It’s Going to Get Messy: Looking Inside Your Customer’s Mind

What happens between deciding to buy something and actually buying it is much more complex than previously thought. Welcome to the Messy Middle.

Why do you decide that you want to buy something? What drives you to go to a particular shop, and why do you decide to choose this product over that one? The fascinating science of shopping – in particular, the psychology of it – goes back much further than the dawn of eCommerce.

In the olden days of bricks and mortar retail, an enormous amount of research went in to determining what it was that made us want to walk through the doors of a physical shop.

It was discovered that, once inside that shop, the type of music being played affects our purchasing habits, such as the speed with which we shop, how much we spend, and how long we’re willing to wait around to pay. The same is true of the scents that waft through the air. We know which colour of packaging is more attractive and which adverts, brand names and logos trigger our urge to splurge.

With online retail, of course, these physical spaces and triggers don’t exist. Instead, eCommerce customers are flooded with information about brands and products, and the choice is enormous.

Through digital wizardry, we can track and analyse every move the customer makes while shopping online – how they engage with marketing efforts, how they interact with a brand, what they say about it, and how and when they make the purchase. Why they do all those things, however, is less understood.

Enter the cognitive maze

Google researchers identified a phenomenon that they termed the “Messy Middle”. It’s the point at which online consumers have to wade through a deluge of links, aggregators, ads, comparison sites, reviews, forums and interest groups, and make sense of all the information. They go through a complicated mental process of sorting it all out into what matters to them and what doesn’t.

It’s somewhere in this Messy Middle that customers decide to purchase – or not – and, as the eCommerce space becomes ever more crowded, this middle inevitably becomes even messier. So clearly, this is something that brands need to get to grips with. And they can do so with the help of behavioural science.

Scientists from The Behavioural Architects joined efforts with the Google consumer insights team to study what drives purchasing decisions. They analysed search trends, and carried out observational studies. They also conducted a large-scale, in-depth experiment with actual online shoppers, in which they simulated more than 300,000 scenarios across a range of categories, including retail, travel and utilities.

Their key discovery was that the decision-making process is anything but linear. In fact, during this process, they are going round in circles.

The researchers concluded that when shopping online and sorting through all the information thrown at them, they are either exploring or evaluating. When they are in the exploration stage, they are discovering a brand, product category or item, looking for any relevant information. Then in the evaluation stage, they assess all this information and look at the options. They go back and forth between these two mental modes until they’ve made their decision on whether and what to buy.

During this process, consumers use mental shortcuts, or cognitive biases, to help them decide whether or not to buy something. There are hundreds of these cognitive biases, but in their experiment, Google and the behavioural scientists focused on six.

Six of the best: the cognitive biases

1. Category heuristics

A heuristic is a technique we use to approach a mental problem. It might not necessarily be ideal, but it serves our purpose. In other words, it’s a shortcut that helps us to simplify our decision making. Applying a ‘rule of thumb, for example. When shopping online, we search for brief descriptions of key product characteristics rather than comprehensive specifications, to reduce the time and effort spent.

2. The power of now

Nobody likes to be kept waiting and patience is in particularly short supply when we’re in shopping mode. That’s why perks such as instant downloads and express delivery are so popular with online consumers.

3. Social proof

When we’re not sure about something, we don’t trust our own judgement. If lots of other people seem to think a product or a brand is great, that influences our perception – even if we’re not consciously aware of it. Genuine customer reviews and recommendations are easy to find online, and we’re much more likely to buy something if it’s been given the thumbs-up.

4. Authority bias

We are easily influenced by people we perceive to be authorities on a subject. Their opinion matters. We take the expert’s view and use it as a shortcut when forming our own.

5. Scarcity bias

We tend to want what we can’t have. If we believe something to be hard to find or only available for a short time, we desire it more.

6. Power of free

We find it impossible to resist something that costs nothing, even if it makes no sense. If something that’s normally £20 is on offer for free, for example, we’ll grab that instead of something that’s normally £30 offered for £5, ignoring the fact that the second offer is a bigger saving.


In the experiment carried out by Google and The Behavioural Architects, the subjects of the study were invited to choose their favourite and second-favourite brand. Then the researchers applied at least one of the above biases (time-limited offers or rave reviews, for example) and asked the shopper whether they still felt the same about their top two brands. They discovered that the more biases the researchers applied, the more likely the customer was to change their mind.

How to embrace the mess

I might sound complicated and, well… messy. But the identification of the ‘messy middle’ is a gift to marketers. By understanding the psychology and applying science in a responsible, unintrusive way, brands can gain customers. If you work with the consumer as they navigate the messy middle, you are offering them a helping hand.

In practice, this means making sure you show up at every point of this complex, non-linear customer journey. It means developing your brand presence. And it means always being aware that delay can cost you a customer.

The less time a shopper spends in the space between the trigger and the purchase, the less likely they are to be lured away.

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