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The Pinball Effect

A convenient truth

Buying goods and services online is not as convenient as you think. Why does it take three months to buy insurance, one month to order broadband and 10 days to book a hotel? I thought improvements and advances in user experience design were supposed to make these things faster & easier?

There’s something else going on, something that’s causing users to take a considerable amount of time to purchase online – and it has nothing to do with usability, best practice, copy or design.

Victoria’s secret

15 years ago, I went to a pub in Victoria and watched a couple of investment bankers playing a pinball machine with incredible skill, getting ridiculously high scores. How were they doing this? It was a combination of intricate moves, shaking and lifting the table at exactly the right time, manipulating where the ball went, avoiding the big black hole at all costs. Clearly they understood where the ball would go next, and used their knowledge of the table to make sure they were ready for the next obstacle.

I had always thought that this game was completely random, as every time I played it, I just hammered those buttons on the side, hoping for the best. The truth is it’s not random; it’s an incredibly considered game of prediction, knowledge and skill.

To understand how this relates to purchasing online lets imagine that the ball is the user, the player is the experience design, and the machine represents an information landscape, full of content, products, services and people.

Deal or no deal?

Do we really make impulse buys in the offline world? There’s usually always a decision tree involved, buying goods and services are no longer done in one sitting. The purchase decision has become a more integrated event, with a number of influences involved; friends, family, reviews, ratings, brand affinity, loyalty, customer service, social media, quality of information, emotional impulses and input from the user.

How often does a sales assistant follow you around collecting everything you have touched? Would this influence your decision in buying more products? We rarely buy something in under 60 seconds in a store, so why do we expect this to happen online? The majority of people prefer shopping with someone, so that they can get an opinion and help with decisions. How is this element supported online? It’s natural to ask or collect opinions on which camera to buy, or which broadband service is right for someone. There are many real word experiences that need to be considered when designing online experiences. Currently, Ecommerce and online experiences fall short of including real world needs of the user.

The pinball effect

Like the pinball, users often bounce around randomly hitting obstacles trying to find relevant information and help with decisions. Eventually users fall into the black hole, only to try again later. Ecommerce businesses are desperate for users not to abandon their journey; hence they use various tactics to get users through to checkout, yet still failing to address the decision process.

Similar to the player’s strategy, businesses try to manipulate the user journey by dynamically presenting content based on analysing clicks or optimising pages using Multi Variant Testing. Online marketeers influence buying patterns using promotions and offers, deploying technology to predict what customers may want to buy (using recommender system algorithms).

What businesses don’t do well is design the experience allowing for the ‘pinball effect’.

Online experiences don’t always cater for users' intricate movement through their journey, nor do they design with potential obstacles in mind. Often, they don’t have knowledge of these obstacles. Users need the relevant information at certain points of their decision making process.

True integration of things that influence users builds an experience that may reduce the time it takes to buy something online. Just maybe, I can actually get my home insurance sorted in less than a month.