Customer service and product-design practices often aim to minimize consumer frustration with a product or company. Consumers who become frustrated with a company's products or services, according to popular wisdom, will be less likely to offer up repeat business and more likely to be publicly critical of the company—creating a potential ripple effect of bad publicity. Similarly, companies that offer solutions to frustrating aspects of traditional product designs are often well positioned for market entry. New findings suggest, however, that these popular notions about consumer frustration are much less fixed than anyone assumed. Consumer frustration can help or hurt companies in various ways, depending on the type of frustration the consumers encounter and when they encounter it—highlighting the importance of context in frustrating experiences.
The general question appears to be whether some businesses are doing themselves a disservice by making life too easy for consumers.
Mass-market adoption of new products often takes considerable time, mostly because the mastery of new and innovative products is more frustrating than the mastery of established products. Recently, Darron Billeter at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) and his colleagues examined product adoption and frustration more closely and found that people's expectations play a crucial role in process. In experiments that examine consumer predictions of performance with novel tasks and products, the authors show that, initially, when consumers confront a new product, they underestimate the time necessary to learn how to use the product—they are overly optimistic. Following initial failures and frustrations, consumers then overestimate how long they would take ultimately to master use of the new product. Such pessimism may be responsible for consumers' early product abandonment. The study included mirror drawing and typing on a new keyboard as tasks.
Dr. Billeter's research appears applicable to a wide range of issues related to human performance. For example, many people believe they are not particularly good at a task, such as playing a musical instrument. But they might hold such a belief simply because of a lack of trying. A straightforward outcome of the study would be to introduce new ways to help consumers manage their expectations. Product manuals could include explicit guidance about common frustrations with a new product and assurances that people can overcome those frustrations within a reasonable time.
Use of a general framework of psychological contrast can also explain the early abandonment of products. Specifically, expectations that a product will be fun to use—or easy to learn—often negatively contrast with the actual initial experience with a product. Contrast, however, does not invariably lead to negative experiences and can actually cause people to seek out frustrating experiences. Thomas Zentall at the University of Kentucky (Lexington) recently examined the phenomenon that for many people, an experience seems more pleasant if it follows an adverse event than if it doesn't. Dr. Zentall finds similar effects in nonhuman species as well. In laboratory studies, pigeons preferred food that required many pecks to obtain over the same food that required few pecks to obtain. Most compelling, pigeons voluntarily switch the location of a food source from one associated with little effort to one that is associated with more effort. The contrast explanation can apply to a broad range of behavioral phenomena. For example, restaurants that require consumers to assemble their own food might see increases in sales simply because the experience of effort before consumption positions consumers to enjoy their food more. The general question appears to be whether some businesses are doing themselves a disservice by making life too easy for consumers. Companies such as Trader Joe's (Monrovia, California), which offers only a limited product line, might see few frustrated consumers, because the store is easy to navigate. But a limited product choice may also decrease enjoyment of products because the shopping experience is ultimately too easy.
Consumers can also become frustrated when an experience involves deviations from an optimal level of stimulation. According to a new study on online advertisements by Avi Goldfarb (University of Toronto, Canada) and Catherine Tucker (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge), companies advertising with display ads need to know when their techniques become too close for comfort. Context-sensitive display ads—for example, a car ad on an auto-consumer website—and pop-up video ads (a new and engaging display technique) are best when independent of each other, according to their research. In conditions that combined context sensitivity and pop-up video-advertisement technology, consumers felt invaded and distracted.
An optimal level of stimulation by visual advertisements seems to mirror the general way in which people learn preferences for a range of experiences, such as certain tastes. Recent research on the perception of sweetness in drinks by David Booth (University of Birmingham, England) and colleagues revealed an interesting case in which people's learned preferences for sweetness counter an inborn reflex to respond positively to sweetness—a genetically programmed mechanism that drives the ingestion of breast milk in human infants. Specifically, consumers tasted a drink that—on the basis of their learned taste preference—they judged too sweet to ingest. The drink nevertheless caused uncontrollable elevations in mood, tongue rolling (infant reflex to sweet tastes), and facial smiling as a function of the inborn reflex. Thus, an experience can be subjectively frustrating or intolerable in one system of judgment (learned preferences) but extremely enjoyable in another system of experience (inborn reflexes) at the same time. Companies could leverage these insights into a system of knowledge about ways in which to dissociate what people report on the basis of preferences or learned conventions and what they genuinely experience on a neurological level, for example.
Finally, some consumers may specifically seek out "frustrating" experiences to feed a sense of nostalgia. Companies have recently begun to reissue experiences associated with outdated technologies across novel platforms to appeal to consumers nostalgic about, for example, the scratches on old records. iZotope Vinyl software (www.izotope.com), for instance, allows such a manipulation of digital music files.
In sum, consumer frustration is a complex phenomenon that expectations can manage, that can have unintended positive effects, and that some circumstances can explicitly promote.