Product Managers Want To Know: Do Suggestions Help Move Products?

Is making a product suggestion a good thing?
Is making a product suggestion a good thing?
Image Credit: Hash Milhan

As any of us who have gone shopping online know, online retail sites often make product suggestions based on our browsing history. New research is suggesting that this may be a mistake. The reason is that it turns out that consumers dislike being observed while they are deliberating. They dislike it to the point that many may react by not making a purchase if they think their shopping is being monitored, or perhaps by avoiding retailers that they know will watch them browse.

The Problem With Recommendations

That’s the result of recent research. Across 10 studies, researchers investigated how consumers react when they are being observed while deciding whether to make a purchase. In one of the studies, 173 random people were approached and offered them $1 to participate in a quick game. A table was set up with 10 baskets, each with a different product, each priced at 10 cents. Participants were given the choice to spend all of the dollar, some of the dollar and keep the change, or buy nothing and pocket the dollar.

The researchers then enlisted a colleague to act as a bystander and ask them if he could join in the study. The goal was to see how the participants would react when they thought another participant was observing them while deliberating. While the participants were making their choices, the bystander did one of three things: either watched them make their decisions, only saw their final choices, or stood aside and didn’t observe them at all.

So what was the result of the study? The researchers found that in their study 41% of participants whose browsing was observed decided to walk away with no products, compared with 20% of those who weren’t watched at all or had only their ultimate choices observed. What this showed was that the act of being observed while deciding – not having someone standing nearby, not being judged by their final decision – is what really bothers decision makers. Potential customers feel it’s invasive to have someone watch them while they are in the vulnerable decision-making phase. They fear they might make a particular decision just to satisfy the bystander, or that they’re making the wrong decision. The result of this is that they quit and don’t end up making a purchase at all.

What Consumers Really Want

Another study that was done showed how consumers will often avoid potentially making the “wrong” decision while being watched by choosing the default option rather than what their preferred choice was. The mere anticipation of being observed can shift our decision making, and we will take the most obvious and easy option, the shortcut. In additional studies of online shopping, the researchers found that participants were “significantly less interested” in using an online platform that monitors their decision making than they were in a platform that tracks only their final choices. Taken together, all of these studies can help product managers decide how to approach consumers.

If a product manager wants consumers to just buy anything, then they could signal that their customers are not being observed by saying that either a chat box online or salesperson in a store is there to help as they go through the decision-making process – but that they are not being monitored. Product managers that want consumers to choose a default or specific item can let them know they are being observed in real time, and customers will be more likely to choose the most obvious and easy option. Of course, this approach comes with a risk, as the $1 study showed. The observed consumer could leave without purchasing anything, just to emphasize their autonomy.

Another solution to this problem is for product managers who want to guide consumers to specific products but lessen the risk of driving them away could let customers choose whether or not they can be observed while shopping. A message saying something like, “In order to offer you the best possible product experience, check here and we will monitor your journey on our site to adjust our recommendations for you,” should help potential customers navigate the trade-off between the cost of being observed and the benefit of receiving the best recommendations.

What All Of This Means For You

Online product managers make some assumptions about their customers. We assume that there is a very good chance that they will be overwhelmed by the number of options that we can present them with and they will need help in making an informed decision. However, research has been done that seems to indicate that this may not be case. What should a product manager do?

A study was done where people were observed making buying decisions by themselves and then with people watching them. What the researchers found was that people don’t like it when they feel that they are being observed while buying. It’s not having somebody nearby, it’s simply having somebody watch you that consumers find unnerving and which may cause them to not make a purchase. Product managers can tell customers that they are not being watching in order to encourage them to make purchases. Alternatively, they can allow customers to choose to be observed if they would like help making the right decision.

Product managers need to understand that how a customer feels while they are making a purchase can have a big impact on if they will actually make the purchase. If it turns out that they don’t like being watched during the buying process, then product managers have to take steps to allow a customer to feel as though nobody is watching them. If we can successfully do this, then we should be able to watch our sales increase!

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What do you think would be the best way to let a customer know that they are not being watched while they are shopping?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

The dream of every product manager is to be responsible for a product that is so popular that it flies off of the shelves. We dream of the day that we have to spend our time worrying about how we are going to keep our product in stock because it is selling out so fast. It turns out that this is exactly the problem that the product managers at the fast food chain Popeyes have been dealing with. When they decided to introduce a new chicken sandwich, they had no idea how popular it would be. That’s when all of the trouble started.