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The Gas Pump Theory of User Interaction

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 28, 2010

You can learn a lot from simple things in life.  Simple behaviors that run below the level of consciousness make decisions for us all the time.

Take the humble gas pump as an example.  Pretty simple to operate.  Yet I noticed some time ago that gas station operators were changing the order in which they presented the various grades.  They all started with Regular, Unleaded, and then Premium–basically in the order of price or quality.  Then they switched in increasing numbers to just the reverse–Premium suddenly started appearing on the left at many stations.

Why would they do that?  Because in a land whose language is read left to right, those unconscious decision makers will just press the first button and thereby purchase the most expensive and highest margin grade of fuel available.  Not everyone will do that, but enough people do that it is worthwhile for the pumps to change.

We took advantage of this phenomenon at Helpstream when we were presenting people with choices for their Customer Service.  From an economic and benefit to customers standpoint, the most advantageous ranking of customer service avenues goes like this:

  • The customer searches and finds their question was already answered.  Total self-service, quick answer to the customer, almost no cost to the organization.
  • The customer asks the Social Community their question, and it is answered in the Community.  Not quite as good, but at least the answers wind up in the Community where the next time someone can find them.
  • The customer submits a trouble ticket.  The worst.  A service agent will help this customer, but the answer is buried in the ticketing system, so the next customer with the same problem starts all over again.

So, we simply made sure that in our user interface, customers always saw their choices in that order.  We would even turn off the ability to submit a trouble ticket for a period of time or for particular customers, such as those who had not purchased platinum support.  The system worked great and we routinely had our customers report that they needed tremendously fewer agents per customer, and that customer satisfaction had increased.

The principle of Gas Pump UI Design works in a lot of other places too.  My wife is left-handed.  When we are in a crowd, at a concert or theater, I always follow her and ask her to choose the path we take just randomly without thinking about it too much.  Of course her path isn’t really random, it’s just under control of those unconscious decision makers.  As a leftie, which is the minority of the population, she makes choices most of the population doesn’t.  And we wind up in the shorter lines or getting to our seats faster than if I had let my right-handed decision makers try to go where the majority of people were already going.

This process works great for web site design too.  If you are a marketer or product designer, you need to be aware of it and taking advantage of it.  I was reminded of the principle while reading a Clicktales blog post.   I love the Clicktales product because it is a window into those unconscious decision makers.  In that article, they discovered that changing one word doubled the conversion rate for a registration form.  The problem was they were not being obvious enough and the unconscious decision maker was stalled, having to call for conscious help.  The first version of the form had asterisks (“*”) by required fields and no asterisk by the phone number.  While it is a convention, it’s too hard for the unconscious to decipher.  People would get through filling out every other field and then abandon becaues their unconscious decision autopilot couldn’t figure it out.  Simply adding the word “optional” to that field to make it more obvious doubled their response rate.

I’ll leave you with this simple thought to mull over for the Memorial Day Weekend:

What can you do to empower the unconscious decision maker autopilot to help your customers and your business?

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