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Being mindful of cognitive biases when designing for e-commerce
Vital Boisset
December 15, 2021

Explore this article:

  • What are cognitive biases and why should we care?
  • Some commonly encountered cognitive biases
  • Being mindful of cognitive biases when designing UX/UI

What exactly is a cognitive bias?

Humans are complex rational and emotional beings. We make educated decisions based on research, critical thinking, and the knowledge we have available at the time. However, we also make decisions based on feeling, intuition, and emotional state. As a result, we sometimes let cognitive biases influence our decision process.

A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from otherwise rational thinking. Our rational mind suggests one path, but certain flaws in our thinking open up other paths that may not be optimal.

Black Friday signage designed to get a reaction from shoppers.

These biases can affect a person’s decision-making process, behavior, and memory. These biases often are completely involuntary, they are just part of what makes us human beings.

Why should we care about cognitive biases in e-commerce?

Cognitive biases affect how people think or feel about a product. They show up everywhere when looking at the online shopping experience. They can be used to improve the user experience of a product or service, but they can also be used to take advantage of people, through the use of dark patterns.

By being aware of our cognitive biases, we can make our products stand out while making sure to respect users. Being aware of them, we can design better experiences for our users by avoiding certain well-known pitfalls.

What are some commonly observed cognitive biases in e-commerce?

Category Heuristics

In e-Commerce, heuristics are often used to help guide shoppers into making an informed decision. For example, if buying a TV, we could use a range of heuristics to ensure we purchase what we are looking for:

• Screen size (43in, 42in, 46in, 55in, 65in…etc)

• Refresh rate (60hz, 120hz…)

• Pricing

• Television type (LED, OLED, LCD…)

• Software (Google TV, Roku TV, Apple TV, Fire TV…etc)

Heuristics are mental shortcuts or methods we use to be faster at problem-solving. While they aren’t perfect, such systems are good enough to get us where we need to go.

Authority bias

As online shoppers, we’re more likely to listen to advice and reviews if they come from a person of authority. This could be someone we encounter daily, like the CEO at work or a teacher at school. Or it could be someone external to our networks, such as a celebrity or a social media influencer.

The authority bias can also be seen as a heuristic since it can become a mental shortcut to make a decision.

Social proof

People tend to look left and right to see if anyone else has experienced a product before buying. Whether you ask a family member or you look up online product reviews, social proof is a crucial part of the online shopper’s journey.

We trust in the wisdom of the masses. When we see other people trust in something, we are more likely to follow along as we find it comforting that others have inlaid some roads for us.

Power of now

Generally speaking, we as humans like to enjoy things now, as opposed to enjoying them later. We put off the tedious or less fun stuff in favor of the now. We like to live in the moment. We favor ourselves in the present at the possible expense of ourselves in the future.

In summary, we highly dislike waiting during our shopping experience. We may pay extra for faster shipping, or select a more expensive option because it is available immediately.

Scarcity bias

This one is all about supply and demand. When there is less of something, it becomes harder to get, and it can rise in value because of that. Or maybe a product is only available for a short period of time (Businesses have been built that way).

Our brains are hardwired to react to limited access. Sought after electronics during the holiday shopping season are quick to let you know how short the supplies are.

Power of free

We’re programmed to be attracted to free. Consider these two options:

  1. Shipping (2–3 days): 14.99
  2. Shipping (2–3 days): FREE

We become much more motivated and interested when the word “free” is mentioned. Whether it’s a free add-on to a product, a period of time where maintenance is free, or a BOGO (buy-one-get-one) offer.

When a component involving free stuff is involved, we have an almost irrational response to it. We get drawn closer to check out what the deal is.

Cognitive biases encountered when designing a shopping experience

As a UX designer, I’m not immune to cognitive biases myself. I strive to educate myself as I grow my understanding of them. There is a long list of biases that can affect a product team, and I cannot memorize them all. Here is a list of 3 cognitive biases you may run into during your design process:

We can be mindful of cognitive biases when designing the user experience.

Sunk cost fallacy

This bias occurs when we over-value past work or decisions when planning our next move. Because we may have already started a prototype, we continue working on those foundations, even if new insights have come in.

Because of the resources involved already, we may struggle to let go of bad ideas. The costs involved are not always financial, they could also be time or energy.

False consensus bias

This one can be dangerous to a product team. This bias occurs when we as designers think that people will agree with our preferences or values. We end up making assumptions that lead us away from our research or the insights we gathered (from user interviews or analytics).

Anchoring bias

When faced with a large amount of information, we tend to favor the first bit that we encountered, as compared with any following data. This bias has implications for how designs are structured.

The order of a set of questions during a customer survey matters, and could influence the final results.

Staying aware of cognitive biases during your design process

When designing a shopping experience that delights, it’s very important to be mindful of cognitive biases. From my research and experience, I devised a list of actions that can be used as a starting point to stay mindful of biases. It is by no means comprehensive:

  • Don’t be afraid to discard parts of or even whole designs. Iteration is the solution
  • During your design process, focus on the journey as much as the outcome. There will be false starts and that’s OK.
  • Test your designs at every stage, especially early on! You could save hours in the late stages by spending minutes planning early on.
  • Detach your designs from your own preferences. Your focus should be on who the product is for, their preferences, their context.

About the Author

Vital is a UX Designer at Skafos, helping Shopify merchants convert more first-time website visitors with interactive recommendations. Try our Shopify app with a 14-day free trial.