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Apple's iPhone 5 (top) and Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S4 are seen in this picture illustration taken in Seoul May 13, 2013. (KIM HONG-JI/REUTERS)
Apple's iPhone 5 (top) and Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S4 are seen in this picture illustration taken in Seoul May 13, 2013. (KIM HONG-JI/REUTERS)

Probing the mind of the online consumer Add to ...

The future where we’re all buying everything with a tap of our phones may not be here just yet.

But companies are recognizing that they have to have a mobile presence. And that means they need to understand exactly what consumers want out of that experience. A new study is attempting to establish some ground rules: make it fast, good-looking, and simple.

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The research, from Toronto-based mobile marketing agency Plastic Mobile and neuromarketing consulting and research firm True Impact Marketing, examined how people respond to experiences with different brands’ mobile applications.

The study included 30 young professionals (14 men and 16 women) aged 25 to 45, who use smartphones (in this case, iPhones).

The participants looked at apps from three brands: Pizza Pizza, Best Buy and Hyatt Hotels. They were asked to look at each app, browse its contents, and buy something (a 5-night stay in New York, for example, or a digital camera), all while wearing eye-tracking glasses and an Electroencephalography (EEG) headset, which helped examine their reactions, how they looked at the screen and their level of attention.

The researchers compared the data from the eye tracking and neurological responses, to surveys participants did about their perceptions of the brands before and after the mobile tasks.

The EEG device was able to measure activity in areas of the brain that neuromarketing research has associated with certain feelings and attention levels: for example, the left frontal cortex is where “approach motivations” fire off, such as “liking, wanting ... purchase intent and willingness to pay.” The right frontal cortex is where the opposite, “withdrawal motivations” occur. The study also looked at the rear area of the brain, where responses related to attention levels, learning and remembering happen.

The findings:

1) What people say they like about mobile shopping is different than what their brains say they like: Participants claimed to enjoy the browsing most and disliked checking out. But the EEG activity showed they were very engaged at checkout – especially when it was straightforward and easy.

THE LESSON: Marketers need to make their mobile checkouts as unencumbered as possible, with fewer steps and a feeling of instant reward.

2) The change in people’s perception of a brand in their surveys was directly affected by their experience on the app: the Pizza Pizza app, which showed high emotional engagement in the brain scans, had a 54-per-cent rise in the participants who responded in their survey that they saw the brand as innovative after using the app. The Hyatt app, in contrast, which had a lower emotional engagement score in brain scans, also had more negative descriptors of the brand from users after they did the mobile experiment. After using the app, users’ emotional engagement with the Pizza Pizza logo rose from 27 per cent to 43 per cent; Best Buy’s rose from 8 per cent to 66 per cent, and Hyatt, which users reported frustrations with, had emotional engagement with its logo fall from 41 per cent to 38 per cent. That directly translates into the willingness of consumers to do their own marketing for the brand: users also reported more willingness to recommend using the Pizza Pizza and Best Buy apps to their friends, and less willingness with Hyatt.

THE LESSON: Marketers have to be in the mobile space, but make sure the experience is there. Otherwise, it could do more harm than good.

3) People focus on pictures and price. The eye scanners that the participants wore revealed that, while they were browsing on mobile apps, their eyes went to these two elements on the screen above anything else. In the case of the Best Buy app, for example, there was a lot of wasted space with product descriptions that users did not read. In the Hyatt app, hotel descriptions were also ignored. And images also are tied to good impressions – the opening screens where images were prominent drew the best emotional responses in participants’ brain scans.

THE LESSON: In the mobile space, marketers have to make an immediate impression. That means they cannot ignore the importance of high-resolution images, and making pricing clear. More photo options, such as zooming and alternate views, are also a good idea.

4) Fast is best. The quicker an app loaded, the better the emotional responses in participants’ brains when faced with the first screen. That sounds obvious, but people using mobile devices tend to be less patient, have less time to wait, and conversely will be most responsive the faster something works.

THE LESSON: Make sure the capability is there. If participants are in the middle of browsing and a subsequent page takes a long time, that can affect their level of frustration, and potentially their willingness to abandon the shopping cart altogether.

Of course, what the study failed to do was look outside the world of branded apps – which may not be how most people browse, buy, or research purchases as mobile technology expands. The threshold for consumers to want to download a company’s app in the first place has led some marketers to recognize that there are better ways to interact with people on the devices that are such a big part of their lives. But many of the lessons gleaned from the app experiment are applicable to mobile design that all marketers will need to think more about in the coming years.

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