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May 09, 2007

Annoy Your Customers at Your Own Risk

Yesterday I wrote about the pitfalls of companies forcing users to do work and provide information, even though the company gives no clear and compelling benefit for it. Matt Dickman was kind enough to chime in and point me to an article he wrote back in March that succinctly spelled out the basic questions companies should ask themselves before embarking on a path that will ultimately get in their customers' way and annoy the heck out of them.

  1. Do you even need the information?
  2. Can you get this information someplace else?
  3. Do you give the customer something for this information?

Matt provides excellent commentary on why each question is important, and I highly recommend you check it out.

The conversation got me thinking about my experiences in testing the usability of web sites that ask for a lot of personal information. What I found is reflected in this graph.


What does this mean?

  1. People are somewhat forgiving of poor design. People are not accustomed to interacting with great websites. That is why you will normally get some adoption even if your site annoys users. I suspect this is some derivative of what I'll call the "clipboard syndrome," or the tendency of some percentage of people to do what they're asked, just because they're asked by someone with authority.
  2. The benefit of improving your site's usability, past a certain threshold, quickly increases the adoption rate. Asking for information you don't need and giving no clear and compelling user benefit for collecting it is generally highly annoying to users.
  3. No site is going to eliminate all annoyances for all users. We're not homogenous, so different people won't have the same set of things that annoy them. The best you can hope for is to eliminate the big issues so that smaller, less consequential problems can be revealed. No one can see the mouse when there's an elephant in the way.

Don't let this discourage you from advocating continuous improvement, though. Research and testing can tell you what your users want, but not always what they might want, if they knew something might be available. Just make sure that with every new innovation on your website, you keep track of your abandonment rates -- especially on your forms if your innovation requires collecting more information -- and test your site with a few users. If the rate of abandonment increases, chances are you're annoying your users more, or else a less annoying alternative has emerged that you need to find a way to keep up with. - Cam Beck


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Kaizen is my mantra for quality, productivity, and customer happiness. Minimalism is one design state of mind to help achieve the goals.

Cam -- I really like the usability knowledge you bring to this topic. I've found it's often a balancing act between launching a new site and having it perfect. There is a point of diminishing returns on the design and it's often hard to see. Your main point is one to strive to internalize...you can't please everyone.

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