Meran Hill

Improve eCommerce user experience with a little psychology

With internet access growing exponentially and eCommerce funding on the rise, you’d think it would be easier than ever to find that perfect suitcase, shirt or set of speakers. Yet the large number of choices paired with an exhausting amount of information about each choice actually makes it more difficult for people to choose. The excess of options available online can lead to an overwhelming experience, more daunting than shopping at a big box store. While Home Depot has a limited physical inventory on hand, Amazon ships more than 5 billion items annually and has well over two million third party sellers. How do all these choices affect the consumer? What can be done to improve the eCommerce user experience?

The Psychology of Priming & Choice

When we choose to buy something, we prefer to think that we’ve weighed all the alternatives, done the research, and subsequently arrived at a rational, informed decision. We are blissfully unaware of the other forces that influence our choices along the way. In fact, humans are notoriously bad at decision-making and a psychological phenomenon called priming is often at play.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, priming, in cognitive psychology, refers to “the induction of an unconscious form of memory through an encounter with a particular stimulus, which acts to influence the performance of an apparently unrelated task.” In short, when you’re exposed to something, it can subconsciously influence how you respond to something else. You are being primed all the time—the advertising industry is built on this principle. From the smell of movie theater popcorn to the sponsored ads on your favorite website, exposure to things outside of your conscious attention influence the choices you make.

Priming has all kinds of applications outside of traditional commercial purposes. One study conducted at Arizona State University in 2002 explored the relationship between eCommerce website backgrounds and consumer behavior. Researchers asked customers to choose between two products in the same category. Those who were shown a green background with coins looked at price information longer than those who were shown a background with safety signs. This research shows that a product’s context can have a dramatic effect on how consumers perceive it and which attributes they value over others.

To make products more attractive and increase conversion, you can leverage research on priming and decision-making through knolling, reducing the number of available options and strategic categorization.


Knolling is the process of arranging related objects in parallel or 90 degree angles as a method of organization. It has been around since the 1980s, but has become increasingly popular on social media over the past year. For a few examples, checkout Things Come Apart: A Teardown Manual for Modern Living by Todd McLellan, which beautifully captures the art of knolling with fifty disassembled objects in 21,959 individual parts. Online stores such as Gap and Sephora are using knolling to showcase their wares in a specific environment. By placing products next to something that evokes a positive emotion—such as a flannel shirt next to a tree branch—consumers are primed to associate the two items.

According to Johan Wagemans, an experimental psychologist specializing in visual perception at the University of Leuven, images that depict items in a tidy, grid-like manner are fundamentally different from the stimuli the brain ordinarily gets. Since humans tend to look longer at novel things that puzzle or delight them, customers will look at an image that applies knolling longer than a simple image with only one or two objects. Showing customers your product in a unique or thought-provoking context can spell the difference between a browser and a buyer. Not sure what to do with all that space on your homepage? Increase conversions with knolling and showcase a few popular products with objects from nature to grab the attention of someone casually perusing your site.

You can also use knolling to make a product seem more tangible. If consumers are able to connect with a product on an emotional level, they will be more likely to purchase it. Showing a pocketknife disassembled by laying out all the components in an artistic, organized fashion allows the consumer to connect with the product more deeply than a showing a complete pocketknife from a variety of angles.


It may be counterintuitive, but limiting choices makes choosing easier. People are less inclined to make a purchase when faced with a surplus of options. The holy grail of eCommerce is a balance between having enough options to attract prospective customers, but not so many that they become overwhelmed and go elsewhere. Companies that find the right balance will consistently outperform their competitors who haven’t found that sweet spot. When Procter & Gamble cut their Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15, the organization saw a 10% increase in sales.


The total number of products we have to choose from matters less than the number of product categories. Prevent choice overload by dividing products into many categories, thus reducing the numbers of available comparisons. Did you know that today 50.3% of eCommerce traffic originates from a mobile device? This means half of your customers are squinting at your product grid on a small screen. To optimize for mobile users, limiting the number of products in each category also reduces scrolling and pagination on category pages.

The age of options is indeed a double-edged sword. It may be counterintuitive, but small eCommerce shops with carefully curated inventories consistently deliver better user experiences than online merchants with thousands of choices. As consultants in the digital industry, we can leverage principles from psychology to help our clients transform overwhelming shopping experiences into highly personalized adventures.

Meran Hill

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