Do smartphones shape people's purchase decisions?

A topic of perennial interest in technology studies is how technology shapes the way people think.  It is clear that the way people think affects technology, as in the example of how gender is encoded in architecture, recently noted in this blog.

It is less obvious that influence goes the other way too.  People tend to think that they have fixed or solid set of ideas and preferences and, then, design technology to conform to them.  This view is represented in the expression that technology is "just a tool."

However, technology can affect people's thinking.  Recall the so-called "Law of the instrument" attributed to Abraham Maslow: "To someone with a hammer, all their problems look like nails." 

Recent research by Professor Ying Zhu of UBC appears to provide another example.  While shopping in the Internet, subjects in her experiments purchased more hedonically using smartphones and more rationally on desktop computers, e.g., they were more likely to buy soft drinks over shampoo in that case.

Zhu explains the difference in terms of the different experiences offered by each medium: "The touchscreen has an easy-to-use interface that puts you into an experiential thinking style. When you’re in an experiential thinking mode, [you crave] excitement, a different experience. When you’re on the desktop, with all the work emails, that interface puts you into a rational thinking style. While you’re in a rational thinking style, when you assess a product, you’ll look for something with functionality and specific uses."

The purchasing options are the same in both cases.  So, if people's preferences are fixed, then the medium of shopping should not influence purchase decisions.  Since purchase decisions did vary with the medium employed, it suggests that people's preferences were influenced by them.

This is a point explored in detail by Tom Vanderbilt in "You may also like." It is well worth remembering as we contemplate the role of technology in shaping our lives.

shopping on smartphone.

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