Architecture and Hardware

Apparently, Size Does Matter

Comparing online buying decisions on full-sized computers and smartphones.
Consumers make better buying decisions on the Internet when using full-sized computers, rather smaller-screened smartphones.

Researchers have found that consumers are able to make better buying decisions when they are using full-sized computers, rather than smartphones, to make purchases over the Internet.

The reason is a simple one: retailers are often forced to reduce the amount of information they provide about a product or service on a small screen, according to the researchers.

"Sites adjusted for mobile viewing reduce the information offered on the results page and require more digging around in the site for information," says Lior Fink, a member of the research team and head of the Mobile Behavior Lab at Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Conversely, sites adjusted for viewing on the screen of a full-sized desktop computer provide more information right up front. "While mobile-friendly presentation improves visibility, it reduces the amount of information, and causes consumers to make decisions that are less consistent with their preferences," Fink says.

The research undermines the notion that retailers should adhere to a 'mobile first' strategy and prioritize their marketing efforts to sell on the smaller screens of smartphones, rather than on bigger laptop or desktop computer screens.

Driving that strategy is the runaway popularity of smartphones. These days, 96% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report. At the same time, approximately 20% of Americans use smartphones as their primary means of online access at home, according to the same study.

To test the efficacy of Internet shopping preferences, the researchers offered their test subjects two Web experiences for shopping for a hotel room. One website was optimized for a large PC screen, and a second site was optimized for smartphone usage.

However, as many of us have already experienced on the Internet, shopping via smartphone requires giving up access to full details about a purchase, given that the smaller screen cannot accommodate all the information available about a hotel room. Specifically, the researchers were only able to offer details about three essential features associated with picking out a hotel room on the smartphone's 'home page.'

Conversely, the PC version of the same buying experience on the Web was easily able to offer eight essential features of the hotel room on a single screen.

The results: shoppers in the test group were able to make much more informed choices about the kind of hotel room they were choosing when using full-sized PCs. In contrast, reservations made using smartphones resulted in rooms that were less to the test subjects' liking in terms of all the features they considered important, according to the researchers.

"While mobile-friendly presentation improves visibility, it reduces the amount of information and causes consumers to make decisions that are less consistent with their preferences," Fink says.

Those findings ring true in terms of what retail consumers are experiencing online in general when using full-sized computers or smartphones, according to Donna Hoffman, co-director of the Center for the Connected Consumer at George Washington University. "I think one thing this research shows is the potential pitfalls of mobile first strategies," Hoffman says. "In most cases, retailers have not been very innovative with their mobile-first strategies. They take a look at the small screen size and decide to design for the small screen, and because the screen is small, they end up leaving out a lot of information and relegating it to other places."

As a result, Hoffman says, "It becomes very difficult for consumers to find and consume the information they need to make an informed decision, since that additional information has typically not been optimized for the small screen and tends to be treated like an afterthought. This has the unsurprising consequence that what is presented on the mobile screen isn't really enough to make smart decisions, especially compared to how well many traditional Web sites are designed and optimized for an overall online customer experience."

Hoffman adds, "Hopefully, retailers will start to pay attention" to those underwhelming results.

Yet other experts in online retail, like Annmarie Hanlon, a visiting fellow specializing in digital marketing at the Cranfield School of Management of the U.K.'s Cranfield University, say many consumers have already found a work-around to deal with the reality that mobile-first retailing provides too little information about products and services. "It may be that the initial browsing on mobile is the first step," Hanlon says. "The last may be a purchase made on a PC or other device."

Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University, agrees. "As products take on higher levels of perceived risk, prospective consumers can be expected to engage in more information search activities, resulting in better buying decisions, regardless of the device that is used. Mobile is often simply the first contact, which leads the prospective consumer to access other devices, computers and tablets, in order to obtain more information related to their potential purchase."

Adds Hanlon: "If it's a high-ticket item, a mobile may not be suitable, but if it's a functional product that's needed, such as tickets or foodstuffs, a mobile may be enough."

The study suggests  retailers who find a way to go beyond the conventional approach to selling on the smartphone could best their competition. Moreover, all retailers are going to be forced to come up with some kind of solution to the small-screen problem, given that much of the U.S., and a growing proportion of the rest of the world, owns smartphones, and many people feel naked venturing out into the world (and sometimes even into the next room) without a handset in hand.

Indeed, a study by found that 66% of Americans check their phones 160 times a day; the same percentage reportedly sleep near their smartphones. Perhaps even more head-turning: 45% of those surveyed said they'd rather give up sex for a year rather than give up their smartphones for a year.

"Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, and the move toward smaller screens more generally, tablets and smaller, lighter laptops, retailers need to rise to the challenge and design for mobile," Hoffman says. "The solution is to consider what consumer experience means on a mobile device and design accordingly. I think the mobile-first mantra makes sense, but it hasn't been understood by many retailers what that really means. It doesn't mean that to save space, don't show all the info you need to show. It means figure out how to exploit the unique features and options of mobile to show the same information to consumers that they previously had available on the desktops, but in a way that takes advantage of mobile."

Adds Mike Johansson, a principal lecturer in the School of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology, "Basically, you're unlikely to change people's habits" when using a smartphone, but you could certainly help them make smarter, or at least more confident, decisions.

The trick, of course, is to find some way to provide all that extra information on the small screen without overwhelming the smartphone shopper.

"My own hunch is stuffing so much information onto a small smartphone screen will make a shopping experience much more difficult and uncomfortable," says Michael Platt, director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan, NY, USA.

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