January 02, 2014

Getting Them to Click: Information Foraging in the Wild

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:

  1. Make something they want to consume.
  2. 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

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.

Mental Models

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. 


ButtonWhen 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.”



Windows 8The 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.


KindleAnother 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

Helpful Links

The Usable Planet” 

Windows 8 – Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users

Google Company Philosophy 

November 05, 2013

But what if they leave my site?!

Small- to mid-sized companies may have a heck of a time getting attention. Because of their size, they likely don't have the resources to afford integrated, enterprise-level solutions, and therefore rely on third parties to fulfill certain functions in a potential customer's web experience. These third party solutions may, in the short term, take users to a different domain or subdomain. They may or may not include:

  • eCommerce storefront
  • Loyalty programs
  • Application process

And small- to mid-sized companies aren't alone. Even larger companies looking to be efficient with their budgets may run a trial program and hope to curtail some of the up-front development costs by leaning on the companies that specialize in these sorts of things. 

So the question inevitably arises -- When people try to access these services, should we open a new window/tab, or should we direct them to the service in the same window/tab?

Marketing professionals tend to think that they lose something if the user navigates away from their site. Over the years, they've learned to focus on the wrong things.

Let's go ahead and put that baby to rest. People will leave your site. They will always leave your site. In fact, they'll probably spend most of their time on sites other than yours. Now relax. And focus instead on delighting your customer. 

If you really think there is an opportunity to delight your users by increasing their pageviews and time on site (and there may be), give them something that delights them. Don't annoy them by making it difficult to manage their windows and tabs.

How annoying is it? In my years of observing and moderating usability studies, I've met people who have expressed...

  • ...satisfaction that a link opened in the same window
  • ...satisfaction that a link opened in a new window
  • ...disappointment that a link opened in a new window

What I've never once seen is someone who has expressed disappointment that a link opened in the same window. 

Ultimately, how you handle outside links depends on a number of factors that I won't go into here, but don't automatically assume that linking them off is going to harm your brand. - Cam Beck @cambeck

 

October 03, 2013

Hobby Lobby: The Intersection of Belief and Business

Hobby_lobby

Hobby Lobby finds itself amidst controversy again this year when, allegedly, some frontline workers expressed some sort of rejection of or indifference towards the business of Jews. 

I've never looked into it, but I can imagine that Hobby Lobby probably attracts people who identify as Christian, just by reputation of the company. However, I wonder if there is a corporate culture that endeavors to teach how Christian principles meet everyday management and interaction with non-Christians. The Bible tells Christians to spread the Good News to all nations, but even as a company that (probably) attracts Christians, what mechanisms do they put in place to provide spiritual guidance to their workers to do that? How does that intersect with what they lawfully can do?

(As far as I know, Hobby Lobby does not discriminate against people for unlawful reasons. The above is conjecture concerning who they probably attract.)

The failure of Hobby Lobby in this case isn't about selling things for Hanukkah -- lots of companies don't sell Hanukkah stuff -- it's about teaching its people how to interact with honest, hardworking people, willing to spend money, who have a simple, unassuming question -- or even those who set out to trap or embarrass them.

The corporate office seems to "get" that the original interaction was flawed. Now we get to see what they do about it.

Photo credit: Fan of Retail 

September 27, 2013

The Google Encryption Dilemma

If you've been only moderately interested in looking at your search reports in Omniture, Google Analytics, or whatever tracking software you're using for your website, you've probably noticed an alarming growth in the number of referring search keywords that are (not provided) for you to see. If you're in this space heavily, you're probably well aware of it, and you may be  a bit miffed at Google for taking away these insights from you.

I've also come to enjoy the sorts of insights made available by this data, but take some comfort knowing that the sky is not falling. Your jobs just got a little more interesting.

Why did Google do it? Folks are saying it is a response to being dinged in the public arena for cooperating with NSA's prism program to track what people are doing online. 

If you understand how we actually get our data in Google Analytics, you know this explanation is curious. Excepting third-party CRM applications, we can't actually see who is searching. In Google Analytics, we can only see what they are doing in the aggregate, once they get to our site. Why can't Google send the aggregate data as they have been, so we can see which keywords are having the greatest success, so that we can optimize our site for the better-performing keywords?

Happily for us, there is a solution, which unfortunately means more specialization and attention than before, with fewer actionable insights. But it isn't nothing.

Note for beginners: Always have a Google Analytics profile with no filters applied. If you don't know what this means, I recommend picking up the excellent Avinash Kaushik's Web Analytics 2.0. I may address this at a later date, but he's your man, if you want to learn how to do this stuff.

Essentially, you have to "trick" Google Analytics to tell you what landing pages people are arriving at, when you're examining keywords from Organic Search. This doesn't tell you the keyword, but you see where they're going. Here's an excellent tutorial by Kiss Metrics that explains how this is done.

Also, install Google Webmaster Tools. From there, you can see which keywords are bringing people to your site. Even the "encrypted" ones (See? Was that so hard, Google?). What you can't see is what they did when they arrived at your site.

Examine your paid search performance to use as a proxy for organic search. In this case, Google isn't really telling you what people did, they're telling you what you're paying them for.

Continue your keyword research using whatever you've been using to try to identify opportunities for content development and writing. 

Rinse and repeat.

So what's coming? I have no idea. It's crossed my mind, however, that either Google is leveraging this unnecessary move in the name of a specious allegience to "privacy" to sell more stuff -- either more AdWords, its DoubleClick advertising platform, or access to Google Analytics premium -- meaning free access to Google Analytics basic gravy train would be on the way out (Hopefully a lower-cost option than GA Premium or Omniture, or else smaller companies just wouldn't be able to afford it).

Until that happens, the sky is not falling. And if it does, it will be time for smaller companies to look at other solutions. It's always good to be prepared.

August 15, 2013

Guest Post: Why Mobile First is the New Present and Future

Fun Facts:  New mobile device purchase/usage is growing 4x as fast as new people

Every Day:

371,000 Babies are born
500,000 iOS devices are sold
700,000 Android devices are activated
200,000 Nokia devices are used for the first time
143,000 Blackberry smartphones are purchased
_______________________________________________________________________
1.45M devices vs. 371,000 babies per day

About 25% of websites are viewed exclusively on mobile devices

The Mobile First approach to concepting, designing, and developing responsive websites is a relatively new concept that has received a lot of attention and support lately as the primary approach to handling responsive websites.  Since being first introduced by Luke Wroblewski more than four years ago, then radically adopted by Google in 2010, Mobile First has lately been making a strong case for becoming the new norm moving forward. It was one of the main focuses at this years Adobe MAX conference and still gaining momentum as mobile internet usage rapidly increases. 

Benefits, Opportunities, and Hurdles

From a design and UX perspective, a Mobile First approach forces us to to focus on what's really important.  Graceful degradation, browser to mobile, has us think of these larger-scale, oftentimes much more robust experiences, as a starting point - leaving us with the afterthought, "Okay, so how does this scale down for the mobile users." Many times there are problems with browser functionality that just don't translate well to touch screen devices.  With Mobile First, "Smaller screen size force designers to eliminate the irrelevant and unhelpful aspects of their design." It can really even been seen as a creative exercise to order content and graphic elements by importance and relevance before expanding creativity to larger, more robust screens - strategically streamlining only essential content.

From a development perspective, more and more frameworks are coming out or releasing new versions that are embracing the Mobile First approach - emphasizing how 'lightweight' they are starting at the base mobile screen. A problem with Graceful Degradation is that the elements are hidden for smaller screens but often loaded anyways - increasing HTTP requests and load times. Progressive enhancement, Mobile First, loads only the most basic elements and styles first and adds to those as the browser size increases - making mobile sites much more lightweight and letting users 'often have load times reduced by 30% - 40%.' Not the mention that the CSS styling from this approach results in smaller, more maintainable and easier-to-read code.

This approach would also make it easier to incorporate specific assets and styles for high resolution retina-ready screens and devices as well by detecting browsers by whether their pixel aspect ratio is above 1.5 or not. . It would not further weigh down smaller resolutions and at the same time provide retina users a better experience.

While this all sounds well and good on paper, it does come with a few hurdles. It can be a little weird to think of laying out an entire website starting on a 360px wide canvas. Creativity may seem very constrained, especially when having to consider, 'Wait, how do you even do that on a phone.' It's certainly the reverse way we're accustomed to approaching responsive websites, but it's a concept that probably isn't going away any time soon and has potential benefits that seem to outweigh the initial awkwardness of starting small. 

If our users are continuing to get their internet content from mobile first, shouldn't that be where we start too? - Damon Carlstrom

Damon Carlstrom has background in Interactive Design, Motion Graphics, and Front-End Development, lately focused on UX/UI Design and RWD (Responsive Web Design).