The User-Centric Design Trap

User-centric design’s (UCD’s) aim is to enhance and improve the user’s experience with software or a product. This principle has benefits, but can it translate seamlessly to the commercial Web design process? Do UCD principles result in a customer-centric Web site that satisfies the diverse needs of potentially millions of visitors?

UCD complements the process of designing and optimizing a site for conversion, but it was never conceived to address the intricacies of building a persuasive system.

UCD at Its Best

For sound examples of user-centric design, stroll through the writing instrument aisle at an office supply store. There’s an impressive array of dozens, even hundreds, of different pens, many of which sport designs and features that are the result of years of UCD processes and research. Gel ink for a smooth, fluid writing experience; ballpoints; felt tips; soft handles to ease fatigue; and more. The inventory is a prime example of UCD evolution.

UCD principles abound in the tech world. Designers at companies such as Apple and IBM religiously adhere to company manifestos on the subject.

Placing the customer at the center of the product and design process and improving the total experience aren’t just noble goals. They can increase return on investment (ROI) and grow the bottom line.

So why wouldn’t retailers apply UCD principles to their Web sites?

They should, so long as UCD principles are used in conjunction with persuasion architecture.

UCD: Not Robust Enough for Commercial Sites

If simply creating the ultimate Web site experience is your goal, a UCD design process is certainly wise. If your goal is to create a profitable Web site that’s optimized to meet key performance indicator goals, then the UCD process, though well intentioned, falls short.

Improving user experience as an overarching goal seems noble but creates problems. You can upgrade a tractor’s design to a Corvette’s. This would dramatically improve the user’s experience, but would the user be able to move earth with a Corvette?

Your Web site isn’t a product. It’s not software. It’s a voluntary destination. Many UCD rules don’t apply. A commercial Web site, in its highest form, is a persuasive system.

Software Vs. Persuasive System

An accountant engages at a dramatically different level when he interfaces with Excel and Quicken than when he interfaces with Amazon.com. He’s more driven to learn, adapt, even study and practice using his software tools. If he had to do the same at a Web site, he’d likely bail before he clicked one page deeper.

Software helps users accomplish complex tasks more easily. Though that’s a function of some Web sites, a persuasive system does more. It motivates voluntary visitors to participate in a conversion process.

Placing milk near the front of a grocery store would improve the grocery shopping experience for many consumers but would negatively affect the store’s bottom line. Ever notice how many things you pick up on the way to the milk section?

A successful e-commerce site knits together the user’s buying process with your selling process. The persuasive system accounts for and benefits users while moving them toward conversion.

UCD isn’t flawed. Rather, it was never intended to solve the complex motivational differences a person has when using a product, as opposed to voluntarily visiting a Web site. When was the last time you were on a Web site because you had to be?

Users Vs. Volunteers

Software and pens are designed for consumers. They need these products, so UCD principles are warranted. Intranets, sites such as IRS.gov, even search engines function as tools, not persuasive systems. They benefit from UCD.

Other sites function as tools but require more persuasion to fuel momentum and visitor participation. Visitors to e-commerce sites are still volunteers. They can choose to accomplish their tasks elsewhere, online or off-.

Still other sites are completely voluntary. A visitor’s interaction with a shopping cart, participation in lead generation, or engagement with a branding site is more voluntary still.

UCD is noble, but it wasn’t developed to account for the voluntary scenarios outlined above, nor the complexities of online persuasion. UCD alone can’t provide the motivation required to propel a voluntary visitor to take an action.

Persuasion Architecture Creates Superior UCD by Design

Like UCD, persuasion architecture places the visitor at the design initiative’s center, but with a fundamental difference: The focus isn’t on one primary persona. Persuasion architecture, from the process’s first step, begins to solve the problem of voluntary participation. It accounts for the subtleties of divergent visitor motivations and maps them to the company’s site and overall goals. Personas extrapolated from customer research account for unique desires, motivations, and needs, even where each may be in the buying process.

During the wireframe process, each persona’s needs are mapped to the company’s sales process. Pages are created to answer specific questions and address needs with relevant content. Then, click-through paths are defined, providing action points on each page for each persona, propelling and persuading her further into the voluntary conversion process. As the Cluetrain Manifesto elegantly states, “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.”

By first taking inventory of each persona and her potential motivation, you’re equipped to address navigation and design elements that complement and encourage the wireframed participation paths. At this point, UCD principles can be applied to the design process. After the site is built, you can optimize these paths by carefully studying site metrics.

With persuasion architecture, you can design a tractor that rides like Corvette.

What Are Your Site Goals?

Whether e-commerce, media, content, or lead generation, each site type has dissimilar and often complex conversion goals. These can’t be achieved by improving user experience alone. Complex purchase scenarios and diverse visitor groups must be satisfied before business goals are met. True, most sites can benefit from UCD. But how, why, and when it’s applied makes a critical difference to a commercial site’s performance.

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