UBC Okanagan marketing Prof. Ying Zhu involves tech-savvy undergraduate students to extend research on touchscreen projects.

YOU’RE VIDEO-STREAMING WHILE ON THE COUCH, TAKING THE BUS OR HANGING IN A CAFE and you find that “OMG-I-need-it” pair of sneakers, mom jeans or lip gloss.

You tap. You buy. Soon it’ll be on the way and you eagerly track this new extravagance until it arrives at your door.

This — online shopping — is becoming the new norm.

We’ve dedicated an international ‘celebration’ to the ritual (Cyber Monday), we’re replacing travel agents with online experiences, and now we tap and download the latest best-seller onto our mobile devices. Movie theatre box offices? They’re turning into ghost-towns thanks to apps, online tickets and self-serve kiosks.

Touchscreens are a big part of the process. For example, the number of smartphone users alone reached 2.1 billion in 2016 and is expected to cross 2.7 billion in 2019. Despite their popularity, little is known about how this technology affects the decisions of consumers.

Enter Ying Zhu, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Management at UBC Okanagan’s campus, who is an expert in marketing, branding and consumer behaviour.

“With more than two billion smartphone users, the use of tactile technologies for online shopping alone is set to represent nearly half of all e-commerce by next year,” explains Zhu.

“Touchscreen technology has rapidly penetrated the consumer market and embedded itself into our daily lives. But given its fast growth and popularity, we know surprisingly little about its effect on consumers.”

Zhu had an intriguing suspicion that it’s easier to shop on a touchscreen compared to a desktop computer. With the help of a research collaborator in the U.S., she went to work.

Guilty Pleasure Shopping

Their work showed that individuals are more likely to indulge in guilty pleasures when shopping online using a touchscreen versus a desktop computer.

“The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers’ favour for hedonic products, while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses consumers’ preferences for utilitarian products,” says Zhu.

“Put away the smartphone, when you have the urge to splurge on a guilty pleasure.”

Zhu published her findings with co-author Bowling Green State University professor Jeffrey Meyer, in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services.

According to Zhu, these findings may well be a game-changer for the retail industry. Her advice to those who want to save a bit of money? “Put away the smartphone, when you have the urge to splurge on a guilty pleasure.”

Bringing in the Young Guns

To assist with research projects, Zhu traditionally recruits students from her first-year management class. Management undergraduates, Kanchana Pintapakang and Gaurav Lalwani, were the perfect candidates as they were interested in Zhu’s touchscreen study and were eager to gain research experience.

With encouragement from Zhu, the students applied and received support from UBC’s International Undergraduate Research Awards, allowing them to dedicate their summer to Zhu’s research projects.

“Collaboration and innovation have always been important to me,” says Zhu, who believes in a team approach to learning and research.

Initially, designing experiments wasn’t intuitive for either Pintapakang or Lalwani — neither had previous experience. To ease them in, Zhu taught them about the scientific method and suggested they read published research articles and present the findings.

“It was challenging because we had never done this before,” says Lalwani.

Both Pintapakang and Lalwani now recognize the value of the task.

“Reading and analyzing published research helps with designing your own studies, “says Pintapakang.

Learning By Doing

During the summer, Pintapakang and Lalwani worked diligently alongside Zhu. Through reading and presenting more than 50 scientific articles, they learned scientific jargon and were able express their thoughts as researchers.

At the end of summer, with their newly acquired knowledge in experimental design, Pintapakang and Lalwani put their knowledge into practice and began designing their own experiments. One involved understanding how unique features such as emojis on a touchscreen device (i.e. a smartphone) may influence a consumers’ decision.

In another they investigated how the tactile-effect displayed on a touchscreen device may affect the evaluation of products. They showed creativity by filming videos to demonstrate the tactile effect through touching real products such as fabric.

Because research projects take a few years to complete, Pintapakang and Lalwani’s involvement provided them only an initial taste. Yet, Zhu appraised the experiments they designed and plans to incorporate them into future research projects. She enjoyed working with both students and is looking forward to mentoring more.

Gaining Skills

While both students will most likely not be pursuing research careers, they agree that time spent on Zhu’s research project was valuable.

“Research is not the path for me, but I can still use these skills in my classes and in my future career,” says Lalwani.

Pintapakang says the summer research experience was “definitely valuable” when it comes to learning about consumer behaviour. She plans to apply her learnings to a career in marketing. Her advice to anyone who may be thinking about undergraduate research is: “Do it. You can’t really learn these research skills anywhere else.”

She also stresses how this is a perfect opportunity for those thinking about a career in research. “The experience gave me hands-on experience and a broad understanding of how research is conducted.”

“Do it. You can’t really learn these research skills anywhere else.”

No matter what career path they choose, Zhu is happy the summer research experience contributed to students’ knowledge and learning.

“These students will be able to take this experience and apply their learning to whatever comes next for them,” says Zhu.

The contributions of Pintapakang and Lalwani have future application too. Zhu plans to incorporate the experiments they designed in her future touchscreen projects.