How Consumers Learn From and About Products: the Impact of Direct Experience

Sylvia C. Mooy, Delft University of Technology
Henry S.J. Robben, Nijenrode University
ABSTRACT - We investigated the effect of direct experience on consumers’ assessment of explicit and implicit product aspects. The results show that with an increase of direct experience, subjects directed less attention to explicitly described product aspects, and directed more attention to the product itself. Contrary to Wright and Lynch (1995) we found only evidence for a direct experience effect on belief strength and belief confidence for implicit product aspects. For the types of products we investigated, the most important product aspects are experience attributes. For explicit product aspects direct experience had no effect on belief strength and belief confidence.
[ to cite ]:
Sylvia C. Mooy and Henry S.J. Robben (1998) ,"How Consumers Learn From and About Products: the Impact of Direct Experience", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 318-323.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 318-323

HOW CONSUMERS LEARN FROM AND ABOUT PRODUCTS: THE IMPACT OF DIRECT EXPERIENCE

Sylvia C. Mooy, Delft University of Technology

Henry S.J. Robben, Nijenrode University

ABSTRACT -

We investigated the effect of direct experience on consumers’ assessment of explicit and implicit product aspects. The results show that with an increase of direct experience, subjects directed less attention to explicitly described product aspects, and directed more attention to the product itself. Contrary to Wright and Lynch (1995) we found only evidence for a direct experience effect on belief strength and belief confidence for implicit product aspects. For the types of products we investigated, the most important product aspects are experience attributes. For explicit product aspects direct experience had no effect on belief strength and belief confidence.

INTRODUCTION

This research investigaes the relationship between con- sumers’ direct experience with a product on belief strength and belief confidence. We test whether the evaluation of a durable consumer good is influenced by the extent to which consumers can interact with the product across two types of products.

The information integration response model (IIRM, Smith and Swinyard 1982) has stimulated a number of studies that investigated how consumers integrate information from advertising and product trial (e.g., Smith and Swinyard 1983, 1988; Marks and Kamins 1988; Smith 1993; Wright and Lynch 1995). Basically, this model predicts that in instances where consumers can directly experience the product, they will be more inclined to accept the information collected through the experience. People are unlikely to derogate themselves as a source of information, in contrast to sources like advertising, which clearly represent a vested interest of a third party. As a consequence, consumers will develop higher order beliefs and higher order affects and subsequently be more strongly committed to purchasing the product. Under some conditions, advertising can achieve similar effects. Typically, advertising elicits lower order beliefs, affects, and conations because the tendency to accept the presented information is lower. Advertising may elicit cognitive reactions like source derogation, counterarguing and discounting (Smith and Swinyard 1983).

Wright and Lynch (1995) refined this discussion. They showed that direct experience was not generally superior to advertising for communicating product information in terms of the importance, belief confidence, belief accessibility, and claim recognition of product attributes. Their media congruence hypothesis predicted that direct experience would be superior in communi-cating experience attributes, and advertising superior in communicating search attributes. It appears, therefore, that direct experience may be superior in communicating attributes for those products whose most important attributes are mainly experience attributes (Wright and Lynch 1995, p. 717). They also state that the psychological processes that mediate the greater attention that experience attributes receive in direct experience situations than when encountered as ad claims remain unclear. It may be that experience attributes are more vivid when directly experienced than when processed as ad claims. In our view, it may also be that because experience attributes are generally more important in evaluating consumer durable goods, consumers spend more effort in exploring these attributes, thereby inducing deeper processing.

The IIRM has been tested using a variety of low-involvement products (ball-point pen, candy bar, snack food, soft drink, staged lead pencil) and high-involvement products (bike, chair-bed) that were presented to undergraduate students in a laboratory setting. We were able to extend this stream of research by employing durable consumer goods in (1) a setting that mimicked a decision process in a store by (2) an adult nonstudent sample, and (3) by varying the extent of direct experience on (4) explicit and implicit product aspects. [Product aspects refer both to product attributes and consequences.] In this study we focus on what consumers learn from a new product and we concentrate on cognitive indicators of such learning.

Where previous research treated the direct experience variable as a dichotomy, present or not present, the present study defined consumers’ experience with a product as a spectrum from indirect to direct. We assume that along the hypothesized spectrum, an increasing amount of information is collected and processed by the consumer. In terms of hierarchy of effects models of advertising (Lavidge and Steiner, 1961; MacInnis and Jaworski, 1989; the elaboration likelihood model, Petty and Cacioppo, 1986), the product itself and in interaction with the consumer evokes attention and has the consumer engage in information processing.

On this spectrum, the amount of information processing increases with increasing direct experience because multisensory assessment takes place. At the indirect anchor of the spectrum consumers use a single sense in processing product information, or instance, when reading advertisements. At the direct anchor, the consumer uses multiple senses in interacting with the product, for instance, when trying or using the product. For instance, a product description or a verbal print ad represents indirect experience, because the presented information contains only verbal information. Word-of-mouth communication is higher up on that spectrum because consumers can interact with their source, but they still cannot see the product or interact with it. Next, an ad presenting a picture of the product and copy yields only indirect visual experience. A three dimensional view on a product, e.g., in a store window, gives more information. Next to presenting visual and verbal information, product demonstrations in the store or on television add auditory information and information on how to handle the product. Still, experience is not direct because consumers have no access to the working product. The most direct form of product experience occurs when consumer have a hands-on experience with the product in the usage situation they envisage for that product.

Verbal or written information on a product or its aspects is virtually omnipresent on the direct experience spectrum. For instance, the product’s package or a card in a store window explicitly describes important product aspects. At the indirect end of the experience spectrum, consumers will pay much attention to this information because this is the only information they have. At the direct end, consumers will pay less attention to that type of information because it represents only a small part of the information available, for instance, when evaluating a product in the store. Such situations favor consumers’ exploration of implicit product aspects, which are aspects that are not described in a product description. We argue, therefore, that with an increase in direct experience, consumers will pay less attention to aspects that are explicitly described in a product description. This hypothesis is consistent with Wright and Lynch’s (1995, p. 709) assertion that "when experience attributes are conveyed by direct experience rather than by advertising, they gain more attention, which reduces attention to accompanying search attribute information." This leads to the following hypothesis:

H1: With increasing direct experience, consumers will pay more attention to the product and less attention to accompanying verbal information.

More specifically, we expect that less attention to the verbal information will lead to a decrease in recall of that information (H1A). More attention to the product will lead to more inferences on part of the consumer of product aspects (H1B) because the consumer learns about the products implicit aspects. More attention will also decrease the number of questions asked about product aspects (H1C) because of the more intensive and multisensory exploration of the product.

For explicit product aspects, direct experience will not influence belief strength and belief confidence because two parallel processes occur, that counterbalance each other’s effects. The first process will lead to less attention for explicit aspects as attention will be devoted to exploring the product. Subsequently, belief strength and belief confidence will be relatively low. Second, due to the experiential nature of the aspects, in a direct experience situation consumers can collect additional information on explicit-ly described aspects. Hence, they will develop higher belief strengths and belief confidence for those aspects. In sum, the effect of direct experience on the evaluation will be negligible. This reasoning led to the folowing hypothesis on the assessment of explicitly described product aspects:

H2A: Increasing direct experience has no effect on belief strength and belief confidence for explicit product aspects.

Following the IIRM, we hypothesize that for consumers’ assessment of implicit product aspects that with increasing direct experience, belief strength and belief confidence in implicit aspects increases. At the direct end of the spectrum consumers themselves can discover those aspects, while at the indirect end such aspects can only partially be inferred from the presented information:

H2B: Increasing direct experience will positively affect belief strength and belief confidence for implicit product aspects.

The following experiment was set up to test these hypotheses.

METHOD

Pre-tests: Manipulation of Direct Experience and Importance of Product Aspects

A first pretest (N=42; adult consumer sample) explored and established the manipulation of two levels of direct experience, namely the sight of a real product and a product completely in use. The pretest explored and established at the same time the manipulation checks of direct experience. Results showed that subjects in the 'experience’ condition used their senses more in processing product information than subjects in the 'sight’ condition. Opportunity to process was higher in the 'experience’ condition and subjects were also able to process product information more at their own pace and in a more holistic way in the 'experience’ condition than in the 'sight’ condition. Therefore, the manipulation of direct experience on these two levels has been successful.

A second pretest (N=50, adult consumer sample) determined the most important product aspects for different levels of the means-end chain. [Only the four lower levels of the means-end chain are considered (i.e., concrete and abstract attributes and functional and psychosocial consequences), because these aspects are most directly related to the physical product.] Based on the aspects used by the subjects of the first pretest, a questionnaire investigated the importance of different aspects of two different products, i.e., an electrical toothbrush and a fan heater. The subsequent experiment used the two most important aspects for each level of the means-end chain. For these products these aspects were mainly experience attributes. [Experience attributes are attributes that can be determined during or after use of the product, while search attributes are attributes which consumers can evaluate before product purchase; only the product aspect 'presence of on/off switch' (see 'Exhibit 1') may be regarded as search attribute, the other investigated attributes are experience attributes.] One aspect of each level is described in the product description and both aspects are used in the questionnaire of the experiment, to investigate the differential effects of explicit and implicit product aspects.

Design of the Main Experiment

The design was a 2 (product: an electrical toothbrush and a fan heater) x 3 (direct experience: photo, 3D-sight, and full direct experience) between-subjects design. Both products are normally available in household appliance stores in The Netherlands. In the photo-condition, photos (210 x 297 mm) portrayed the product on a neutral blue background. For the 3D-condition a store window was created, so that the subject could see the product from all sides, but not touch the product (size of store window 600 x 600 mm). The store window was covered by a white sheet in the other conditions and before and after the experimental exposure of the product (see procedure). For the full direct experience condition the poduct was offered to the subjects in 'ready to use’ state. An extension cord which was plugged into the socket was also offered to the subjects.

In all conditions subjects received a short product description. This product description described important product aspects at several levels of abstraction (see exhibit 1). For each of the four lower levels of the means-end chain, the product description mentioned one aspect, hereafter referred to as explicit aspects. The product description was completed with extrinsic aspects (i.e., price and guarantee) and a less important product aspect (i.e., color). [The extrinsic aspects and the less important product aspects were not included in the belief measures (see 'Measures').]

Subjects

Subjects were members of the Consumer Panel of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. This panel consists of 980 households who are willing to participate in the faculty’s consumer research. Due to a recent update and extenuation, we were able to invite mainly subjects who had never participated before. Finally, 127 subjects participated in this experiment of whom 82% were 'new’ subjects. Ages varied between 18 and 65 years; about half of the subjects were men. The experiment took about half an hour. Subjects received a payment of & 17,50 (" US$ 11,-) for travel expenses and as a compensation toward their efforts.

EXHIBIT 1

EXPERIMENTAL PRODUCT DESCRIPTION AND IMPLICIT PRODUCT ASPECTS

Procedure

The experiment was administered individually. After a short introduction in which the general procedure was explained, subjects were exposed to the stimuli (i.e., product and product description) according to the specific condition. They were asked to carefully evaluate the product. They themselves could determine for how long they evaluated the product; this time was measured. After product evaluation, the stimulus was removed, or in case of the store window, this was covered in the 3D-sight condition. Subjects then completed a questionnaire that was split in three sections: (1) elicitation of thoughts, (2) manipulation checks and processing measures, and (3) dependent variables. For the first section three minutes were allowed to answer this question; for the other sections there was no time limit. Upon completion, subjects provided reactions and comments. Finally, they were debriefed, thanked, and accompanied to a second experiment, unrelated to the one reported.

Measures

The measurement scales and procedures were identical for all conditions. The present analyses focused on the manipulation checks, the recall and inference measurements, and on belief strength and belief confidence for eight different product aspects. Recall and inferences were assessed via open-ended questions, all other constructs were measured by using 7-point semantic differential and Likert-type scales.

Manipulation checks. Five aspects of direct experience (i.e., seeing, hearing, tactile sensation, pacing, and holistic processing) assessed the manipulation of direct experience. Each aspect was measured by three or four items, e.g., 'I could hear the sound of this electrical toothbrush’ or 'I could evaluate this fan heater only partially’.

To assess the random assignment of subjects to the experimental cells, knowledge and product ownership were measured. Knowledge was measured on a three-item scale, which was pre-tested in the manipulation pretest (i.e., knowledge of the product category, experience in using the product, and usage frequency). A single yes/no question established product ownership.

Recall, inferences, and questions. To create a delay between stimulus exposure and this task, recall of the product description and inferences followed the thought-listing task and the manipulation checks. First, in an open-ended question, subjects recalled those product aspects which were explicitly described in the pro-duct description. Second, asking th subjects which aspects the product possessed that were not described in the product description, elicited inferences.

Recall scores reflected the total number of aspects in the product description that were correctly recalled. The inference responses produced both inferences and questions about the pro-duct. Inference scores reflected the number of correctly identified implicit product aspects (Note that this number may be larger than the four experimental implicit product aspects). The question score reflected the number of questions, i.e., questions for information on specific product aspects, that were stated by the subjects.

Belief strength and belief confidence. Subjects provided belief strength and belief confidence for the four explicitly described aspects and for four implicit product aspects (see Exhibit 1). Belief strength was measured by asking subjects, 'To what extent do you agree with the following statement: 'This (product) has (product aspect i)’, e.g., 'This electrical toothbrush has a low soundlevel.’ Responses were recorded on 7sigth condition resembles more the direct experience condition.

Testing Hypothesis 2

Belief strength and belief confidence. For both explicit and implicit product aspects averaged summed scales were computed for belief strength and belief confidence. Mean belief strength scores for explicit aspects were significantly higher than for implicit aspects (X explicit=4.57 and X implicit=4.02, t=6.17, df=126, p<.001). This result indicates that subjects associate the product to a higher degree with the explicit product aspects than with the implicit product aspects. Belief confidence for explicit aspects was significantly lower than for implicit aspects (X explicit=4.70 and X implicit=4.95, t=2.41, df=125, p<.05). This result indicates that beliefs of those product aspects that are implied by consumers themselves are more confidentially held compared to beliefs of product aspects described in the product description.

A MANOVA on belief strength and belief confidence of explicit aspects revealed a significant multivariate product effect (Wilks’ l=.86, F(2,119)=9.75, p<.001), but no significant multivariate direct experience (Wilks’ l=.94, F(4,238)=1.82, p=.125) or interaction effect (Wilks’ l=.96, F(4,238)=1.28, p=.277). Type of product had a significant effect on both belief strength (F(1,120)=5.76, p<.05) and on belief confidence (F(1,120)=8.80, p<.005). Belief strength scores for the fan heater were higher than scores for the electrical toothbrush (X ET=4.36 and X FH=4.79 , t=2.18 , df=119.23, p<.05), while belief confidence scores for the electrical toothbrush were higher than scores for the an heater (X ET=5.13 and X FH=4.25, t=2.99, df=115.78, p<.005). These results indicate that explicit product aspects were associated more with the product in case of the fan heater, but explicit beliefs were more confidentially held in case of the electrical toothbrush. The fact that direct experience had no significant effect on both belief strength and belief confidence for explicit product aspects confirmed hypothesis 2A.

A MANOVA on belief strength and belief confidence of implicit aspects revealed a significant multivariate product (Wilks’ l=.92, F(2,120)=4.91, p<.01) and direct experience effect (Wilks’ l=.76, F(4,240)=8.82, p<.0001), but no significant interaction effect (Wilks’ l=.94, F(4,240)=1.86, p=.118). Type of product had a significant effect on both belief strength (F(1,121)=6.86, p<.05) and on belief confidence (F(1,121)=5.04, p<.05). Both belief strength and belief confidence scores for the electrical toothbrush were higher than scores for the fan heater (belief strength: X ET=4.27 and X FH=3.77, t=2.58, df=115.93, p<.05; belief confidence: X ET=5.20 and X FH=4.71, t=2.12, df=125, p<.05). These results indicate that implicit product aspects were associated more with the product in the case of the electrical toothbrush compared to the fan heater, and that implicit beliefs are also more confidentially held in case of the electrical toothbrush.

Direct experience had a significant effect on both belief strength (F(2,121)=6.22), p<.005) and on belief confidence (F(2,121)=16.19, p<.0001). Belief strength and belief confidence scores were significantly higher in the full direct experience condition compared to both the photo and 3D-sight conditions. No significant differences occurred between the photo and 3D-sight conditions (see Table 1). These results indicate that with an increase of direct experience, implicit product aspects were associated with the product to an increasing degree. Those implicit product aspect beliefs were held with an increasing confidence with an increase of direct experience. These results confirmed hypothesis 2B.

FIGURE 1

MEANS OF RECALL, INFERENCES, AND QUESTIONS

TABLE 1

MEANS OF ATTRIBUTE BELIEFS AND CONFIDENCE IN BELIEFS OF EXPLICIT AND IMPLICIT ASPECTS

DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS

The results clearly show that with increasing direct experience, subjects directed less attention to explicitly described product aspects, and directed more attention to the product itself. However, the explicit product aspects could also be inferred from the product directly in the full direct experience condition. As expected, these attention and inferral processes counterbalanced each other’s effects, resulting in an overall null effect of direct experience on belief strength and belief confidence for explicit product aspects. These results provide strong support for hypotheses 1 and 2A.

Direct experience of consumer durables led to higher order beliefs and to more confidentially held beliefs for implicit product aspects, providing strong support for hypothesis 2B. This result confirms the predictions of the IIRM. Contrary to Wright and Lynch (1995), direct experience was not generally superior in communicating product information on experience attributes. We found only evidence for a direct experience effect on belief strength and belief confidence for implicit product aspects. It is useful to note here that the most important product aspects for these types of products, which are investigated in this study, are experience attributes. So, where Wright and Lynch investigated the difference between search and experience attributes, we concentrated on experience attributes. We only found a direct experience effect on implicitly communicated experience attributes.

Another contribution of this study was the addition of an intermediate level of direct experience, namely a 3D-sight condition. Compared to the photo-condition, subjects in the 3D-sight codition directed their attention more to the product and less to the explicit product aspects. However, this did not result in higher order beliefs or more confidentially held beliefs for the implicit product aspects. So, the three-dimensional view of the product compared to a product photo did not lead to higher degrees of learning. Although consumers and advertisers may value three dimensional pictures on, for instance, the Internet, the present results suggest that such pictures can lack the power to have consumers correctly infer implicit product aspects.

Where previous research employed a dichotomy of direct experience, the present study conceptualized direct experience as a spectrum. As suggested by the graphs in Figure 1 the relationships between direct experience and the dependent measures are probably linear in nature. This information may be useful in deciding the level of direct product experience required to achieve a desired level of consumer learning.

An important implication of the present findings is that because attention in the direct experience situation is more directed to the product, it is less possible to use a product description to guide information processing to specific, favorable, product aspects. This opens up avenues for product designers to try to manage what consumers learn from direct experience with consumer durable products by providing a more persuasive product design. Given that products cannot hide less favorable product aspects, designers may either redesign the product to eliminate those aspects or they can try to divert attention from such aspects. When advertisers need to communicate verbal information, such information gets less attention from consumers in a direct product experience situation. It is probably better to provide this information at a different point in time to achieve the desired communication objectives. With regard to the desired affective and conative communication effects, further research should investigated if direct product experience is able to contribute to these effects in a positive way.

Limitations and Further Research

Although we found results contrary to Wright and Lynch (1995), additional research might strengthen our results. Including another 2-level factor (experience vs. search attributes) may help in more conclusively deciding about the validity of the findings of both studies. Also, including a written description-only condition as a control group would allow for a stronger test of the hypotheses.

A drawback of the present laboratory approach, however typical in this field of research, is that consumers refrained from using the product as they would do in actual usage situations. However, one participant actually picked up the electrical toothbrush and tried it. Previous research on direct experience of consumer durables allowed participants even less interaction with the product. The real benefits of both products, the electrical toothbrush and the fan heater, obviously accrue over an extended period of time. Therefore, the investigation concentrated on a prepurchase situation that tried to influence consumers’ information processing rather than assessing the extent to which consumers received the benefits sought.

Direct experience with a product often is part of a variety of communication messages used within a communication campaign. For example, typically one first sees an advertisement for a product before going to a store to experience it. In this way, the campaign creates product awareness and may motivate consumers to acquire additional product information. Also the campaign can provide consumers with a knowledge structure that helps them in assessing the product’s implicit aspects. Further research might investigate the influence of direct experience under varying conditions of consumers’ motivation and ability to process product related information. Maybe extensive elaboration of advertisements by motivated consumers could be more powerful than cursory experience with a product by less motivated consumers.

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