In spite of traditional marketers’ best efforts over the years to influence human behavior, mind control is still thankfully beyond our reach. But getting people to do what they ought to do in the wild doesn’t require mind control any more than getting a lion to chase a gazelle does. All you need to know is what they’re looking for and provide a clear trail to their prey. The lion provides the appetite.
That’s the basis of a theory developed by a couple of researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center in the early 90s. They postulated that people’s information-seeking behaviors are analogous to the food-seeking behaviors of animals. Put simply, we subconsciously perform a cost-benefit analysis when we are seeking information with the goal of expending as little energy as necessary to get it.
People are ruthless when they’re on the hunt for information. Depending on the goodwill they have stored up with you, they might not stick around long to find out whether they can find it with you.
This demonstrated lack of patience forces us to look at visits from a different perspective. An undisciplined obsession with clickstream analytics has given many companies the wrong idea. More pageviews and time on site are good things, right? Well, maybe, maybe not, and there lies the rub. We don’t know. If your visiting informavores are jumping from page to page because they lost the scent of their prey, then more time on site or more pageviews are undesirable. However, if they are confidently creeping closer and closer to their hunt, then a higher pageview count may be, in fact, desirable.
In reality, the real brand goal—for any brand—is not typically to keep visitors on your site longer, it’s to increase the audience’s storage of goodwill, which will give them the sort of confidence that you want them to have in your brand: that you can provide them what they’re looking for, even if their immediate experience tells them otherwise.
So how do you make your website appealing to these starving information hunters? The core principles are pretty simple:
- Make something they want to consume.
- Make sure it is easy to catch.
This brings us to two key aspects to finding information, which are information scent and mental models.
Information scent in user experience design is the extent to which a given thing accurately communicates its function and the information the author intended to communicate. That sounds pretty academic, but think of your web visitor as a predator who is sniffing for clues that might lead it to its desired target. If the scent gets stronger, they will keep pursuing. If it gets weaker, they either change course or abandon the pursuit altogether.
Information scent has applications beyond the digital realm. Think of the last time you were at a door and you pulled when it was push only. The “Push” sign was right in front of you, yet you still pulled. Why? The door’s interface (handles) communicated “pull” more strongly than the word communicated “push.” Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, put it this way:
“When a device as simple as a door has to come with an instruction manual—even an one-word manual—then it is a failure, poorly designed.”
The same is true of digital interfaces. Your average visitor in a mass-consumer market won’t stick around long enough to learn a simple interface, much less a complicated one. Your audience shouldn’t have to learn it at all. It should just work the way they expect it to work. A strong information scent will help your visitors get from Point A to Point B with little effort.
Where do people get their expectations about how something should work? It’s a complicated question, especially when we’re discussing complicated tasks and human needs. For now let’s focus on the micro-interactions that help users complete complex tasks. People come to your website with all sorts of baggage that they’ve accumulated through years of activities in their analog and digital universes. Much of that baggage, as it turns out, is sensory, or more specifically, visual.
“The visual part of the brain takes up half of the brain processing power.”
– Susan M Weinschenk, Ph.D., Neuro Web Design
In human factors design, we call this baggage “mental models.” The informavore’s sense of smell depends on their mental models, which is why our design decisions must take account of them.
When designing things that should be clicked, think about what people perceive to be clickable. The button metaphor has worked so well for so long because the mimicked three-dimensional button icon invites users to press on it. This is called a “skeuomorph,” which has been falling out of favor with designers in recent years, most notably with the Windows 8 redesign, and culminating in the iOS 7 launch, which eschewed the traditional skeuomorph with what has been called “flat design.”
The early results from usability tests on interfaces with flat design have been mixed. One of the most prominent usability experts, Jakob Nielsen, has called for some sort of “golden middle ground between skeuomorphism and a dearth of distinguishing signifiers for UI elements.” In an early review of Windows 8, Nielsen stated, “The Windows 8 UI is completely flat… There’s no pseudo-3D or lighting model to cast subtle shadows that indicate what’s clickable… Icons are supposed to (a) help users interpret the system and (b) attract clicks. Not the Win8 icons.”
Skeuomorphs are not the only way to tap into the mental models of a digital audience, but it is certainly worthwhile to consider why they are helpful and what purpose they serve before abandoning them altogether simply to chase after something because it seems more modern.
Another example where the digital realm borrows from the real-world models is the popular eBook reader. Whether the manufacturer of this reader is Amazon, Sony, or Apple, they wisely continued the page-turn metaphor for advancing to the next page that people have nearly a thousand years experience using.
Mental models evolve over time just as real-world experiences evolve. Children growing up in an automated, digital, touch-screen world will have different mental models than their parents. Children can be seen waving their hands in front of a lever-operated towel dispenser waiting for a towel to come out. Their mental model is shaped by automation, not simple machines.
The Google Imperative
The dominance and sophistication of search have made the situation more severe than ever. As people become more confident in the search engines than they are in any given landing page, rather than spend time trying to figure out the interface, they’ll go back to search and pick a different result. This learned behavior occurs more frequently as search engines improve their algorithms.
What’s more, the search engines are always adjusting their algorithms to make sure the most relevant results bubble to the top. Their brand depends on it. So if an interface itself doesn’t help solve the problem, chances are that the page will be so obsolete that it will rarely be seen by people searching for whatever the page was supposed to provide. The best strategy to get good search engine optimization from Google is to align your ideals with theirs:
“Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
—from the Google Company Philosophy
Tapping into the Mainframe
The brain is a complex labyrinth of memories and relationships. Designing an interface to get and keep its attention amidst that complexity means simplifying the experiences that people have by borrowing from the real world and providing obvious cues to aid people in the discovery of how the interface works. Tapping into the existing, relevant mental models of the target audience creates the information scent that will lead informavores to their prey. - Cam Beck
“The Usable Planet”
Windows 8 – Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users
Google Company Philosophy