How we choose

25th April 2022

3 minute read

I’ve written a book on Conversion Rate Optimisation for small businesses/D2C brands. It’ll be out next week. In the meantime, each week I’m going to pick a book I’m reading and draw out three interesting parts of it, and see how we can link that to websites (or just life). Here’s todays:

From Eric J Johnson’s wonderful book “The Elements of Choice”:

“What we say we prefer depends upon what we recall. Sometimes we think we know what we want, but often we are faced with a situation that is not exactly like anything we have dealt with before. In these cases, we consult our memory to see how we might feel about the options based on our most relevant experiences. I call these memories, and the feelings they conjure up, assembled preferences. You might think that choice is about knowing what is desirable and then locating it. In fact, the hard part is often deciding what we want. To do that, we review our experiences to retrieve relevant memories.”

This is important when considering how to design a website to sell D2C. Customers may be unaware of your product, in which case they will consult their memory to find one which is relevant to this situation, and use that to draw comparisons against your product. 

You should help guide them in this, and steer them towards which things in their memory they should be drawing comparisons from. For instance, we worked with a real estate company, and in rental it’s hard for people to draw on immediate experiences of another apartment to create a comparison and understand what constitutes value or not. What makes an apartment worth £2k a month rather than £2.2k? Or £1k? So rather than sell the apartment, we made a feature of the elements in the apartment – high end furniture and appliances – things which people *knew* were good or bad, based on their experience. In this way the conversion rates of the page we tested on increased by 50%.

More from Eric:

More from Eric J Johnson’s wonderful book “The Elements of Choice”:
“Our preferences are not always fixed and stable, but rather improvised, constructed haphazardly from a large set of relevant memories”.

How you design your website helps your customer make a choice about your product, by helping them access certain relevant memories, prompted by your design choices. 

For example, in the late ’80s in Iowa, Irwin Levin conducted research into how a description could change perceptions of the quality and taste of food. He split the group into two; each presented with some ground beef. One set were told it was ‘25% fat’, the other, ‘75% lean’.

Clearly, intellectually, we can see these are the same.  The former set though, later described both the meat, and the burger which was then made in front of them from that meat, as fattier, greasier and lower quality than the ones in the latter category. 

Levin said that this was because the labels they used made different aspects of the students’ knowledge about hamburgers more or less accessible, changing how their preferences. By deciding how you present your product you shape the comparison set of your prospective customers, either positively or negatively.

So how we present a product will shape the comparison sets the customers use to compare our product against in their minds, which will then shape the preferences about the product

An interesting place to start to see the words people associate already with your product is:

Let’s say you’re selling smoothies. Cold, healthy, smooth and delicious are all terms people already associate with smoothies. Berries and yoghurt are associated terms. If you use these terms on your site – positive associations with your product, perhaps you’re also more likely to tap into positive associations in your customer’s mind.

Written by Rob Dobson

Rob Dobson has been working in digital and building websites for 20 years. From designing and developing the world’s first internet bank in 1999 (, he founded Northern Comfort in 2010.

See how we can help you.