Irrational Behavior

Thirty years ago, David Halberstam completed his first book, “The Best and Brightest,” a groundbreaking study chronicling the ill-fated policies that led to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. At the heart of his piece, Halberstam presents an important paradox: President Kennedy carefully selected a group of advisors characterized by their collective brilliance. Yet, despite their intelligence and sophistication, they failed to rise above the prejudices that defined the Cold War. If highly rational people can’t avoid irrational behavior, what does that say about the rest of us?

We are all inherently irrational, not because we fail to consider solutions or actions in a reasonable manner, but because the definition of rational behavior rests in the eyes of the beholder. As a frustrated parent, I can’t understand why my boys wage epic battles over the same toy, when the house is filled with enough stuff to stock a small store. Yet, because my youngest son cannot magically eliminate the three and a half years separating him from his older brother, he wages power struggles to make sure he is treated on equal terms. For him, the only rational course is disruption.

The rapid growth of the Internet’s own audience means greater exposure to what may be perceived as irrational behavior by its users. Spanish metaphysicist Jos&eacute Ortega y Gasset lamented the rise of the masses in the early 20th century, claiming that modern society created a type of man “who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is a new thing: the right not to be reasonable.”

Unfortunately, if we want to be effective using a mass medium, such as the Internet, we cannot afford the luxury of Ortega’s thinking. We need to build communications strategies that reach out to everyone, rational or not. Here are three ways to narrow the gap.

Find common ground. Internet users may seem prone to irrational behavior, at least by the standards of the people who designed the sites they visit. In fact, developers and users may not be operating based on the same experiences. Therefore, design, navigation, or information architectures that might seem perfectly sane and reasonable to developers can fail miserably with users.

Developers can avoid this disconnect in several ways. First, incorporate people with different backgrounds and viewpoints into the process, since they will better reflect your target audience and will spot trouble areas faster than a smaller, more cloistered group. Second, don’t be afraid to reuse what already works just because it doesn’t seem creative enough. An essayist may dismiss the word “about” as a vague preposition, but, as a link, its meaning is crystal clear for any Web user seeking background information on a company.

Test assumptions. Of course, the most direct approach would involve testing users themselves, even at the risk of receiving answers we may not want to hear. Jakob Nielsen acerbically noted last year that some of his critics complain he must be conducting his usability tests with “stupid” volunteers. The real stupidity lies in the blind arrogance of some developers who would rather blame users who fail to “get it” than take steps to make things easier.

Nothing identifies problems faster than usability studies with prospective site users, and a surprisingly small number of people can identify weaknesses within a site. Research conducted in 1993 by Nielsen and Tom Landauer indicates that you only need five testers to spot 85 percent of a site’s usability problems.

Provide alternatives. Every day I join the throng of suburbanites who surge through New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Part of the fun includes watching veteran commuters who know how to maneuver through this labyrinth and arrive at their appropriate track in the fastest and most direct manner. Penn Station does not impose one single system to get where you want to go, and neither should Web sites.

What makes this point particularly critical is the simple fact that many Web users don’t know what they are seeking in the first place. Research from Xerox PARC suggests that they search more randomly than rationally. Web users don’t look for specific answers; they want multiple sources of information that will allow them to evaluate choices and make decisions. So a good navigational system offers alternatives, because it recognizes that different users have different tendencies for locating information.

The great test of the Internet lies not just in the cool logic of its technology but also the sensitivities it displays in serving a polyglot universe of different talents and temperaments. Web sites that accept the inevitability of irrationality will always deliver the right message, even when the recipient might not be the best or the brightest.

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