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Impulse Purchase is the Most Useless Term in Product Development

Chris Spiek // 06.23.14

I cringe every time I hear someone on a product team say it.

Their intent is usually to convey that it’s going to be really hard for us to get a detailed understanding of why people buy these types of cheap, low-risk products.

What I hear is that as consumers, we make these kinds of low-risk decisions based on subconscious impulses that are completely impossible to identify, unpack, or understand.

Progress-Making Consumers

One of my favorite Clay Christensen quotes is:  “A question is a place in the mind that an answer can fit.”  After talking to thousands of consumers about their purchases, his quote has proven to be true almost 100% of the time.

In other words, if the consumer has an idea in their mind about progress that they’re trying to make, they’ll see and pay attention to products, advertisements, and suggestions from others.  If there’s no concept of progress, all of these great products, packages, advertisements, and glowing reviews from friends just bounce off of them.

Said another way; if there’s no push, all of the pull in the world isn’t going to get the consumer to make an impulse purchase. 

I can’t count the number of times that a consumer has started a Jobs-to-be-Done interview with a laugh and a comment like, “you know, it was just there, and I thought I’d try it, so I threw it in my cart.”  After digging into the details of the situation they’ll often mention a commercial that they saw a long time ago. Now I have something to work with.

“What do you remember about the commercial?”

“Oh there was this lady, and she was …”

“So what were you thinking when you saw that?”

Using this technique I can get them to describe why their situation related to the story they saw in the commercial.  Like the forces diagram below shows, often times the push of the situation is so low on the consumer’s list of priorities that there’s very little energy associated with it.  That isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist. It’s just a little harder to find.


Once we get to a complete picture of the forces diagram we can understand the progress that they’re trying to make, where they’re satisfied, and where they’re underserved (still looking for a solution that we can provide to them).

Raise Your Hand If We Should Just Add More Features

It’s our job as designers and developers to understand, in as much detail as possible, the progress that consumers are trying to make so we can create solutions that they’ll use. What happens if the team comes to an agreement that the product that we’re working on is purchased on impulse?  Should we put less energy into understanding the progress that the consumer is trying to make and their hiring criteria?

A vote for categorizing the product as an “impulse purchase” is a vote for focusing on designing flashier packaging, feature-loading to beat the product next to you on the shelf, and blindly adding cost without any idea of the impact it will have.

It’s been proven that these tactics will lead to more trial (I’ll try it once because it’s cheap and maybe it will help me make progress), but only by chance will they lead to a sustainable pattern of repeat-purchases (consumers have found a job that your product is good for, even though you’re not aware of the details of the job).

Consumers Will Say It

People will continue to tell us that they made an impulse purchase because it’s the easiest way to describe their behavior to us.

Let them continue to say it, but we need to wipe it from our vocabulary.