Carroll School of Management professors James Gips and Stevan Adam Brasel have found that the use of touchscreen interfaces makes consumers subconsciously feel as if they own products, thereby making them more likely to purchase items. Gips, Egan Professor of Information Systems, and Brasel, associate professor of marketing, successfully submitted “Tablets, Touchscreens, and Touchpads: How Varying Touch Interfaces Trigger Psychological Ownership and Endowment” into the Journal of Consumer Psychology and will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal focusing on sensory marketing.
The two began thinking about the role touchscreen interfaces play in consumer behavior in late 2011, when online shopping became particularly popular on tablets and smartphones. Gips and Brasel theorized that the act of using touchscreen tablets or phones was an altogether different shopping experience than clicking through a mouse.
“There’s been research that shows that simply touching an object or even imagining touching an object makes you feel like you own it,” Brasel said. “The act of touching a picture of a product on a screen is a direct visual metaphor for touching a product.”
Eventually, Gips and Brasel tied this instinctive feeling to a sensation known as the endowment effect.
“The endowment effect is an older psychological phenomenon that has been studied since the 1980s, where we overvalue things we think we own,” Brasel continued. “Maybe the act of touching the actual pictures of products might trigger the endowment effect. But nobody had explicitly tested it.”
Using this as their basis, the two performed the majority of their research during the spring and summer of 2012 on the campus of Boston College, mainly using the undergraduate population as experimental subjects.
“We have a lab on the first floor of Fulton that has all of our tech. We recruited BC students through lots of different methods-we used student mailing lists, we used marketing classes, we went into Corcoran Commons and put posters up. We paid all of our subjects,” Brasel said.
With adequate student participation fueling the research, Gips and Brasel performed three different studies, two of which will appear in the upcoming journal article. Specific factors they studied include differentiations in using tablets versus laptops, effects of using lab-provided devices versus participants’ own, and whether results were amplified for products with touch components.
“Overall, the effect is way stronger on a tablet than a laptop or anything else,” Brasel said, pointing to an enhanced degree of interaction garnered through tablets due to large, vivid pictures and direct touch capabilities.
He also indicated that there was a statistically significant increase in participants’ valuations of items they viewed through their own devices.
“For some of the studies we had half of the subjects with their own iPads and half of the subjects with our lab iPads,” he said. “The effect was even stronger when they owned the interface.”
Seemingly, the original intuition that touchscreen interfaces could link to the endowment effect played out even stronger than expected in the lab.
“The results were consistent with what we thought was going to happen,” Brasel said. “We were slightly surprised with the size of the effects. The size of the effects were pretty much almost the same with what you would see with real products.”
He indicated that the results when using tablets were so profound that they almost mirrored effects in previous studies of the endowment effect that used physical commodities.
In an era of growing e-commerce on mobile devices, marketing developments appear to be consistent with the study’s findings. Brasel points to restaurants that use tablets as menus, car dealerships that now leave tablets by display cars instead of information packets, and stores that are looking to bolster their online marketplaces on tablet devices.
“I think the tablet version of that store should probably work differently than the traditional desktop version of that store,” he said.
“Anything that reinforces that metaphor of touching the product itself is probably going to also generate increased levels of ownership.”
As the industry continues to adapt, Brasel is quick to point out that his and Gips’ research will not be the last study on the subject of touchscreen technology and consumer behavior.
“As marketers, we focus so much on the content, but we really need to pay attention to the interfaces as well,” he said. “We’re working on a lot of different stuff. We do have some follow-up pieces on the role of touch in online consumer behavior.”