Do we really need the frying bacon close-up?

bacon fryingThe scene opens with a wide view of Owen leaning over the stove. Next is a close-up of Owen’s face peering down at the skillet, a bead of sweat dripping from his forehead. For two seconds we see a close-up view of sizzling bacon before returning to a wide view of Owen scooping the bacon out of the pan and carefully placing it just so on a plate of eggs and French toast. Cut to a scene of Owen bringing this newly prepared breakfast to his bride in bed.

”Happy Anniversary, honey.”

The budget conscious movie producer drops the script on the table and stares at the director.

“Do we really need the close-up of Owen’s face? The set-up for those shots adds a ton of extra cost. And the bacon close-up? Really? Does that really add anything to the story? Are we going to sell even one less ticket if that shot is not in the movie?”

But the director insists, “Yes, we have to have those scenes. They add the emotion and visceral impact that is required to tell the story, to let the audience feel Owen’s love. They are as essential to the story as the dialogue. Those shots are the difference between a professional film and a home movie, and no one will pay to see a home movie. They may not list the close-ups as the reason they don’t like the movie, but trust me, they’re a much larger factor than you think.”

The director is right. (And don’t worry, this post will eventually get to the retail relevance.)

I’ve been reading a lot about how our brains make decisions. Books such as How We Decide, The Hidden Brain, and Switch all explore the two parts of our brains that combine to formulate our decisions. Scientifically, those parts of the brain are the neocortex and the amygdala. In Switch, the Heath brothers call them the Rider and the Elephant; others call them the rational brain and the lizard brain. Whatever we call them, our decisions are the combined effort a conscious part of our brains that control our rational thinking and an unconscious part of our brains (the Hidden Brain) that controls our emotions.

Think you don’t make emotional decisions? Think again.

It turns out that without our emotional brains, we wouldn’t be able to make decisions at all. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer recounts the story of a man whose brain injury caused his amygdala to stop functioning. As a result, he was utterly incapable of making even the simplest decisions in life. Without an emotional brain to push him toward a decision, his rational brain simply went into analysis paralysis.

Our brains are extremely powerful, but they’ve got a lot going on. As a result, they basically compartmentalize processing power and take shortcuts when encountering situations that seem similar to past situations they’ve encountered. While this compartmentalization is generally very efficient, it has its drawbacks. Here’s how Shankar Vedantam explains it in The Hidden Brain:

The conscious brain is slow and deliberate. It learns from textbooks and understands how rules have exceptions. The hidden brain is designed to be fast, to make quick approximations and instant adjustments. Right now, your hidden brain is doing many more things than your conscious brain could attend to with the same efficiency. The hidden brain sacrifices sophistication to achieve speed. Since your hidden brain values speed over accuracy, it regularly applies heuristics to situations where they do not work. It is as though you master a mental shortcut while riding a bicycle—bunch your fingers into a fist to clench the brakes—and apply the heuristic when you are driving a car. You clutch the steering wheel when you need to stop, instead of jamming your foot on the brake.

Now imagine the problem on a grander scale; the hidden brain applying all kinds of rules to complex situations where they do not apply. When you show people the faces of two political candidates and ask them to judge who looks more competent based only on appearance, people usually have no trouble picking one face over the other. Not only that, but they will tell you, if they are Democrats, that the person who looks more competent is probably a Democrat. If they are Republicans, there is just something about that competent face that looks Republican. Everyone knows it is absurd to leap to conclusions about competence based on appearance, so why do people have a feeling about one face or another? It’s because their hidden brain “knows” what competent people look like. The job of the hidden brain is to leap to conclusions. This is why people cannot tell you why one politician looks more competent than another, or why one job candidate seems more qualified than another. They just have a feeling, an intuition.

This same “leap to conclusion” occurs when people visit our websites. They come to our sites with a preconceived notion about what a quality website looks like, and many times those preconceived notions have much to do with the types of design elements that many “rational” thinkers would equate to the frying bacon close-up described in the movie scenario above. It’s hard to imagine how a rounded borders versus straight borders might effect someone’s likelihood to convert, but it will because the hidden brain is making lightning fast decisions about a site’s credibility based on everything it sees and how closely what it sees matches up to its past experiences with what it found to be credible websites. A customer will not likely point to border type as a reason she didn’t buy; she’ll just feel uneasy enough about the site that her ultimate decision to buy will go negative.

Conversely, the right design can play a huge role in increasing a site’s credibility and turning that decision to buy in the right direction. For example, there have been numerous experiments conducted over the years that show how the price of a bottle of wine can genuinely affect people’s taste. In his blog, Jonah Lehrer discusses the wine experiments and “The Essence of Pleasure” and shows how paying close attention to the “essence of a product” or a site, like “Coors being brewed from Rocky Mountain spring water, or Evian coming straight from the French Alps” can actually lead to a change in sensory perception. This, of course, is what good branding is all about and it can absolutely make the difference between new customers further engaging with our sites or bouncing off to another site.

Since customers won’t generally be able to tell us about specific design elements that are causing them discomfort, we need to use various techniques to help us get to the heart of the truth. Multivariate testing can be a great way to understand the immediate value of different designs. Combining multivariate testing with a predictive voice of customer methodology like the ACSI methodology used by ForeSee Results (shameless plug) can really help us understand the long-term brand impact in ways that simply multivariate tests alone cannot. It’s critically important to understand our customers’ perspectives on design in context with their overall future intentions in order to get to a truth of design’s impact that even the customer could not tell us directly.

Metrics and methodologies can point us in the right direction, and then we need to hire and trust talented, professional designers to do their thing. In the end. high-quality, professional design speaks well to the hidden brain and leads to enhanced credibility. Enhanced credibility facilitates a better selling environment. So, yes, we really do need the frying bacon close-up.

What do you think? How is design treated in your organization? What tips do you have? Or are you not buying it?


  • By Gary Robinson, December 14, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    Firstly, thank you for including a link to my post on website credibility facilitating the selling process – it’s much appreciated.

    Secondly, thanks for a great article. The hidden brain is a fascinating concept – I’d recommend Seth Godin’s book Linchpin for more on what he refers to as the ‘Lizard Brain’.

    In terms of website design, I think the issues of credibility are a problem for the small business undoubtably (with limited resource and stature), but its not limited to that group – large organisations share a related problem. Busy, high revenue companies, with resource tied up in a multitude of projects often struggle to dedicate time to modernising or overhauling the appearance of their website due to the sheer scale of the endeavour.

    It repeatedly gets put off until it reaches a point where it is damaging the performance of the site.

    The trick is find resource (or a passionate champion) to push for continuous optimisation. The workload is reduced through small, manageable chunks and your site continually moves with trends and standards.

  • By Eric Feinberg, December 14, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    Kevin, I think this post is right on. Yet again, you are right on! In the content and media space, so much of what makes someone loyal to a website or TV channel or magazine is the emotional connection that someone feels to the content – not necessarily the usability of the site or studio or magazine. I know your focus is on retail but it highlights your issue even more when the conversion event on a website is not a commerce transaction, but instead a combination of online and offline behavior. In that case, traditional measurements of website success are more elusive and less useful – and visitor perception reigns – their emotional connection to the brand. And, by the way, I love bacon so keep that close-up in the movie!

  • By Kevin Ertell, December 15, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    Thanks Gary and Eric for your comments.

    Gary: I was very happy to link to your excellent post on website credibility. Reading it partially inspired this post of mine, so it was the least I could do. I completely agree with your point that site appearance and credibility issues are not limited to small businesses. In fact, bureaucracies and short-term pressures that are common in large businesses are exactly the types of influences that can prevent work on efforts that are seen as “soft” and not directly related to “driving sales.”

    Eric: While my posts are generally directly toward retail, I completely agree with you that most of the content of this particular post would certainly apply to other industries as well. Regardless of the purpose of the site, we all make instant judgments in our hidden brains that influence how we interact (or don’t interact) with the site.

  • By Jason Conrad, December 16, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    Very interesting post. Some more books to add to my reading pile too. I wonder what movies would look like if the directors (or the studios for that matter) could use MV testing on the scenes.

  • By Rhonda Berg, December 20, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    Great points, Kevin! I am going to steal your bacon analogy when explaining why we measure latent concepts the way we do (at ForeSee). There are some things we can ask consumers about directly, and there are others that we have to construct by asking about things they can answer.

    P.S. Now I am really hungry for bacon.

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