Avoid the Butt-Brush Effect

or example, we discovered a phenomenon known as the butt-brush effect almost accidentally…

As part of an early study for Bloomingdale’s in New York City, we trained a camera on one of the main ground-floor entrances, and the lens just happened to also take in a rack of neckties positioned near the entrance, on a main aisle. While reviewing the tape to study how shoppers negotiated the doorway during busy times, we began to notice something weird about the tie rack. Shoppers would approach it, stop and shop until they were bumped once or twice by people heading into or out of the store. After a few such jostles, most of the shoppers would move out of the way, abandoning their search for neckwear. We watched this over and over until it seemed clear that shoppers — women especially, though it was also true of men to a lesser extent — don’t like being brushed or touched from behind. They’ll even move away from merchandise they’re interested in to avoid it.

– Paco Underhill, Why We Buy

Underhill doesn’t attribute a cause to the butt-brush phenomenon — he doesn’t answer why customers dislike being touched from behind — but his customers have the data to show that once displays are moved to remove this effect, sales go up.

I have a theory. I think bumping into people, or products, makes customers feel clumsy or awkward or fat. We don’t like those feelings. So we move out of our way to avoid them.

There’s a toy store in my neighborhood — and it’s a pretty rad toy store that my daughter loves to browse in. But the store owners, in an attempt to capitalize on every inch of expensive San Francisco retail space, overflow their toy displays into the aisles.

I assume it is technically possible to wheel a tiny stroller through the aisles without knocking anything over, IF you pay careful attention and steer precisely. I have never managed to do so. I knock things over, then sheepishly scramble to pick them up and rearrange them.

It is butt-brush effect. It makes me feel stupid. And consumers who feel stupid, do not buy.

I don’t think this effect is limited to the products in the physical world. There’s a mental butt-brush effect, and it happens every time that a software product makes its’ customers feel awkward, clumsy, or stupid.

The first time I used Instagram (it’s “so easy to use!”, right?), I published a photo to Facebook and didn’t see a confirmation message. So I didn’t think it had worked and I hit the button again. And again. Which meant I had 3 identical photos, 3 identical status updates, in a row on my Facebook feed. It wasn’t a big deal, you know? It took me about five seconds to delete the extra posts. But I felt stupid. And any enthusiasm I had for using Instagram diminished immediately.

Clearly Instagram isn’t suffering from the loss of me as a customer. But most products aren’t Instagram. Many products are trying to win customers away from some existing behavior, and every little butt-brush moment is killing that attempt.

OneDrive — OK, Microsoft in the cloud, I’m totally rooting for you, but your file-sharing user experience is awfully hard to defend. Sharing a file via OneDrive is a several clicks and search scavenger hunt (vs. one-click, dead-simple in Google Drive). And I’m never entirely sure whether the file will actually share, or whether my intended recipient will see a “You do not have permission to access this file. Request permission” message. Not a big deal, you know? Just takes a few seconds to click that request-permission link. But it makes both customers (sharer and sharee) feel a tiny bit stupid.

Customers who feel stupid don’t buy. They find excuses not to use, and not to switch.