Consumers often use the length of time a service takes as a measure of its quality. The longer a session lasts, the better the value. Indeed, a new study shows that this holds true even when judging something primarily by its duration can backfire - for example when a longer exercise program is actually less effective than a shorter regimen or for a lock-picking service. In a series of real-world and lab studies, the researchers reveal how consumers misjudge situations in which longer isn't necessarily better.
"This research demonstrates that consumers tend to use the duration of a service as a basis for their evaluation of the service," write Catherine W. M. Yeung (University of Singapore) and Dilip Soman (University of Toronto). "Although consumers may understand that the duration of the service in itself does not determine its value, they tend to believe in a positive correlation between the two."
For example, in a real-world study with surprising results, the researchers found that consumers evaluated the price of a lock-picking service as a better value when the service took longer than when the lock was picked faster. When paired with price information, longer service periods were viewed more favorably than shorter service periods - even if duration should have nothing to do with quality or if faster service might be considered more efficient.
"We propose that consumers rely on the duration heuristic [judgment based on time] because it simplifies the evaluation process," Yeung and Soman explain. "In particular, the duration heuristic is most likely to be seen when the duration of the service experience is evaluable relative to other features and when duration is considered in relation to price."
Crucially, when no price information is given, time is not a factor in consumer evaluations, the researchers found. A consumer who does not know what to expect from a 60-minute physical training program will be unlikely to judge the program based on its duration. However, introducing a dollar amount allows consumers to make a price-per-minute assessment - and leads many consumers to prefer the longer session, even when there is no benefit to taking more time.
"Our position is that in general, the use of heuristics should not be regarded as irrational. . . . Human beings use heuristics because they are smart - they come up with shortcuts to simplify decisions that are less important so that they can spend more resources on decisions that are more important," the researchers write.
They continue: "Marketers who plan to improve the efficiency of their services should, therefore, make it very explicit to their customers that the shorter duration of their services is an effort to improve the efficiency of their services."
Catherine W. M. Yeung and Dilip Soman, "The Duration Heuristic." Journal of Consumer Research: October 2007.