Design psychology for eCommerce


29th January 2020


6 min


Emily Hewitson

User Experience Researcher and hedgehog lab’s resident psychology expert‚ Emily Hewitson‚ has already shared a number of posts on the psychology of design and its use in user research. Here‚ Emily delves deeper into a specific sector‚ expanding on some of the most common psychological practices employed by those in eCommerce 

For years now‚ traditional retailers have been influencing customer buying habits through tactics that have gone as granular as the provision of ambient music[1] and smells[2].

However‚ the world has gone digital‚ and the subsequent rise of e-commerce has altered the challenge for retailers. No longer is the pungent whiff of Hollister sprays enough to get a customer to the tills. Shoppers still want the reassurance of look‚ quality and functionality of a product prior to purchase‚ but how can this be achieved if a customer isn’t buying an item physically?

Well‚ now more than ever‚ retailers are turning to psychology practices to win over their customers and ultimately get them through checkout. Here‚ I’ll explain some of the psychological phenomena and how they can be used to your benefit.

Social proof

People often look to others when they are trying to take a decision. Of course‚ analysing the evidence offered by others with relevant experience can help someone to make a more informed decision.

However‚ what you may be overlooking is the desire of people to be socially accepted. Where favoured others are buying a product or using a service‚ a person is more likely to do the same. Below are three tactics that leverage this compliant behaviour‚ often seen employed in eCommerce.

  • Celebrity endorsements:

The number of celebrities supporting products and services has increased exponentially‚ down in no small part to the rise‚ reach and accessibility of social media. Companies will pay agencies/celebrities for access to their social audiences‚ with stars then posting their endorsement and recommendation.

 As celebs are often viewed mostly in a positive light‚ the halo effect will also act as an additional output of celebrity endorsements‚ with the product or services viewed positively by association.

  • Customer case studies:

Providing prospective customers with an in-depth story of how a current user interacts with products helps to provide further social reassurance concerning quality and reliability. Moreover‚ this can act as a handy advertising technique‚ providing potential buyers with the opportunity to see how a product or service is used in practice.

  • Integration with trusted platforms:

Another that leads to the surfacing of the halo effect is integration with larger trusted companies. When smaller eCommerce companies make such partnerships (for example‚ a retailer might partner with PayPal to guarantee secure payments)‚ the user becomes more assured of both legitimacy and subsequently quality.


Humans rely heavily on cues to make decisions‚ especially in situations where there is uncertainty concerning the true value of products or services. eCommerce websites can easily take advantage of this via the way information is presented to users. Below are some of the most common anchoring practices adopted in eCommerce.

  • Highest price first:

When listing various subscription prices‚ it is best practice to present the highest priced package first‚ creating the perception that the following price plans are a bargain.

  • Quantity limit:

By creating scarcity‚ retailers also create fear of missing out amongst customers. This not only develops more urgency amongst prospective buyers but can also increase the number of orders. One study[3] found that where on average shoppers of a particular retailer would previously purchase 3.3 cans of soup‚ the figure rose to 7 after introducing a limit of 12 cans per order.

Loss aversion

While people fear loss‚ they are often also motivated by this. The fear of losing something has been found to be more painful‚ than gaining something is joyous[4]. This spells good news for those in eCommerce‚ empowering retailers creating a powerful method of advertising to experiment with:

  • Free Trials:

Providing users with the ability to test and trial a product or service not only allows them to address any queries that they may still have prior to purchase for themselves but also enables the opportunity for users to become attached. Once a trial expires‚ a user is forced into a natural decision between purchasing/subscribing and giving it up‚ introducing a natural sense of loss. 

Trials themselves can also be A/B tested for optimisation. KISSmetrics found that reducing their free trial period from 30 days to 14 days didn’t change front-end signups‚ but did cause a 102% increase in the use of their service during the trial with the added sense of urgency encouraging testers to move quickly.

  • Late registration:

Allowing users to browse and interact with a service before asking them to register and/or login forces users to invest some of their time and energy. This increases the likelihood of them doing so at the later stage‚ reducing bounce rate and subsequently the chances of the customer finding the same products from a different eCommerce site.


Put simply‚ the more difficult it is to obtain or to achieve something‚ the more an individual will want to do so. Furthermore‚ the limited nature of a product leads to the attribution of positive connotations such as quality and exclusivity towards it (6).

  • Limited stock/time constraints: 

Almost all eCommerce websites will employ the notion of scarcity by showing the current availability of a product‚ the countdown until a sale or free shipping ends. By combining stock and time limitations‚ shoppers are influenced to order products faster to ensure they take advantage of a deal and/or don’t miss out on the product they’d like.

There you have it. If you’re ever left wondering why Royal Mail‚ DPD‚ ParcelForce‚ FedEx‚ Yodel and Hermes are collaborating to perform a daily symphony in which your doorbell is the only instrument‚ it’s likely down to the phenomena provoked by psychological brilliance like the above.


[1] Spangenberg‚ E. R.‚ Grohmann‚ B.‚ & Sprott‚ D. E. (2005). It’s beginning to smell (and sound) a lot like Christmas: the interactive effects of ambient scent and music in a retail setting. Journal of business research‚ 58(11)‚ 1583-1589.

[2] North‚ A. C.‚ Shilcock‚ A.‚ & Hargreaves‚ D. J. (2003). The effect of musical style on restaurant customers’ spending. Environment and behavior‚ 35(5)‚ 712-718.

[3] Wansink‚ B.‚ Kent‚ R. J.‚ & Hoch‚ S. J. (1998). An anchoring and adjustment model of purchase quantity decisions. Journal of Marketing Research‚ 35(1)‚ 71-81.

[4] Tversky‚ A.‚ & Kahneman‚ D. (1992). Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty. Journal of Risk and uncertainty‚ 5(4)‚ 297-323.