Want to show customers you care? Look to "the researcher"

The key to engagement is a website that's trustworthy, clear, and supports the customer's goals.

In my previous article I talked about simplifying engagement through the concept of “Essential Engagement”. Essential Engagement utilizes UX (User Experience) thinking in order to find the meaningful points of communication between businesses and customers. My goal is to show new businesses and UX novices how they can show their respect for customers through their website. Respecting customer’s time and effort is critical for any business looking to form a solid customer-base or reach any level of true success.

In this article I want to look at Essential Engagement from the customer’s perspective. Understanding the customer’s motivations, psychology, and pain-points in order to create true Essential Engagement. Focusing on how customers want to engage with businesses, rather than forcing customers to engage with us. No more Aimless Engagement! And no more guesswork!

This article summarizes many ideas from the article “Designing for 5 Types of E-Commerce Shoppers” written by Amy Schade for the Nielsen Norman Group. The majority of the definitions and description of the “5 Types of E-Commerce shoppers” and “The Researcher” was created thanks to the NN/group.

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Who is “The Researcher”?

“The Researcher” was created by the Nielsen Norman Group, described in the article “Designing for 5 Types of E-Commerce Shoppers¹ written by Amy Schade. The “5 Types of Shoppers” describes the wide-range of E-Commerce customer personalities, detailing their motivations and pain-points. These 5 personas can help UX Designers create “well-rounded” websites that support a spectrum of customer motivations and needs.

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Why is the Researcher Key to Essential Engagement?

#1 — The researcher and essential engagement benchmarks are indistinguishable

#2 — Let’s keep it simple

For people new to Engagement and UX, I believe it’s better to start by Engaging with one customer base (eg: the Researcher) on a single platform (eg: your website). By starting simple, it’s easier to see when you’ve “hit the mark”. Rather than trying to aimlessly Engage with swaths of customers you don’t yet understand.

#3 — Researchers are sleuths

The Researcher’s perspective can help find major gaps in website Engagement. Researchers search for information on pages and web-elements that often get neglected. Their perspective can work to help businesses realize the full-potential of core web-elements like footers, menus, FAQ, reviews, etc. Making essential web-elements work for the customer, rather than implementing Engagement band-aids (eg: chat-bots, pop-ups, etc.). These Engagement band-aids provide minimal customer support, after the customer has felt frustrated by poor site design.

#4 — The Researcher’s motivations prevent hollow engagement

I believe the Researcher’s motivations prevent us from implementing engagement methods that are hollow and aimless. Because really;

How can we create customer loyalty without Trust?
How can we engage with customers without Clarity?
How can we deliver solid user experience without supporting customer goals?

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3D animated character "Hiro" from the Disney movie "Big Hero 6". A half-japanese half-caucasian teenage boy, in his workshop, excitedly  studying something on his laptop.
Our “Researcher” customers are hard working, how can we help them?

What are the Researcher’s Motivations?

Goal Driven

Unlike customers who enjoy browsing through sites and products, the process of shopping isn’t what brings the Researcher joy (positive reinforcement). What brings the Researcher joy is choosing and receiving a product that best fits their wants and needs, as painlessly as possible.

I’m searching for the perfect commuter car for me and my family, it needs to match my budget and keep my family as safe as possible.

Trust in Businesses & their Products

When Researchers trawl through websites to gather information, they’re also searching for signs that a business is trustworthy. These customers want evidence that a business respects their time and effort.

Researchers have a specific purpose for their ideal product, they’re searching for something that can help them meet a goal, need, hope, etc. Some customers may “shoot for the moon” but all customers are putting trust in the website to give them an accurate description of their products, as well as the business’ services (price, product details, shipping, returns, etc).

I’m really tall, so it’s hard to buy jeans that fit. It means a lot when a site provides detailed product measurements and is transparent about their return policy.

Values Clarity

Researchers value intuitive web experiences (websites that are uncluttered, consistent, and familiar), because the process of shopping isn’t what the Researcher enjoys. Researchers enjoy the outcome of shopping; having their ideal product in their hands. Businesses can make the customer’s process of finding their ideal product faster and easier by clearly displaying information and having seamless site navigation (menus). “If your site offers limited or unclear product information, [Researchers] won’t spend their time researching, let alone buying, on a suboptimal site” ¹

After searching through 4 pages I couldn’t find any information on their return policy. I gave up, and decided to look at a better business.

Personality: Planners

Researchers often visit multiple websites in order to gather information and compare their options. The process differs for each customer; some may quickly compare products from one website before purchasing (Do I like the red or the green shirt?). Other customers may collect detailed information over multiple research sessions, in order to better understand the array of available products and businesses within a specific market.

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been researching all the possible features a commuter car can have. Specifically, I’m comparing all these cars based on their safety rating and gas mileage.

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Why are some People “Researchers”?

People in Flux: Making Changes & Covid19

“During Covid 76% of consumers have changed stores, brands, or the way they shop.” ²

Whether we like it or not, Covid has turned everyone into a Researcher:

  • Researching Covid-fighting products and practices (masks, sanitizers, hand washing, distancing, etc)
  • Customers are searching to find products and services online that they would normally buy in-store (groceries, buying specific holiday gifts, etc.)
  • Navigating the additional complexities of shopping online (shipping costs, border taxes, shipping times, errors, etc.).

People are looking to fulfill their needs in the most effective and safe ways possible, and that involves sustained effort and research. By understanding and designing for the Researcher’s perspective, businesses can work towards supporting stressed customers. And when customers are less stressed, so is your customer-support team.

People who are “Othered” by the Commerce Landscape

Some people are faced with a commerce landscape that inadequately fulfills their needs, forcing them to be diligent researchers.

People who are fat.

People of colour.

People with disabilities.

People with chronic illnesses.

Some people have few options, while others can barely find products that meet their basic needs. Either-way, shopping can force people to be aware of how society perceives them as “other”.

Websites that accommodate Researchers motivations (planning, trust, clarity) can help to offset the extra effort (emotional, time, money) that many people are forced to take-on.

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What are the Researcher’s Pain-Points?

The Researcher has explicit (clear) and implicit (indirect) pain-points. Explicit pain-points prevent the Researcher from achieving what motivates them:

  • Experiences that distract customers from their goal or impede their ability to plan.
    Eg: pop-ups, poor website navigation, ineffective menus.
  • Content and navigation that is vague or confusing to the user.
    Eg: Confusing information on shipping prices and process.
  • Interactions that create mistrust in the customer.
    Eg: Websites that lack shipping information, appropriate size descriptions, etc.

Then there are the two implicit pain-points of the Researcher. Combating these implicit pain-points helps us to create websites that understand customers better than they might understand themselves. Let’s talk about the implicit pain-points: Cognitive Overload and Choice Overload.

A tall, thin, green monster with four arms and googly eyes from the movie "Monster's University". The monster is walking across the campus, towards their exam. Looking very stressed, they're holding two coffee cups, and pouring a third cup of coffee from a pot in their last hand.
It’s hard to know how much brain-power a monster has but I’m willing to bet it wished it had more!

Cognitive Overload

There are limits to how much information a person can process; “when the amount of information coming in exceeds our ability to handle it… performance suffers.” ³ We’ve all felt the effects of Cognitive Overload;

  • You’re trying to keep up with a conversation, and you forget what you were just about to say.
  • Someone asks you a question, and you have to ask them to repeat it… Three times.
  • You’ve had a terrible day, and someone’s awful driving is making you feel way more angry than it would on an average day.
When we’re cognitively overloaded, we get overwhelmed, and we make mistakes.
A diagram with 5 points all in a circle. Titled "Cognitive overload is a positive feedback loop: The customers perspective". Between each point is a + sign, indicating growing frustration. 1: Customer is cognitively overloaded. 2: Takes the customer more time to comprehend incoming info. 3: Navigating the website takes more effort. 4: Greater chance the customer will make a mistake. 5: Growing frustration. Point 5 loops back to point 1.

When the cognitive load of a website is too much for a user to handle, it creates a positive feedback loop (seen above). If the customer continues in this loop, the effects of cognitive overload get worse, and the customer gets more frustrated. The effects of this feedback-loop are dependent on how well a customer can deal with frustration. Often, when customers reach peak frustration they “… get overwhelmed and abandon the task.” ³

So, what is the cognitive load of an E-Commerce website?

  1. The effort to absorb & search for new information.
    Learning about new products, searching for shipping info, etc.
  2. Tracking goals and constraints.
    How many of x product do I want to buy? In what colours? How much money can I spend today? Will it get here on time for Christmas?
  3. Comparing information between different products and/or sites.
    Comparing prices or shipping tax between website x and y, etc.
  4. The effort of navigating the website.
    Understanding a specific site’s menu UI in order to get to the sale section, etc.
  5. Navigating ineffective design-decisions and distractions.
    Having to search through long paragraphs for one small piece of info, dealing with pop-ups, ignoring distracting banner ads, etc.

This is where things get difficult for Researchers (and many other ecommerce customers). The Cognitive Load listed above is manageable for one website but Researchers are multitaskers. The more websites they visit, the more information they take on, and they quickly become cognitively overloaded.

“51% of consumers shop online while also performing tasks competing for their attention.”

We can use George A. Miller’s “Working Memory” heuristic to roughly estimate how much information a customer can hold in their mind before becoming overwhelmed. Generally, people can hold 7 pieces of information (+/- 2) . The cognitive load of an E-Commerce site (seen in the list above) is at least 5 pieces of information. Recognizing that Working Memory is a heuristic (meaning it’s a guideline, based on study, not the absolute truth for all situations and all customers), it’s likely the average ecommerce customer would become cognitively overloaded after researching two websites.

It may seem like a paradox; the more informed the Researcher, the more difficult it is for them to effectively achieve their goal. This helps to explain why clarity and trust is so important to Researchers. If website content is clear (menus, FAQ, product descriptions, etc.), the customer needs to spend less energy trawling through pages for specific information. A clear website allows customers to focus on making an informed decision, rather than unnecessarily overwhelming them.

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A long pink monster with three googly eyes on stalks and tentacles from the movie "Monster's University". The monster is walking across the campus, towards their exam. They're looking very distracted as it reads a different book with each of their three eyes.
I heard if you study from three different books at the same time you can unlock a new achievement. It’s called “a migraine”.

Choice Overload

It can feel like there’s an overwhelming amount of options online. When customers are no longer limited by what stores are found around their home, their choices increase logarithmically .

A graph showing "Hick's Law". On the y axis (up) is "Time needed to make a decision", on the x axis (right) is "Number of options". The graph shows that very quickly, the more options, the more time necessary to make a decision.
“As the number of choices increases, so does the effort required to collect information and make good decisions.”

Researchers can be enticed by the possibility of finding their “best possible product”; becoming cognitively overloaded by the amount of work necessary to sort through a multitude of stores and products. There’s no question, our Working Memory can only handle so much information. With this knowledge, when designing your website it’s best to assume eCommerce customers are feeling Cognitively Overloaded.

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Two related scenes showing the Genie from the movie Aladdin (1992), except the text has been changed from the orginal scene to suit this article. The first shows the Genie posed powerfully, outstretched arms, yelling into space "Phenomenal choice and options!". The next shot shows the Genie shrunken down into his tiny lamp, he looks cramped, he says "Itty-bitty working memory".
What it feels like to be a Researcher, shopping online.

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[1]: Amy Schade (March 2, 2014). Designing for 5 Types of E-Commerce Shoppers https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ecommerce-shoppers/

[2]: McKinsey & Company (December 8, 2020). Survey: US consumer sentiment during the coronavirus crisis https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/survey-us-consumer-sentiment-during-the-coronavirus-crisis#

[3]: Kathryn Whitenton (December 22, 2013). Minimize Cognitive Load to Maximize Usability https://www.nngroup.com/articles/minimize-cognitive-load/

[4]: Keri Bertolino (May 15, 2018). Namogoo Survey: Today’s Multi-Tasking Shoppers Require Distraction-Free Digital Experiences https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180515005438/en/Namogoo-Survey-Today%E2%80%99s-Multi-Tasking-Shoppers-Require-Distraction-Free-Digital-Experiences

[5]: Jon Yablonski (April 2020). Laws of UX: Chapter 4. Miller’s Law https://www.oreilly.com/library/view/laws-of-ux/9781492055303/ch04.html

[6]: Hoa Loranger (November 22, 2015). Simplicity Wins over Abundance of Choice https://www.nngroup.com/articles/simplicity-vs-choice/

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