Qualified Answers to Persuasive Architecture

Information architects weighed in on my discussion of persuasive architecture. This reaction is typical: “Basically, good IA and good design combined with a sensible business approach will lead you to success. No big news there.”

I have tremendous respect for information architecture (IA) as a discipline and as a profession. But I’m going to ask information architects to take the bulk of the blame for the lack of persuasive architecture on commercial sites. The breakdown occurs in the “sensible business approach” part of the exercise.

Businesspeople involved in creating a commercial Web site don’t know, don’t value, and are not trained in IA. Information architects must know the value of thoroughly understanding a prospect’s buying process. Why don’t they press for these answers? I’d like to know.

This isn’t the first time I’ve ranted about mis- or lack of communication between technologists and marketers. Every time I think about this, I get ill. Millions of dollars are wasted every day in pursuing solutions that can’t or won’t work. Just a few hours of forethought would do the trick.

If we can all agree on the fundamentals, we can make progress. Nobody will buy anything until they are presented with something they want or need, together with the right value proposition. Alternatively put, to make the right presentation to a prospect, I need to “qualify” their level of interest, their motivation, their timeframe, their financial situation, and whether my product or service (as presented) meets their needs. If a prospect doesn’t recognize that my product or service meets her need, I’ve done a poor job of either qualifying the need or expressing how I do meet it.

Let’s also agree a commercial Web site gets only four types of traffic. First, perfect prospects who know exactly what they want. Think of a self-actualizing buyer seeking features, brands, and model numbers.

Second are prospects who sort of know what they want. Think of shoppers with a strongly felt need but who have not yet narrowed down their search criteria.

Third are prospects who aren’t sure they want anything but might buy if what they want were to appear. These are windowshoppers. They have no strongly felt need in mind, but one could be suggested to them.

The fourth group aren’t prospects, nor are they qualified to take advantage of the product or service. They’re there by mistake. Be happy when they exit gracefully.

Let’s agree you and I are different. We don’t think the same, act the same, nor have the same motivations or personalities. Personae, or user cases, are theoretical constructs. Prospects’ life situations, limitations, and personality styles are created. Personae play a critical role in helping to think outside of self-imposed boxes.

During the uncovery and wireframe project stage, we can distinguish between how a 42-year-old divorced mother of three; a 54-year-old flesh-pressing male CEO; and a shy, 26-year-old male programmer might buy. From page to page on a Web site, we can imagine each taking different actions for different reasons and motivations. Even when each is successfully persuaded to buy, there were three unique buying experiences.

If we agree on fundamentals, implementation shouldn’t be difficult. It shouldn’t even be costly. This is primarily a mental, not technological, exercise. It should involve the people who know most about the product or service.

Lost Opportunity Costs

Why should it be difficult for my brother Jeffrey, who is 6 feet 2 inches and weighs over 250 pounds, to find out what cars he’ll comfortably fit in and can easily parallel park? Do car companies think these are bizarre or stupid questions? A good answer is worth about $35,000.

Why can’t my attorney friend, Cindy, search online for the computer configuration that meets her needs? Dell.com does a better-than-average job qualifying prospects. But Cindy’s needs aren’t served by a site that initially asks what business she’s in. Her needs would be better met by asking what applications she’ll use on the computer. Even if this was on the category page, how many clicks would it take to answer the questions? Every click is an opportunity to lose prospects.

Jeffrey and Cindy aren’t unusual. These categories are two of the most competitive in e-commerce. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on marketing to the Jeffreys and Cindys of the world. Jeffrey and Cindy come to Web sites optimistic, then leave disappointed.

Is disappointment the brand association you seek? How much time and effort have you invested thinking about how your prospects buy?

Bryan will speak at ClickZ Email Strategies in San Francisco, November 18-19.

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