• A customer’s purchase behaviour is driven less by logic than by emotions that they later rationalise.
  • Customers use cognitive biases to reduce their thinking effort.
  • Experimentation can be more effective than qualitative customer research in customer experience design.

As buying increasingly shifts online, interest in behavioural science is growing as it provides insights into how customers make decisions and what drives their purchase behaviour. 

Nima Yassini specialises in helping businesses optimise their digital customer experiences using insights from behavioural science. He explains, “Behavioural science is the opposite of traditional psychology. Its foundation is that generally humans are emotional creatures making emotional decisions that are rationalised logically later.”

Connecting emotionally with your customers 

Yassini says businesses need to think beyond what’s logical. “Often when organisations look at analytics, heat maps and talk to customers, they’re seeing only the tip of the iceberg – only a fraction of what is really happening. Underneath is the emotional context of why someone’s shopping.”

Pointing to research by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio,1 Yassini explains that it’s the limbic brain that enables us to make decisions. 

“All of the emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety – are derived out of the limbic brain. And an emotion must be present for a decision to be made and for an action to occur. So, if you can figure out the emotion at play, you can then design powerful customer experiences.”

Businesses need to understand the customer need and the emotional pillar that drives that need, says Yassini. 

“There are three core emotional pillars behind all human decision making. The first one is the need for self-identity. It’s reflected in the way we dress, express and present ourselves, also called stimulus.

“The second emotional pillar is the human need to belong to something, a family or group – we are creatures of community. This need for belonging is also called balance.

“And the third emotional pillar is dominance – the need to be in control. The minute you take away control people feel helpless, angry and agitated,” he explains. 

When an organisation designs a customer experience, they must look at all three emotional pillars, he says – self-identity, belonging and a sense of control.

Purchase experiences should recognise cognitive biases 

Customers use bias to minimise the amount of thinking that they do. It’s something we all do – for good reason. 

To explain why, Yassini references Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s2 two modes of thinking: system one is fast and system two is slow. 

“Your brain will move between these modes of thinking as it makes a decision,” Yassini says. “Most of the time, your brain is in a system one state, acting fast. For example, when driving a car you put your foot on the brake when you see a red light. 

“The brain tries to do everything in system one to save energy. When your brain uses system two, it consumes 25% of your body’s energy, even though your brain weighs only 4% of your total body mass.” 

That’s why we use biases to minimise our thinking and to conserve energy. To do otherwise would be exhausting. 

“People use over 105 cognitive biases in decision making and 22 of them impact buying behaviour,” Yassini says. He identifies three as particularly useful for nudging customers to a purchase decision: authority bias, loss aversion and social responsibility. 

Authority bias

This is about our tendency to be influenced by organisations or people that have authority. Referencing an authority, such as an industry award, can help a customer to make a purchase decision.

Loss aversion

Losing is significantly more painful than gaining, so the human brain looks for opportunities to avoid losses. When a customer buys a product, providing an opportunity to take out insurance to protect against its loss can be a helpful add on.

Social responsibility

Generally, we want to be seen as socially responsible so avoid actions that carry social stigma. Showing customers the social benefits of a product can encourage a purchase decision.

Fast and slow thinking in action

Businesses should also recognise the differences in fast and slow thinking in designing customer experiences.

“In system one, your brain recognises shapes faster than it recognises words,” Yassini explains. “That’s why hotel websites use star ratings. Your brain recognises a star because when you were a kid and did something good, you got a gold star.”

However, if a customer’s system one thinking isn’t going to lead to the best outcome, encouraging them to slow down their thinking would be more beneficial. For example if a customer is making an important financial decision, double check they are clear about what they need to know, and intentionally slow them down.

Qualitative data versus experiementation 

A final important point, says Yassini, is that not all customer data is equal. 

“Designers often talk to customers, get qualitative data and interpret that into a design. That's fraught with error – because if the designer hasn’t walked in the customer’s shoes, their interpretation's going to be biased by their own subjectivity. Instead, running experiments with real customers to figure out the right design is critical to changing customer behaviour.”

Our expert

Nima Yassini is a partner at Deloitte Digital with over 22 years’ experience working in digital marketing across the globe. In 2010, Yassini co-founded New Republique, an award-winning experience optimisation consultancy specialising in UX, experimentation and applied behavioural sciences to dramatically improve the performance of digital experiences for some of Australia’s and the world’s biggest brands.

To learn more from leading industry experts about what’s important to business and the economy, head to CommBank Foresight™ – insights for future-facing businesses.

Things you should know

  • 1 A Damasio, H Damasio and D Tranel, Persistence of Feelings and Sentience after Bilateral Damage of the Insula, Cerebral Cortex, April 2012, accessed 14 March 2023.

    2 D Kahneman, 2011, Thinking Fast and Slow, first edition, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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