Usability: Subliminal U-Turns

By Michael Nutely

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Usability has always been a term guaranteed to provoke areaction among Web designers. Even now, when thereturn-on-investment argument in favour of usability has becomewidely accepted, some sites still fly in the face of usabledesign. Navigation is unclear, language appears on-screenstraight from the brief, forms can’t be filled in.

So it might seem a strange time to start talking about makingsites less usable; but that’s one of the ideas starting toemerge from the financial services sector. The argument runsthat some sites, particularly online banking sites, have becomeso easy to use that customers simply zip through them onauto-pilot, conducting their transactions with the minimuminvolvement possible before logging out. While this is ideal forbusy consumers, it’s bad for the banks, which are losing thechance to sell more products to exactly those people who shouldbe their hottest prospects – their existing customers.

So the theory is that the site owners should periodicallyrework their sites, changing them subtly to disrupt the userjourney and force customers to pay more attention to theiron-screen surroundings. As a result the users will also pay moreattention to the any advertising, whether in-house or from thirdparties.

Online loyalty on thin ice

This approach draws on the thinking of retail designers, whohave long understood the value of changing the location of keyitems in order to increase customer dwell time in the store. Thedifference between the offline and online worlds is that while anew supermarket layout might be frustrating, it’s unlikely todrive you out of the store and into the nearest competingoutlet. In the online world, loyalty isn’t nearly sostrong.

So the dilemma for designers becomes how much can you change asite, making it less usable but potentially driving increasedresponse to advertising, before you alienate your users.

There’s also the continuing battle between intrusive andnon-intrusive advertising to consider. One financial servicescompany has found that because it sent out a recent fraudwarning notice in red, its customers will pay particularattention to any wording that appears in red. But given thatwhat we’re talking about here is learned behaviour, how longwill this effect last before customers decide they’re beinghoodwinked into reading sales messages? Research has alreadyshown that what makes pop-ups irritating is not so much theirpop-up-ness, but their irrelevance. If people feel they arebeing interrupted in their task they will react angrily. Wedon’t yet know how annoying they will find having to pay moreattention to what they’re doing on screen.

Upside of the downside

The irony is that, in this, online has a huge advantage overthe traditional retail world it’s learning from, and once againit’s measurability. We know, through tracking software, how manycustomer journeys go uncompleted. We know how many onlineshopping carts are abandoned . Offline retailers, on the otherhand, simply have no way of knowing how many of their customersbale out of the process before they make a purchase.

So while we may not know how well we’re doing in retailcompared to our offline peers, we do know we’re improving thesituation. And we’ll also know how well we’re managing customerjourneys in the future, rather than just looking at a salesgraph and wondering what went wrong.

About the Author:

Michael Nutley is the editor of weekly magazine New MediaAge.

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