Be Careful, Shopping On Your Smartphone Influences What You Buy

You spend more frivolously on your phone, according to surprising new research.

Be Careful, Shopping On Your Smartphone Influences What You Buy
[Source Photos: KTSFotos/Getty Images, Philip Sowels/Future Publishing via Getty Images]

Dr. Ying Zhu gives her bootstrapping grad students a piece of advice: “Don’t look at chocolate ice cream on your phone.” The advice does sound a bit strange. But as an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia with a specialty in consumer behavior, she’s found that people shop differently on touchscreen devices than they do on their desktop PCs. And yes, that even applies to ice cream.


On phones, we’re more likely to spend our money on indulgent, hedonistic things, like movie tickets and dining out. And on PCs, we prioritize more practical, utilitarian things, like furniture and haircuts. At least, that’s the case in two recent studies that Zhu has led, in which students were offered the same products via the same interface on an iPod touch and a PC. In both instances, students opted to buy more hedonistic things on the iPod and more utilitarian items on the PC. And it all occurred with enough statistical certainty that Zhu believes the phenomenon scales to everything you and I buy online. 

We appear to spend money more frivolously on smartphones and tablets than traditional computers. And it’s because these devices influence the way we think, says Zhu.

[Source Photo: unpict/iStock]
“The touchscreen has an easy-to-use interface that puts you into an experiential thinking style. When you’re in an experiential thinking mode, [you crave] excitement, a different experience,” says Zhu. “When you’re on the desktop, with all the work emails, that interface puts you into a rational thinking style. While you’re in a rational thinking style, when you assess a product, you’ll look for something with functionality and specific uses.”

Of course, that’s still not a complete answer to the “why” question. Yes, we’re in a different frame of mind using an iPhone at a coffee shop than we are using a tower PC chained to a desk–but why? Is it biologically induced by the touchscreen itself, with its tactile UI that encourages us to touch and explore? Is it the result of day-to-day conditioning–are we just more used to playing Candy Crush on our phones and working on spreadsheets on our computers?

Or, and this is where the rabbit hole goes really deep, is one of the reasons we play so many games on our phones because of the inherent indulgent fun of a touchscreen interface? And do we hear designers go on and on about designing “surprise and delight” into the UX of phones specifically because touchscreens are already such delightful places to be, so bouncing apps and zany sounds just feel right? Which is the cause, and which is the effect?

Zhu acknowledges that these questions are complicated and layered, and her lab is currently doing more research to answer them. Ironically, however, the science may be lagging behind the free market. “Big companies like Amazon are probably already looking at which channels are more effective for each product. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to that data,” Zhu laughs. “I’d love to!” 


In the meantime, if you’re on a budget, you probably shouldn’t peruse indulgent products like designer shoes on your iPad. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop all shopping on your tablet. Because other science shows that while spending money on products isn’t likely to make you happy, spending money on experiences is. So maybe all of those hedonistic trips and concert tickets are worth the splurge after all. And that practical kitchen table? Who needs one when you’re not at home anyway?

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.