By Ben Ambridge


3.21    Play video

By default, we humans are emotional. And as I’ve mentioned in several other videos in this series, this is equally true when it comes to purchasing decisions. We’re emotional creatures, not cold, hard, rational computers. This means that if you want to optimise your website, you need to understand the various emotional states that customers experience when they’re on the site.

So, what can psychological theory tell us about emotions? The psychologist who has studied emotions perhaps more deeply than any other is an American Professor called Robert Plutchik. He created a famous diagram called the wheel of emotions, which has all the most intense emotions on the inside – ecstasy, terror, grief, and so on – and each of these branches out into its milder variants as you move out from the centre of the wheel.

So, we move from ecstasy to mere joy, to just serenity. We move from terror, to fear, to just apprehension, and so on. Plutchik argued that all animals – not just humans – have the same range of basic emotions, and that this is actually for a reason; that we’ve evolved to have emotions because they’re useful to our survival.

So, for example, the joy that you experience when you get food or sex encourages you try to get these things again, which is obviously crucial for the survival of the species.

The fear that you experience when you see a predator or other threat makes you run away, which is again good for your survival.

Even anger has a purpose. We experience anger when we see an obstacle or an enemy, and this causes us to try to overcome it; which is again good for our survival.

The point is that no matter how hard we try our emotions, they are so hard-wired into us by evolution, that we just can’t. Our emotions are always there, affecting everything we do.

So, you need to think about what emotions customers are experiencing at every stage of the process as they move through your site. When they first reach the site are they experiencing excited anticipation – they’re going to get something great that they’ve been looking forward to. Or are they experiencing apprehension – this is a chore.

Does it make them feel happy, or sad?

Do they feel trust in your company and your brand, or do they feel contempt or disgust?

Do they feel surprised? And if so in a positive way – ooh I wasn’t expecting them to sell THAT! Or a negative way? Oh NO, I didn’t think I’d have to fill in all these forms.

And of course, one of the most powerful emotions is anger. Is your site making your customers angry or frustrated because it’s difficult to navigate, it doesn’t work as it should, there are too many boxes to fill in during checkout or whatever it might be.

Whatever emotions your customers are feeling, we need to know about them. So that’s why at Endless Gain we use a range of biometric techniques – for example, facial recognition and pupil dilation to analyse emotions, and Galvanic Skin Response to measure the intensity of these emotions.

This can be particularly informative – a recent study that looked at gambling behaviour showed that skin conductance levels often start to rise (reflecting increased excitement, and hence increased sweating) just before participants make a smart decision. That is, the GSR machine knows what decision the customer is going to make before they do so!

So, to sum up – what you always need to bear in mind is that buying decisions are made by humans with human emotions. And it’s only by taking these emotions into account that we can optimise sites for them, and give them what they want.

Ben Ambridge
Hi, I’m Ben. I’m a Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool and I lead consumer psychology at Endless Gain. I’m interested in how research findings from academic psychology can be applied in our everyday lives as consumers. And, importantly how psychology plays an influential role in ecommerce. I write a weekly psychology column for The Observer, and my book Psy-Q: You Know Your IQ - Now Test Your Psychological Intelligence has been translated into 15 languages. Check out my TED talk, "Ten Myths about Psychology, Debunked".

Our Clients