What People Do on Your Site and Why

Ever since Google Analytics was introduced in 2006 people began an obsession with “what” happened on their website. They could understand that a certain number of visitors came to the website, that so many of them used the internal search, and that so many clicked here versus there. However, in order to progress to the next level in the analytics journey, you need to begin to understand “why” these things happen. Are there particular elements that decide certain behaviors on a website?

Once you begin to understand these influential factors you can then focus on the next phase of the analytics journey, which is to model and predict those visitor journeys (scenarios). It’s at this point you can take advantage of a continuous optimization cycle. Nearly everyone thinks of and then optimizes local points rather than a persuasive system.

Since it’s a challenge to predict behavior down to the individual level without enough data on each individual, our initial focus won’t be on true personalization of elements but on “persona”-lization.

From Hippocrates through Jung to Keirsey and beyond, humans have been trying to fathom the dimensions of personality and motivation. In the most general scheme of categorization, we’ve learned that each of the millions of different personalities falls into one of four main groups, which my brother and I labeled in 2001 in our book “Persuasive Online Copywriting” as Driver, Amiable, Expressive, and Analytical, and later renamed them to:

  • Competitive. Fast-paced decision-making, logically oriented
  • Spontaneous. Fast-paced decision-making, emotionally oriented
  • Humanistic. Slow-paced decision-making, emotionally oriented
  • Methodical. Slow-paced decision-making, logically oriented

It doesn’t really matter what you call them. The thing is, you need to become intimately acquainted with these personalities. They are your website’s visitors. And once you know who they are, you have the inside track on how you shape your design and writing to persuade them most effectively.

At the most fundamental level, all people are motivated by a single, critical question: what’s in it for me (WIIFM)? Their dominant personality types strongly influence how they ask that question, perceive value, and consciously – or more typically, subconsciously – approach a decision-making task.

You can certainly see this behavior when you listen to people during usability tests. In fact, check out this video for people searching for “black diamonds.” Listen to their choice of words, how certain things make them feel, and what moves them forward or causes them to stumble.

Usability pundit Jakob Nielsen shared the results of an eye-tracking study he performed in 2007 on the U.S. Census Bureau’s home page. He uses gaze plots to describe four main types of visitor behavior: “search-dominant,” “navigation-dominant,” “tool-dominant,” and “successful.” If you were to look at these four types of behavior through the lens of the personality types you would naturally see beyond what people gazed at and clicked on, and into why they acted the way they did. It’s a natural preference.


When you look at these four thumbnails, which personality type do you think is the methodical preference for slow decision-making style, logically oriented?

A, B, C, or D?

You don’t need to have a degree in psychology to see that image B is spending a lot of time on each part of the page with these heavy gaze plots and that is your Methodical behavior. Jakob’s “navigation-dominant user” behaves with a logical bias similar to Competitives, but with a far more deliberate pace. Methodicals want to become their own expert, studying every detail before they make a decision. No detail is too small. They want it all. The good news from a marketing communications perspective is that they’re willing to give you their time – provided you’re willing to give them relevant content.

The Methodical approach was to look everywhere: active window, left navigation, right-hand column, above the fold, below. You name it, they saw it.

What Jakob observed as a “search-dominant user” in this study was image A – the Competitive mode, working at a fast pace with a logical bias. The Competitive user quickly scans and skims everything, looking for a clue as to how to solve the puzzle. These users want their clues to their answers to be in your headlines and sub-heads and then they might explore more.

Jakob’s “tool-dominant user,” image C, the Spontaneous preference, behaves at a fast pace with an emotional bias. These users are highly experiential by nature. Jakob describes these types as people who “like parts of websites where they can do something.” They focus on the interactive features before leaving because you didn’t engage them quickly enough. The gaze went everywhere, without focus, until a single feature grabbed their attention – that is, until another rabbit hole appeared (on another website) that was more entertaining.

Jakob’s “successful user,” image D, behaves at a slightly less deliberate pace than the Methodical, but with an emotional bias. Testimonials and social were created for this type. They are attracted to the human elements of a page.

Many people mistake these four personality types as personas. Let me emphasize – they are not; they are just one element that can be used as a shortcut to understanding your visitors’ behavior, seeding your website with elements that match their motivation, and working on the next steps to uncovering what makes up your personas since these four characteristics exist in all humans. Understanding this may begin to help you understand why people took a particular action on your website.

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