Innovating for Mind, Body and Soul

Innovating for Mind, Body and Soul

We all know that we need to capture both the hearts and minds of the consumer if we want an innovation to be successful.  That logic alone does not always sell is clear from the science of psychology, which tells us that emotions play a crucial role in most, if not all consumer decisions.  And for many of us, myself included, this science is also reinforced by sometimes painful real world experiences of great ideas that didn’t take off.   No matter how great an idea is, in most cases it still needs people to both understand and desire it if it is to succeed. And this is especially the case when it comes to innovative, new to the world, and/or premium products and services.  For example, it’s rarely logic alone that sells a luxury sports car, pair of designer shoes, or the latest cell phone, drone, or gadget – even if we often dress up purchases of these kinds of items with logical sounding post rationalizations after the fact.  But even if we successfully appeal to both the hearts and minds of consumers, even that may still not be enough.  So in this post I want to discuss a third key element of consumer motivation and choice.  The science of embodied cognition and affordances shows us that the body is also important in a great many human decisions.  Hence,  the ease and intuitiveness of physical interactions between consumers and products and services has a surprisingly big impact on their success.  And as the population ages, the importance of these ‘embodied’ physical  effects’ is increasing.  So let’s look at mind, ‘soul’, and body, and their role in shopper decisions in a bit more detail.

The Mind:  Innovations must make intuitive sense, both in terms of what they do and why they are useful.  We are cognitive misers, and generally don’t like to think too much.  Make someone think too hard about an innovation, and it’s a very hard sell.  If we want an innovation to sell, we need to make it mentally fluent, obvious, or even better, surprisingly familiar, wow, or a ‘why didn’t I think of that’ innovation.

The Soul:  Most innovation also needs emotional appeal.  Psychology and behavioral economics tell us that very few shopper decisions are purely analytical.  Instead, many are driven, in whole or part, by mental heuristics that we are often blissfully unaware of, and that operate largely below awareness. When these do surface, it tends to be as what ‘feels’ right.  These feelings can have an enormous impact on what we buy. This can play out for luxury items like designer shoes or sports cars, or in smaller purchases, such as buying a branded OTC medicine at a significant price premium to an identical generic or store brand.  There are a great many heuristics that drive these types of decisions, including social signaling, following the crowd, mental and physical availability, visual attention triggers and framing effects.  These have been discussed in detail by myself and many, many others elsewhere. But the net conclusion is that if we want people to want our innovations, logic alone is usually not enough.  Instead we also need to appeal to people’s hearts and souls as well as their rational minds, especially if we are asking them to take a risk, or expend cognitive energy on a new, innovative product or service.

Please Don’t Forget the Body:  But there is a third element of human decision making that it is all too easy to forget. Many simple decisions are made with very little thought or emotional engagement.  Instead they are driven by what we call embodied cognition.  For example, we automatically pull a handle, turn a dial, jump out of the way of a fast moving object, or avoid stepping in a hole. These actions, while not completely independent of the brain, require little thought, only very basic approach/avoid emotional engagement, and are fundamentally driven by the physical world around us.  For our purposes, both approach and avoid matter, but the avoid response is probably a bit more important. If a product looks too heavy or awkward to use, unbalanced, or simply to big to store close to where we want to use it, it may get deselected (often unconsciously), and never even get considered by a busy, time constrained consumer.  And these physical manifestations of the world not only drive fast, instinctive action, they also provide context that influence what appear to be more thoughtful, relative decisions.  For example, I’ve run multiple experiments where shoppers faced with two otherwise identical products choose the one that is easiest to pick up.  However, they will rarely if ever articulate this as a reason for that choice, because the embodied context usually acts unconsciously.

Of course, many elements of embodied cognition are already built into the design of products and services. Products and packages have handles, stable bases, ergonomic design is common in many industries, and Don Norman’s excellent “The Design of Everyday Things” is pervasive within the design community.

Designing for Embodied Cognition:  However, despite this, as I do behavioral audits across a wide range of industries, it is still all too common for embodied cognition to be largely ignored.  I find push doors with pull handles, products crammed together on shelves so closely that it is almost impossible to grab them, or handles that are beautifully balanced for using a product, but that sprain your wrist as you manhandle them from shelf to shopping cart!  And this is a growing problem as the population ages, and the physical limitations of shoppers increase.  A childproof package needs to be child proof without being rheumatism proof as well.  The ‘sssshh’ sound of a bottle or food container is a great perceptual signal for freshness, but not if the lid is so tight or stiff that anyone over 50 cannot open it (I’m 57, so already encounter the odd example).

Perceptual Science:  As an aside, this applies to perceptual design as well.  Many people in middle age or later cannot read font size 6 or less.  This may sound obvious, but try reading the back of virtually any DVD, a lot of menus, or even the hazard warnings on back of an Rx label, which are often well below font size 6.  If it’s not readable, many people will ignore it – and that is especially concerning when dealing with Rx warnings, where mistakes can potentially be fatal.

Retail Affordances:  However, perhaps the place where I see the most affordance based design challenges is in the retail space.  This can be in a fashion store where in an effort to maximize display space, some items are placed out of reach of shoppers, or where one item has to be moved off of a rack to access another one.  Even more common are packages and products that are well designed for product use, but not for shopping.  What makes something easy to use doesn’t always make it easy to take off of the shelf. For example, in a tightly packed supermarket, a handle that presses against another package can be very difficult to grab. Or secondary packaging or bundles that cover a handle, or the slim part of a wasted bottle can make products difficult to grip.


Remember that a significant amount of a shopper’s decision goes on below awareness, and poor retail affordances can act as enough of a barrier that drive potential buyers to other alternatives, or simply to not consider a product at all. I therefore offer four suggestions to add body back into innovations:


  1. As an innovator, do what you can to own embodied cognition.Introduce it early into the innovation process, and use your influence to keep it as a key measure from the front to back end of the innovation process. Most innovation and design processes do include some iterations for usability, but many ignore shoppability altogether, or leave it until the last minute when too many design features are already locked. If you are using a design thinking or similar innovation framework, build usability and shoppability into prototypes as early as you can.


  1. Test products, packages and labels under real usage AND retail conditions. As I mentioned earlier, even in realistic retail experiments I’ve run where people very strongly favor ‘embodied cognition’ friendly designs, these panelists don’t attribute that preference to ease of physical shopping.Affordances are very often an unconscious mechanism, and nobody in a focus group or online survey is going to give us feedback on an unconscious behavioral heuristic.  They cannot tell us what they don’t know themselves! Either evaluate in as realistic a retail context as you can, or risk finding an ‘embodied issue’ in the market!


  1. Resist the temptation of form over function.Smooth, sleek, aerodynamic shapes often look cool, modern and premium, and frequently test well in focus groups or web based research that is disconnected from real human experience.  But don’t sacrifice usability for aesthetics, or do so only after considerable thought, and (see above), contextual research.


  1. Usability and shoppability change as we age. We lose strength, dexterity, and sensory acuity. If you are a young innovator, try using your product or service wearing a pair of gloves and a friend’s prescription glasses.  It will give you some insight into the challenges faced by an older demographic. I’m only 57, but was recently asked to try an app based service that required me to wear two pairs of reading glasses, and stand under a security light in order to program in my order. I was being paid to evaluate it, and so persevered, but otherwise would likely have given up!

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

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