Head of eBay Research Labs Seeks to Decode Emotions Behind Commerce

eBay Inc. Staff

Elizabeth Churchill spends a lot of time focusing on the emotional and experiential aspects of new technologies.  As Director of Human-Computer Interaction research at eBay Research Labs, she is involved with many projects that seek to optimize user experiences and recognizes that human emotions are an integral part of commerce processes.

We caught up with Elizabeth to get some of her thoughts on her latest projects. Here is what she had to say.

  • On Bringing a Human Face to Commerce Experiences:

I was brought into eBay Research Labs (or ‘eRL’) to bring a human face to some of the already successful projects there.  eRL has technologists, economists and data experts whose research had impact in areas such as machine learning, computer vision, micro-economics and statistics.

I was hired to put a sharper focus on the human, experiential aspects of the emerging commerce landscape.

My team studies people’s experience of technologies, devices and commerce processes.

We don’t just look at the services that are currently available, but look at people’s everyday activities to identify where there are opportunities for improvement and innovation. We also focus on what questions our current data capture and analysis methods can answer, and what they can’t.

I’m a psychologist by training, so one of the things I care deeply about is how people feel – their aspirations, emotions, and affiliations.

I focus on what they are drawn to and what repels them. Such considerations can produce different kinds of insights.

  • Decoding Feelings

Research confirms our everyday intuition that when people feel good, they linger way longer than it takes to efficiently get something done.

This can be a very good thing for contexts like eBay. People hang out. People engage with a service or technology that gives them a good feeling, and they are much more likely to return and to recommend the experience to friends.

Conversely, when people are feeling frustrated they are more likely to abandon a service or process, and are far less likely to return. What’s even more interesting to me is that sometimes people can’t pinpoint exactly why they don’t feel positive. They just have a bad feeling about an experience. They know they didn’t have a good time. They can’t tell you why, but they resist repeating the experience, they wander off somewhere else in search of something with a higher feel-good factor.

We also know that some kinds of frustration are actually good. For example, in a gaming experience, if you feel like you couldn’t quite accomplish something, it can feel like a challenge – a good kind of challenge. You are likely to come back to take that challenge on, you may come back invigorated.

Let me give you an example that illustrates this and also brings into play another important aspect of human behavior – that we are essentially social beings.

People will often come back to prove something to themselves and to others – to show they are smarter, quicker, cooler -- or just that they are part of the team or group. That is why social games work. This is why social networking sites work.

  • On Emotions and Technology:

People’s emotional reactions to technology experiences have a lot to do with their expectations, and whether these are met. We must recognize this as we craft user experiences. To manage expectations you need to learn how to empathize with your users.

You need to see the world as they see it.  You can’t second-guess their viewpoint. You have to get out in the world, talk to them and perhaps even “walk in their shoes.”

  • On Doing Personalization Right:

I recently started a program called “Putting the Person into Personalization.” I want to make personalization more about the person, and that means we have to be smarter about the people we hope to serve or to attract with what we design.

Personalization has several connotations at eBay. It has marketing connotations, in terms of targeting content to reach users and potential new users. For our machine learning folks, personalization has a lot to do with algorithms for identifying the right content to recommend to people – “targeted” content.

Meanwhile, from a design perspective, personalization involves creating the most aesthetically pleasing designs given what we know about people. 

Beyond making things more aesthetically pleasing, I make a distinction between outcome personalization– this is what you recommend to a user–and process personalization–which is how you present the information to the user.

Process personalization is all about creating experiences for people that are tailored to their specific context (where they are, what device they are on, what else is going on around them for example) and their preferences for how information is presented.  

  • On User Experience:

You might not want to offer the same user experience to someone who is new to eBay that you offer to die-hard experienced users. Tailored process personalization involves focusing not just on what you give to people, but how you give it to them.

There are a number of projects that come under this program. I just launched a project called “Vintage Values.” With my colleague, Hugo Liu, I’ve been looking at which fashion and accessory brands do and do not hold value over time.

With an intern from University of Maryland, Anne Bowser, I’ve been trying to more deeply understand people’s values around conservation and preservation as part of their passion for vintage fashion and accessories.

We’ve done some data analysis to look at our eBay users’ activity patterns and have been conducting ethnographic interviews with people who have a strong personal preference for recycling high-quality goods.

We’ve been going shopping with people in vintage and thrift stores, and interviewing them about buying and selling vintage fashion items on eBay.

We are finding that many of these people feel very emotional about giving items a new lease on life. They care deeply about the items they buy and sell, and they have a strong sense of attachment to what happens to the items they select and sell on.

This goes beyond selling for profit. There is a bigger sense of value here, they have a strong sense of personal identity that rubs off in how they value eBay as an enabler for their passion. We are carrying out analyses right now to identify the processes and patterns in how people attach value to items and give them new life.

  • On Applying Gaming Psychology:

We also have a project focused on personal and shared wish lists, where we take some of the psychology found in gaming and apply it to the treasure hunting feeling that some people have when shopping on eBay.

We are exploring creating more game-like experiences for people who might like them, while keeping in mind that these experiences may not be right for some other users.

We are asking: can we identify who, when and why a game-like experience will engage people more versus when it is a turn-off, an irritation and a negative experience.

Overall, I have to say we are in an interesting moment when it comes to understanding the experiences of our users, and to designing for better user experiences. With all of the data that is being captured, and our ever-expanding storage capabilities, it can feel like we have more data than we know what to do with.

Yet there are gaps in our knowledge about how people are actually experiencing our products. We have to invent new ways of capturing and managing the data we gather.

We have to be able to answer the why questions about user behavior (why did someone take some action or not) as well as the what questions (capturing and summarizing what they did).

We need to close the gap between experience design and data capture and analysis. We need to get better at designing for and understanding passion and feeling, to complement what we’ve already achieved when it comes to designing for efficient commerce experiences.