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Usability: Subliminal U-Turns

Filed under: All Articles > Industry News
By: NMK Created on: February 4th, 2005
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A new twist in the usability debate poses yet more dillemmas for web designers, online advertisers, retailers and service providers. Michael Nutley extracts the positives from this scenario...

By Michael Nutely

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Usability has always been a term guaranteed to provoke a reaction among Web designers. Even now, when the return-on-investment argument in favour of usability has become widely accepted, some sites still fly in the face of usable design. Navigation is unclear, language appears on-screen straight from the brief, forms cant be filled in.

So it might seem a strange time to start talking about making sites less usable; but thats one of the ideas starting to emerge from the financial services sector. The argument runs that some sites, particularly online banking sites, have become so easy to use that customers simply zip through them on auto-pilot, conducting their transactions with the minimum involvement possible before logging out. While this is ideal for busy consumers, its bad for the banks, which are losing the chance to sell more products to exactly those people who should be their hottest prospects their existing customers.

So the theory is that the site owners should periodically rework their sites, changing them subtly to disrupt the user journey and force customers to pay more attention to their on-screen surroundings. As a result the users will also pay more attention to the any advertising, whether in-house or from third parties.

Online loyalty on thin ice

This approach draws on the thinking of retail designers, who have long understood the value of changing the location of key items in order to increase customer dwell time in the store. The difference between the offline and online worlds is that while a new supermarket layout might be frustrating, its unlikely to drive you out of the store and into the nearest competing outlet. In the online world, loyalty isnt nearly so strong.

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

Theres also the continuing battle between intrusive and non-intrusive advertising to consider. One financial services company has found that because it sent out a recent fraud warning notice in red, its customers will pay particular attention to any wording that appears in red. But given that what were talking about here is learned behaviour, how long will this effect last before customers decide theyre being hoodwinked into reading sales messages? Research has already shown that what makes pop-ups irritating is not so much their pop-up-ness, but their irrelevance. If people feel they are being interrupted in their task they will react angrily. We dont yet know how annoying they will find having to pay more attention to what theyre doing on screen.

Upside of the downside

The irony is that, in this, online has a huge advantage over the traditional retail world its learning from, and once again its measurability. We know, through tracking software, how many customer journeys go uncompleted. We know how many online shopping carts are abandoned . Offline retailers, on the other hand, simply have no way of knowing how many of their customers bale out of the process before they make a purchase.

So while we may not know how well were doing in retail compared to our offline peers, we do know were improving the situation. And well also know how well were managing customer journeys in the future, rather than just looking at a sales graph and wondering what went wrong.

About the Author:

Michael Nutley is the editor of weekly magazine New Media Age.


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