Should you have a different website for morning and evening visitors – and another one for 2 a.m.? University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) behavioural economist Shlomo Benartzi thinks that makes sense. How about using a hard-to-read font – such as the widely disdained Comic Sans – on important material on your website? Sure, it will be harder to decipher initially, but that's exactly why you should employ it.
Prof. Benartzi, co-author with science writer Jonah Lehrer of The Smarter Screen, believes that digital devices allow organizations to employ behavioural research to increase purchases of their products. Among his approaches are three that are particularly helpful: desirable difficulty, digital tailoring and choice opportunities.
Websites are designed to make interactions easy, and that is generally wise. But he says when it comes to learning and memory – skills related to reading comprehension – excessive ease can backfire. Sometimes people remember more when the information is slightly harder to process.
That's where playing with fonts comes in. If you pick some harder-to-read fonts, creating what is known as disfluency, that forces people to concentrate more – and understand better. The studies are not all in agreement, but desirable difficulty seems to make sense.
So put warnings on cigarette packages in Comic Sans. While government regulators are intent on making mortgage applications easy to read, Prof. Benartzi might use fonts that are less common in certain key sections to slow people down.
Uber ran into trouble with surge pricing, which can lead to extremely high rates during a blizzard, shocking passengers when they found themselves paying as much as 8.25 times the normal price for a ride. One person ran up a $415 (U.S.) bill within Manhattan. He notes that now, when the surge multiple is more than 2.0, customers are forced to type in the exact amount of the multiple before they can order a car with the app. By making it harder to complete the transaction – something companies usually abhor – Uber ensures customers know what they are getting into.
So don't make it too easy – or too hard. There's a sweet spot.
Online companies can also personalize their messages. The Behavioural Insights Team of the British government increased payment of automotive tickets and fines by referring to the specific make and model in a letter to delinquent owners – and gained even better results when a photo of the car was included in the message. Approaching people on their birthday to stop smoking or buy insurance seems to increase pickup. New Year's is a good time for diet messages. Again, he stresses there is an optimal level. If a company shows it knows too much about an individual, that may anger rather than entice.
He says organizations might be smart to have different websites for the morning, when we want our information to be quick and easy to digest, and the evening, when we might grapple with more complexity. "Also, at 2 a.m., half the people surfing the Web are drunk. Do you want people signing up for your credit card?" he asked. So adjust your website and sign-up procedures.
Studies have shown that when we are given too many choices of pens or jam, we can become paralyzed and not purchase any of the offerings before us. But the research tended to involve about 10 to 12 items at most. Amazon has more than 1,000 black roller-ball pens and about 1,600 jams for purchase.
Prof. Benartzi observes that PriceGrabber.com was so intent on giving people a wide selection that it lost them by failing to help them choose. It is possible for digital tools to assist, starting with breaking items into categories – preferably ones based on the interest you have already expressed in an item. Prof. Benartzi loves red wines, so an app could learn that preference and not show any whites – indeed, it could home in on his favourite types of red. For one person, coffee choices might be broken down by country and for another by boldness.
Beyond that, choice tournaments can be helpful. When looking for a home, say there are 16 possibilities that meet your main criteria. That's a difficult number to choose from. But the real estate company could show you four, and you pick the best. That would happen again and again, until all 16 have appeared and you have chosen winners from the four tournaments. Now you have ones you are most interested in, or you could choose one or two from a final tournament of the top four.
Online sites could also apply what Prof. Benartzi calls the closure fix, discarding items you have not liked – those white wines or the least appealing houses. Amazon, he points out, does the opposite, which he considers foolish. After you make a choice, it shows you what other people who have bought that item have also purchased, which could easily confuse you and lead you to abandon the proposed purchase.
"The message is that little changes can have a huge impact on the clients and your business," he said. It doesn't necessarily take a lot of money – just some behavioural savvy and the willingness to experiment.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter