Conversion: More Science Than Art

Build a better mouse trap, and the world will beat a path to your door. Maybe when we were younger and more naive, we believed that nonsense. VHS versus Betamax, Apple versus Microsoft, and countless other examples prove people aren’t looking for the best tool. Survey people, create focus groups, observe them in labs — you still may not learn the truth. People claim they despise pop-ups (don’t you?). But many sites have high conversion rates for well-conceived pop-ups.

It’s not that people are lying (although that happens). People are, for the most part, genuinely unaware of factors that influence their decisions, motivations, and actions.

A decision is the culmination of a cognitive process. It may take place almost instantaneously or stretch over time. Still, it’s a process, not an event. Study of cognitive processes is not in most modern marketing curricula.

Neuroscience, psychology, and linguistics provide valuable insights into the decision-making process. Yet many Internet marketers take their lessons from usability gurus instead of scientists with credible insight. Usability is not the study of human persuasion or motivation. It’s a study rooted in industrial scientist Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management. It’s focus is building better tools.

Usability Versus Persuasion

Contrary to what many human computer interaction (HCI) professionals teach, commercial Web sites are not merely tools. They are efforts to engage visitors in a persuasive dialogue. Nobody creates a commercial Web site to objectively inform or provide functionality for its own sake. The brilliance of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” was acknowledging markets as conversations between human beings.

Usability professionals often forget their science is based on studying the actions of participants usually motivated by fear of losing their jobs. Many usability studies still pay participants (this is why analyzing log file data is valuable, watching what people did, not what they might theoretically do). When was the last time someone was paid to visit your Web site? A visitor to a commercial Web site is a volunteer. She’s willing to interact with you as long as you present her with relevant feedback to her questions (implicit and explicit).

The process of planning a persuasive Web site elements is called persuasive architecture. In it, buying and selling processes are matched to information flow (like laying out products in a supermarket). The idea is to persuade visitors to take action. It’s similar to information architecture, which involves organization design and navigation systems to help people find and manage information successfully. The goal of traditional information architecture is to inform and educate, a commercial Web site should inform and persuade.

Of course, there’s value in usability and information architecture. But without broader training, “gurus” try to use narrow expertise to solve complex, multidimensional problems that go beyond the matter they’re qualified to comment on. Usability’s primary benefit is creating empathy for users who aren’t you.

Thirst for Knowledge

The fundamental principals of HCI improves conversion rates every day. There’s a tremendous wealth of knowledge HCI professionals can bring to the daily challenges of a commercial site. Without understanding eye-scanning patterns and Fitt’s Law, the commercial Web site community would be lost. On the other hand, how the three-click rule and the Law of Seven apply to navigation (when that’s not about recall but choosing) continues to baffle me.

Many HCI professionals conduct fair and honest research utilizing scrupulous scientific method. I’ve publicly but respectfully disagreed with Jared Spool. I believe his expertise in usability forces him to be myopic about the subject. He probably feels my conclusion is based on factors he can’t prove in his lab. Maybe this is what led him to be “shocked” in his newsletter when he wrote, “Content-related issues caused 40.2 percent of the usability obstacles.”

Don’t Follow the Leader Blindly

The danger is when respected experts overstep their boundaries. Jakob Nielsen is an example. In the past, Nielsen wrote intelligent, cutting-edge online usability commentary. When it comes to software and Web usability, he has few peers.

Nielsen goes beyond usability now. Either he believes he’s qualified to give sales, marketing, copywriting, and advertising advice or (as hefty price tags for a new book, services, and lectures indicate) he may have sold out. His widely read newsletter recently advocated text-only ads. Nielsen neglected to disclose the nature of a financial relationship with Google.

Beware of Oversimplification

Human persuasion will never be understood with rules. That’s how computers work. Adding human beings to the equation establishes a chaotic (nonrandom) system that defies perfect predictability. When you hear someone state with authority how humans will act, take it with a grain of salt.

Meet Bryan at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies in New York City on May 19 and 20.

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