Two UNC professors study how technology may be able to help consumers avoid overspending.

It’s an easy habit to fall into. While watching TV or folding laundry, it’s almost second nature for people to pick up their phone, browse a retail site and before they know it, they’ve clicked “purchase” multiple times. This became especially popular since the beginning of the pandemic when many were staying at home. Though online shopping is convenient, it can also be costly.     

“People tend to overpay when they pay via mobile or online because it’s kind of like a painless payment. You don’t have to pay with cash,” said Daniel Brannon, Ph.D., assistant professor of Marketing in the Monfort College of Business (MCB) at UNC.     

Brannon has been exploring theories surrounding online shopping and payment apps, specifically seeing if there is a way to help prevent people from dipping into their savings so quickly. It turns out there is.    

Brannon and colleague, Moe Manshad, Ph.D., assistant professor of Software Engineering and Computer Information Systems (CIS), found a way to reduce overspending online, even if just by a little, through a 3-D printed vibration motor controller attached to a phone.   

“All mobile phones have vibrations that are used to deliver notifications to consumers, for example when you receive a like or comment on a social media post,” said Manshad. “We wanted to see if receiving a similar vibration notification when you are in the act of paying for something with your mobile device could affect how consumers feel about their spending on these devices.”   

In traditional, in-person shopping, consumers experience the physical aspect of standing in line or taking a form of payment out of their wallet, which research shows can lead to a sense of loss. Online shopping removes that, which is why 
the pair looked for a different way to bring out that emotion.       

“We wanted to see whether high or low haptic vibration intensity was most likely to elicit a sort of pain of payment,” Brannon said.      

Through the experiment, the faculty members discovered that haptic technology, which uses vibrations and motors to simulate the feeling of touch, may work.   

The first step was creating a device, which Manshad was able to do using a 3-D printer located in his office. He then developed a mobile app that connected to a microcontroller with a vibration motor and hooked that onto the back of a phone.      

“One of the things we worked on is developing the device that basically gives us control of the haptic part of the phone. Traditionally, on older phones, you don’t have much control over the intensity of vibration, so we had to build a device,” Manshad said.     

With the device ready, Brannon and Manshad sought out a sample of 160 UNC undergraduate students to participate in the experiment. In the basement of MCB, a shopping experience was set up where each student chose from a shelf of various potato chips, used a mobile payment app to scan the QR code and then pressed ‘purchase’ in the app. Upon pressing the purchase button, the students received either low-intensity, high-intensity or no vibration feedback. They were then asked how much money they were willing to spend on a subsequent shopping trip.      

Those who experienced the lowest-intensity vibration said they would spend less.      

“There’s a theory in psychology that low-frequency stimuli like low-frequency sounds can cause a sense of threat or danger,” Brannon said. “If you think about a scary movie a lot of times it’s that low, eerie sense that people get. It gives a sinister feeling.”      

Manshad says high frequency tends to have the opposite effect.     

“High intensity is more associated with excitement or positivity to some extent,” Manshad said. “What we’re theorizing is that people who got the lower-intensity vibration tended to experience a bit more negative emotion, and subsequently they were less likely 
to spend.”    

While the findings excite Brannon and Manshad because it could help people save money, they want to take similar, future experiments a step farther, developing a Multiexperience (MX) lab for students to explore more connections between marketing, software engineering, CIS, accounting and more.      

“We want to bring in marketing students to research and hold focus groups and have CIS students learn about the business process behind the development,” said Manshad.    

“With the MX Lab, using it for teaching and getting research out, students won’t only be there for class but also to test technology,” Brannon said.      

“At the end of the day, each student needs value from each class to put on their resume,” Manshad said. “We’re showing our students that we, as faculty, are up-to-date with industry standards. We know how to use the technology involved and we can teach them these tools so that they have experience when interviewing for a job.”   

–Sydney Kern 

Brannon and Manshad’s research is published in the Journal of Business Research in the article entitled “Haptic-payment: Exploring vibration feedback as a means of reducing overspending in mobile payment.”