drawing on prior work showing that haptic feedback from a person (e.g., interpersonal touch) has a positive effect on attitudes only when the receiver feels warmth towards the initiator of the touch (as Joann Peck and Jennifer Wiggins suggested), our study hypothesized that haptic augmentation would boost attitudes only towards brands with which consumers associate analogous feelings of warmth. To test this, we recruited participants to experience mobile ads for brands that varied in perceived warmth. Consistent with our hypothesis, haptic augmentation from warm brands (e.g., Cadbury) led participants to react positively to the ad, whereas the same haptic feedback from unfamiliar or cold brands (e.g., Peugeot) did not.
This set of insights allows us to envision two major implications for our understanding of consumers and consumer markets. The first is that consumer-technology interactions underscore the need to better comprehend how the medium of choice affects consumer decision-making. However, a major unknown at this point is whether the rise of technology-augmented decision-making will actually work to enhance or degrade our consumer wellbeing.
This article was written by Ana Valenzuela of Esade Business and Law School from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.