Look Vs. Feel

Many years ago I worked for barnesandnoble.com. At the time, our tagline was something like, “If we don’t have it, nobody does.” We were in Boston testing site design changes. One guy hated the way the site navigation and search engine worked. He found it impossible to locate any book he was interested in. He suggested we rewrite the company’s tagline to, “If you can find it, you can buy it.” I was behind the one-way glass wall laughing so loudly that I’d be amazed if he didn’t hear me.

Everybody throws around the phrase “look and feel” when referring to the way something operates. That term became famous in the early days of the Mac/Windows rivalry, when there were lawsuits over look and feel. Windows looked and felt too much like the Mac, it was said. Today, that term has been adopted by Web designers to describe a site’s visual aspects.

Look and feel are two very different things, and I wish people would stop using that phrase as if they were one thing. Windows did not look and feel like a Mac. It looked like a Mac. It did not feel like one.

What’s the difference, and how does it relate to interactive marketing? A site’s look can be described by its physical and visual attributes. It has big blue buttons, black type, a clean layout, not too many graphics, and so forth.

A site’s feel is how it operates, or its modus operandi. When a site asks you to select the country you’re in so it can direct you to the appropriate localized Web site, one site may redirect you immediately when you click on an item from the list. Another may make you select the item and press the “go” button next to the list. Both sites basically look identical, but one site acts differently. Its rules about how it handles list boxes are different from the other site. The feel is different.

Let’s take a Mac/Windows example. While they looked similar, I remember that Mac menus would disappear if you unclicked the mouse, but the Windows menus would stay visible. Again, a difference in feel.

Many sites undergo major reconstructive surgery every year or two. They bring in a new design team or outside group and redesign everything about the site. Sometimes it’s good to change both the look and the feel. Other times, it’s important to only change the look, not the feel.

The subconscious mind is afraid of sudden, drastic change. In fact, you can alienate it if you change things too quickly. What qualifies as a change, though, isn’t what you’d think. The brain can handle changes in look much more rapidly than in feel.

Say we run a site that requires the user to select from a list box, then click “go.” To change the site’s look we make the list box bigger, put it in a different place, and make the “go” button look completely different. We change the color of it, change the font, and put it on the left of the list box instead of the right. These are all changes in look. But the feel’s the same. The business rules are the same: make your selection and click “go.” If we want to change the feel, we could tell the programmers we no longer require the “go” button to be pushed — the site will automatically acknowledge the selection when it’s made, and no further action is required. That’s a change in feel. We could leave the site exactly as it was (even leaving the “go” button there for older browsers that don’t support the JavaScript required for the automatic selection). But the feel would be different.

Which is more alienating?

Changing the Web site’s modus operandi or any other major business rule is much more alienating. The customer’s sense of who you are is a subconscious understanding. It’s based on how you interact with her. Through those interactions, the user comes to understand subconsciously how to interact with you. Those interaction rules are the basic building blocks of your customer relationships. When you change these rules dramatically, you upset the internal commitment users have for you. A similar alienation effect happens when continuous reward loyalty schedules are stopped (e.g., when you stop giving free shipping with every order).

There are many scientific experiments and principles that show this effect in animals. All prove that moving gradually is better than moving abruptly and that small changes are easier to stomach than large changes — even if the small changes happen frequently.

Does that mean you can’t do a complete redesign without alienating your customers? No, it doesn’t. It means your new design team must understand the essence of your site interaction and how it’s different from your competitors’. When redesigning the site, the team should strive to keep a similar feel, even though the look may be completely different.

Thoughts, comments, questions? Let me know!

Until next time…


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