DECODING DECISIONS: Why marketers need to master the messy middle

2 September 2020

Decoding Decisions: Making sense of the messy middle is a collaboration between Google and The Behavioural Architects to understand the nature of consumer decision making on the internet today.

We are proud to say that this work has gone on to win TWO prestigious awards: the MRS New Consumer Insights Award AND the MRG award for best research initiative!

The way people make decisions is messy and it’s only getting messier. Our challenge was to understand how consumers make decisions in an online environment of limitless information and abundant choice.

We conducted literature reviews, observed hundreds of hours of shopping journeys and ran large scale quantitative shopping simulations across 31 different categories, including CPG, Travel, Leisure and Automotive.

Through this research, we created an updated model of consumer decision making - the Decoding Decisions model. This reflects the reality of decision-making behaviour in the internet era, including:

  • An on-going state prior to the purchase trigger called EXPOSURE, whereby consumers are influenced by prior experience of a brand - from a previous purchase experience, brand communications, word of mouth and generic product and category associations.
  • The non-linear and evolving nature of decision making and how consumers cycle through multiple loops of EXPLORATION and EVALUATION as ideas, information and brands are sought and assessed. By observing people’s behaviour on and offline as they shopped a given category, we found that consumers loop between two mental modes: exploration, an expansive activity; and evaluation, a reductive activity. This is the ‘messy middle’ in the centre of the model. It illustrates how people can loop back and forth and can repeat the cycle many times before making a purchase.
  • The role of heuristics (short cuts) and cognitive biases within decision making, and how powerfully these can influence brand choice in the ‘messy middle’. We found that people cope with complexity by using cognitive biases buried deep in their psychology. These biases existed long before the internet and our purchase simulations show how relevant they are to decision-making today.

You can read the study here, but please contact us if you'd like to learn more about the work.


Enter your email address below to receive a monthly round up of our blog posts:



The Behavioural Architects' articles are always stimulating, entertaining and informative and make BE principles both engaging as well as usable for all our readers Editor Impact Magazine and
Our digital clubhouse which is designed to inspire, share best practice and delight would be very different without The Behavioural Architects Gemma Greaves Global Managing Director The Marketing society
Its client testimonials show it has made behavioural economics accessible and actionable MRS judges ‘best new agency’ award
TBA have brought behavioural science thinking to some of our challenges in a way that is accessible for colleagues from across the business and has created actionable outputs Martin Bryant, Senior Consumer Insights Manager, KFC UK and Ireland
The Behavioural Architects did a great job of understanding our needs in this multinational project. They used a behavioural-led methodology to deliver clear and actionable output Ruchika Khattar, Global Marketing Innovation Manager, PepsiCo
One of the best articulated deliveries of insight I have seen in 20 years in the research sector. Damian Stevenson, Head of Insight at the Amateur Swimming Association
The behaviour change research has been the lynchpin of our entire new strategy to get more people swimming Nick Caplin, Amateur Swimming Association, Director of Participation
I’ve worked with TBA on a number of studies... all of them have allowed us to get to a depth of insight into basic behaviour that has transcended borders. Catherine Moffatt, Vice President Global Shopper Planning & Customer Marketing, Diageo
The magic comes from how TBA works with us to get to simple, actionable ideas using the BE principles. Catherine Moffatt, Vice President Global Shopper Planning & Customer Marketing, Diageo
Every project has resulted in activities that have unlocked growth for Diageo but, importantly, they’re also pieces of work that we keep going back to and that continue to inform new activities long after the original studies were run. Catherine Moffatt, Vice President Global Shopper Planning & Customer Marketing, Diageo
We tasked TBA with a challenging brief on a national survey and they exceeded all our expectations throughout the process Jennifer Bufton, Sport England 
Their enthusiasm and relevant application of this theory alongside highly actionable and impactful insight delivery that really engages our stakeholders. Jacinda Norman, Category Insights Manager, Waitrose
The team at The Behavioural Architects Sydney have played an instrumental role in uncovering the key behavioural challenges for the Bundaberg Rum brand. Clara Lee, Senior Insights Manager, Diageo Australia
By using behavioural principles in analysing research, we’ve been able to go beyond the rational system 2 responses and tap into the deeper, subconscious system 1 responses that are often difficult to articulate. Clara Lee, Senior Insights Manager, Diageo Australia
For the first time in over a decade, we have clarity on the shift that we need to make to bring our brand back into growth. Clara Lee, Senior Insights Manager, Diageo Australia
The TBA team are a friendly, highly organised and intelligent bunch of people to work with. We consider them an extension of our internal Insights team Clara Lee, Senior Insights Manager, Diageo Australia
The behavioural science work conducted by The Behavioural Architects Sydney team has uncovered insights that we would never have uncovered by asking consumers questions directly Alla Nock, Marketing Research, Analytics & Capability Manager, Kimberly-Clark Australia
Observing consumer behaviour through a Behavioural Science lens has uncovered key nuggets that we have now used to influence behaviour. Alla Nock, Marketing Research, Analytics & Capability Manager, Kimberly-Clark Australia
The Behavioural Architects Sydney are a valued  business partner of the Water Corporation (Perth), who’s expertise and insights into behaviour change has been instrumental in helping to shape our communications strategy and to deliver an outcome that produces results.    Paul Tuffin, Customer Insights Manager, Customer Strategy & Engagement Water Corporation (Perth, Australia)