Retailers Utilize Physical Constraints to Influence Shopping


The National Retail Federation expects 2017 holiday retail sales[1] to total $678 billion, an increase of about 3.6 percent from last year. According to Deloitte, consumers are expected to spend 42% of their holiday budgets in brick and mortar stores. In order to maximize profits, stores employ usability principles to manipulate customers into purchasing more merchandise. Specifically, many take advantage of physical constraints to influence shoppers.


Decompression Zone

According to Paco Underhill’s book Why We Buy, when shoppers enter stores, they walk quickly and don’t immediately stop as soon as they open the store doors. Instead, the momentum from hurriedly walking through parking lots carries over within the stores and shoppers usually miss the merchandise at the front. Underhill states that whatever is in the zone they cross before making that transition is pretty much lost on shoppers (p 43) so they won’t pay attention to merchandise, signs, or staff asking if they can help. In order increase conversion rates and optimize the shopping experience for customers, stores often turn the space into a decompression zone—a landing strip that physically constrains customers and forces them to slow down.

Some stores create a decompression zone by adding a “power display” or a large horizontal rack of merchandise that makes customers slow down and mentally transition into being at the store (Figure 1). Other retailers take the decompression zone to the outside of the store in order to entice customers to slow down before entering, by adding merchandise such as flower or plant displays outside super markets. Others completely break the rules and place large amounts of discounted merchandise at the front of the store in baskets in order to manipulate customers into decelerating. Although decompression zones might look differently depending on the type of store and how much space they can afford to utilize, one common factor they exhibit is physically constraining customers and forcing them to slow down in order to help them transition into a shopping mindset.

Figure 1 – Power Display at a Sephora Store


Shopping Basket Strategy

Another strategy retail stores employ to entice customers to buy merchandise is removing constraints that limit the number of things shoppers can physically hold in their hands while going shopping. For example, customers during the holidays lug coats while shopping and women often carry handbags. Because the amount of merchandise a shopper can physically hold impacts how much a customer purchases, stores provide shopping carts, baskets and bags for customers to carry merchandise. Although most stores usually place baskets and bags near the entrance, as we discussed earlier, shoppers might overlook anything in the decompression zone simply because they don’t notice the baskets.

In order to combat the overlooking of shopping bags and baskets, Underhill suggests strategically placing baskets around stores or having sales staff hand them out once customers have had a second to decompress. According to Underhill, shoppers almost unanimously accept baskets (p 54) and as baskets in one of his consulting projects started being handed out in stores by employees, sales rose steadily. Removing this constraint is also the reason why staff at clothing stores ask customers if they want a dressing room started for them. By taking the clothes off their hands, shoppers can comfortably browse the store, grab more clothes from the racks and spend more cash.

Figure 2 – Strategic Basket Placing at a Sephora Store


Overall, Paco Underhill’s book Why We Buy explains how retailers merge consumer behavior theory and usability concepts like constraints to influence shoppers’ experiences in stores. By making small changes, such as adding a rack of clothing that physically stops shoppers or incentivizing staff to hand out shopping bags while customers browse the floor, stores can create better experiences for shoppers and maximize sales at the same time.

[1] Excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants


Design Critique: Spotify (iOS App)

Discovering music has never been easier now that people can carry millions of songs in their pockets using apps like Spotify, a digital streaming service that allows users to search, discover and play songs. Although Spotify’s iOS app can be used effectively, it has room to improve its usability and discoverability.


Song-Specific Menus

Spotify’s song-specific menus give users good discoverability through mapping and effective feedback. Users can click on the three, horizontal dots to the right of a song and pull up it’s corresponding menu. The menu affords specifying actions, such as saving to library, adding to a playlist, or sharing via social media (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Song-Specific Menu

Spotify takes advantage of spatial analogies to create a clear, natural map, by placing the set of dots to the right of every song. The menu lists the possible actions a user can select, providing discoverability of what a user can do with the song. After the user selects an action, such as “Add to Playlist”, she receives immediate feedback through a visible notification. Such feedback provides reassurance that the action has been completed; it bridges a possible Gulf of Evaluation, making it easy for the user to determine the success of her action.

The menu’s discoverability through effective mapping and feedback reduces possible Execution and Evaluation Gulfs. This holds true for all existing menu options, except one that is noticeably absent—“Delete from Playlist”.


Deleting Songs From Playlists

As mentioned above, the Spotify song menu does not provide a “Delete from Playlist” option. Instead, a user has to go to the general playlist menu, click edit and then select the song she wants to delete (Figure 2). This design flaw demonstrates poor mapping, disconnects between the user model and system image, and a Gulf of Execution that leads to rule-based mistakes.

Figure 2: Design Flaw – Deleting Song from Playlist

A rule-based mistake occurs due to disconnects between a user’s conceptual model and the system image—a product’s available information. Due to established analogies regarding song-specific menus, a user may formulate the wrong plan to delete a song. Because the system image does not map the “delete” action to the corresponding song, but instead to the entire playlist, users experience a Gulf of Execution—becoming confused by how something operates. Knowledge in the head might fail, causing users to experience learned helplessness and decide that a song cannot be deleted at all.

Simply adding a “Delete from Playlist” option to the song-specific menu could solve the above problem (Figure 3). Doing so would naturally map the “delete” option to the corresponding song, making the system image consistent with the user’s model and eliminating the Gulf of Execution.

Figure 3: Design Solution – Deleting Song from Playlist


Swiping Songs to Add to Queue

Users may also swipe songs left and right to perform certain actions. Swiping a song to the left adds that song to the main library and doing so again removes it (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Swiping Left to Save and Remove from Library

Alternatively, swiping a song to the right adds it to the queue, but if the user swipes right again, the song is not removed from the queue. Instead, it is added to the queue a second time (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Design Flaw – Swiping Right to Queue

This design inconsistency within the system image may cause the user to become frustrated and confused at the visceral level of processing. If the user accidentally swipes right and adds a song to the queue, her behavioral response could be to swipe right again, adding the song to the queue a second time. This could create a Gulf of Execution, leaving the user wondering how to remove the song from the queue.

Applying an analogous rule—swiping left a second time to remove a song—signifies that the user committed a rule-based mistake when trying to remove the song from the queue. The designers can use these analogous rules when trying to solve the problem. Because swiping left twice affords two different actions, a second swipe to the right could be added to delete the song from the queue (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Design Solution – Swiping Right to Queue and Remove from Queue


Overall, Spotify successfully provides a revolutionary streaming service, allowing millions of people to search decades of music. By applying some of Don Norman’s design concepts, Spotify could transform its interphase into a more intuitive and understandable platform that drives users to seamlessly interact with their vast music library.