UX, Psychology, Black Friday and You

One of the problems of working in the field of User Experience is that you start to see everything through that lens.   For example, Black Friday shopping. Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the season, as retailers and Wikipedia tell us.  But that’s not accidental.  A lot of people, in a lot of companies, spend a lot of time and effort to get you to come out, and spend a lot of money.  As mentioned in a Live Science article today, retailers pull out all the psychology and human nature tricks to make that happen.black_friday_the_day_americans_go_crazy_640_05

Retailers use psychology to get you to spend money.  UX designers use psychology to design engaging experiences.  Whatever your motivation, it helps to know some psychology.  Stephen Anderson’s Mental Notes cards are like psychology flash-cards.  They beautifully present 50 psychology concepts that you can use to help engage your users in the experience you are designing. Here are some examples.

(Implied) Scarcity

People are attracted and energized to go after things they believe are limited.  The sense of scarcity instills a sense of urgency in the person.  The whole concept of ‘Doorbuster’ deals — extra deep discounts that expire by 10am — are an example of scarcity.  Scarcity is a very powerful.  The Dollar Stretcher Community noticed that retailers create a sense of scarcity using splashy displays of HUGE SAVINGS, even though they have actually increased the price.

Sensory Appeal

People are wired to pay more attention to things that stimulate multiple senses — sight and sound.  If you’ve been watching commercials for the last week, you’ve got a sense for that.  Once you’re in the stores, they play music, and have attractive displays to get you to pay attention.  If you’ve ever been inside a casino, you will have experiences the same thing.  This probably goes back to when humans first lived on the savannah…you had to pay attention to the moving, loud thing because it might be something you could eat, or something that could eat you.


Delighters are unexpected surprises designed to give the person warm fuzzies about the experience.  One store we were at today advertised the end of the ‘Doorbuster’ specials at 1pm.  At 12:45, they came on the intercom and said, “Good news!  We’re extending our doorbuster sales for another hour!”  I’ve also heard of stores giving away special coupons or deals to people there before 5am.

On a side note, one might also argue that making the best deals very early in the morning encourages people to shop when they are tired, and probably hungry.  It is more difficult for people to think objectively and rationally when they are tired and hungry.

I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Stephen Anderson speak at this year’s Web App Masters tour.  His ideas for designing play into our experiences are really interesting.  If you can’t find him speaking at an event, I’d recommending you Get Mental Notes.

What can you do?

Make a List; Check it Twice

If you go into the store with a written shopping list…what you’re going to buy, who you’re going to by for…you’ve got a better chance of combating the impulse buys the retailers are counting on you for.  Remember, the good deals are really just a way to get you in the shop.  You’re tired, hungry, you’ve conquered and gotten the best deals, and the store has given you a couple Delighters to make you feel good — now you’re ripe to buy some of the full priced merchandise that you REALLY want.

Think about the 50,000 foot view

According to The Story of Stuff, most of the stuff we buy ends up in a landfill within 6 months of purchase.  Having stuff is fun, buying and giving gifts is nice, but rarely gives long term happiness or fullfillment.  Maybe we can do Christmas without tons of presents? Bill McKibbern wrote a book promoting The Hundred Dollar Holidays, deemphasizing presents and focusing on family, friends…slowing down.

Shop Locally

I don’t know that this really addresses the psychology of Black Friday; just my own personal opinion.  At the very least, small local merchants are less likely to be able to sell merchandise at very low margins to get you in the door, so they probably can’t play the same scarcity games as larger stores.  I know in my community, local banks are encouraging people to support local, homegrown businesses, touting local employment, quality products, and personal service.