Now Why The Heck Did I Buy That?

I've been wandering about today in sort of a “credit crunch” mentality. Being made redundant has, as with many people, made me incredibly careful with money. This has led to me taking longer and longer to decide on relatively simple purchases. So far, so rational.

The irrational part has been “which objects, or services will I purchase, given I am making fewer purchases?” The answer surprised me, as very rarely did I decide on the cheaper object or service. Which made me think harder about what it was that was going on in my head before I made that decision.

Before I launch into this, I ought to say that I am not a highly trained sociologist, retail analyst, or psychologist. Consider this as no more than guided introspection.

What I have come to conclude is that the sequence of purchase decision making is all about the subconscious sequence in which the object or service comes into range of our senses. 'Hang on', I hear people say immediately, 'you already decided to purchase something, so you were making a conscious decision'. Well, no, not really. I had identified a range of needs and requirements, as well as the available resources with which to acquire them, but no more than that. I'm not talking about the decision to help my wife acquire a Canon G10, which was a pure cerebral decision taken on the basis of hard evidence and some gut feel based on previously owning a G9. I'm talking about the other things that get bought.

So first up. The longest range sense of all: our own personal imagination. Not really a sense, but the only thing that we humans can use to look into the future, and quite probably the most powerful sense we actually own in terms of its influence on our behaviours. So, in a couple of sentences, I am prepared to write off the whole of marketing, brand identity, awareness and effective frequency studies in a simple statement that 'they only act on the imagination'. Not on the decision making process directly.

Next up: vision. We really need to see things to understand them. A huge part of our mental processing is taken up with dealing with images, and they plug into every part of our brain at subconscious as well as conscious level (go read “the man who mistook his wife for a hat” or something similar like Pinker's “how the brain works”). If we can see it, we can begin to apply our modelling tools to it. But, and this is a very important but, only if we can quickly see what it is and what it does from its design. It has to fit with, and extend, our mental models in order to be 'acceptable'.

Not sure where to put 'how it moves'. I think it goes here. When dealing with people, I find that their posture and motion is more important than their face or dress, but I might be weird in that.

Then: sound. OK, for music you may hear it first, but you get the picture. Sound plays a huge part in purchasing things that are noisy (like cars, where NVH measures are agonised over by designers) and with things that are otherwise silent in use. Don't believe me? Walk around a supermarket and see people tapping on melons or shaking tins of Pringles, even though sound is not an obvious part of the purchase being considered.

Followed by touch. We generally avoid touching things until we have examined them. Life is too risky, and our fingers too precious a sensory instrument to place them in jeopardy without consideration. By touch I mean the whole gamut of proprioreceptive senses: mass, 'heft', motion, texture, temperature, flexibility and so on. If something does not feel as our other senses and our imaginations say it should then a range of 'red flags' appear to go off and we put it down and walk away. Malcolm Gladwell got some of this right in 'Blink'.

Then we have our chemosenses: smell and taste. Very few people I know would ever put something new in their mouth without making an attempt to first touch and then smell it. (laugh now). So smell comes slightly ahead, but also just after taste (as we smell a lot of things after we swallow them as well.) Yes, unlikely that you smell or lick your lawyer when making a decision on services, but I bet you good money that you were influenced by smells from them (perfume, body odours, breath) and by smells in the room (fragrances, coffee, cleaning products).

The last sense in the sequence, for me, is also the first one: what do I imagine about how this will actually work? Closing the loop back to imagination.

And there we have it. Having written it down, I am pretty sure I am not the first to say that. No doubt some of you will  point out some links to me. Just let me say why I wrote it. I wrote it to explain that DESIGN is utterly vital, and sadly forgotten almost all the time. Please, everyone, design things that appeal, that explain themselves and which work as expected.

See you down the shops?