Sorry, computer. Most of the time we spend online is now via mobile devices. And this may be a boon for the companies hoping to sell us things. When it comes to online shopping, a new study suggests, “you touch, you buy.”
In the study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, researchers at Boston College asked 63 college students to plan a hypothetical spring break vacation to Paris using the website TripAdvisor. Half of the students were asked to browse potential hotel rooms using only a tablet’s touch-screen interface; the other half browsed using the tablet hooked into a stand and Bluetooth mouse.
For people using the touchscreen it was all about their gut reaction; for people using the mouse it was more about practicality.
“Changes in interfaces,” the study concluded, “can be as important as changes in content.”
Researchers were interested in what they call “interface psychology,” or how the differences in the technology interface a person uses affects her thought process and behavior. The idea is that how we physically interact with the web fundamentally changes how we experience and consume the content we’re looking at online.
“We have all of these subconscious interaction routines with different technologies. It’s important to understand what different technologies are doing to us,” Stevan Adam Brasel, the study’s co-author and co-director of Boston College’s Marketing Interfaces Lab, told me. “People just aren’t really aware of that.”
Past research has shown that touching an object on a screen or even just imagining touching an object often acts as a sort of metaphor for touch, stimulating in the brain processes incredibly similar to actually touching something IRL. In a previous study, Brasel and his colleagues found that shopping on a tablet stimulates psychological ownership and what’s known as the “endowment effect,” the idea that people will place more value on things simply because they own them.
But they still wanted to know how browsing on a phone or tablet was different from a good old-fashioned computer. And what Brasel and a colleague found was that the qualities people favored in hotel rooms when touching a screen had a lot more to do with visceral qualities like seeing and feeling. People using the touchscreen looked around more and reacted most strongly to qualities like furniture and decor. People using a mouse instead gravitated towards text-based details, like whether or not there was WiFi.
At least when shopping online, touchscreen users placed more emphasis on imagery and sensory information, perhaps glossing over other important details. Using a touch screen, the authors write, represents a relationship in which technology is viewed as more intensely personal. Physically touching the screen, in a way, created a kind of more intimate bond with the content.
As a consumer, Brasel said, taken together his two studies reveal that consumers shopping online may be susceptible to biases when buying.
“As a consumer that’s kind of important to know,” he said. “It may be the interface driving response and not you. That may lead you to spend more.”
As we interact with technology in increasingly varied ways — via touch, voice, eye, gestures — understanding how our brains interact with different interfaces only becomes more urgent.
Brasel imagines these underlying principles extend well beyond just online shopping.
“Imagine if on Tinder you had to swipe up and down instead of left or right,” he said. “If you swiped up, that gesture symbolizes agreement, so maybe you would feel more positive about the match. If you swiped down, you might feel more negatively about the people you reject.”
All of this underscores what has become an infallible truth: our relationships with technology are not passive. How we use technology changes how we act and even, to some extent, who we are.
“Touch screens bias people. Our bodily states inform our mental states. If you’re holding a cup of warm coffee, studies have shown you actually view people as warmer,” said Brasel.
He added: “After theses studies, I stopped shopping on my tablet.”