You can’t force anyone to click, or do anything they don’t want to do on the internet. So how do you encourage visitors to your website to do what you want them to?
The answer is to use websites to engage in conversations with their users, just as a business would with a potential customer face-to-face. In person, they’d be polite, trustworthy, expert, answer questions (perhaps even before they’d been asked) and show off the business’s benefits over its competitors. In short: make the customer feel relaxed and in good hands.
You can anticipate the conversations a business would like to have with its customers and design the website to reflect that. Whether the business wants to make an online sale, provide information online before an offline sale takes place, or simply provide information – a website that answers its users’ questions will stand any business in good stead.
The practice of UCD (user-centred design) means considering a website’s end-users at every stage of the design process. As a designer, it is your job to balance the needs of clients with those of their users. The user-centred design techniques help you and clients understand what their customers want and need.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU WANT USERS TO DO
It sounds obvious, but if you don’t know what you want your users to do, how can you possibly design an online experience that encourages that behaviour? The business goals for the website and any given webpage are key. Goals provide a clear understanding of what the page is for and what the desired user actions are.
If a business or organisation wants a new or improved website, there will always be a reason behind it. Some businesses will have a list of goals or KPIs (key performance indicators) for its new website. Others will be less explicit. If you understand its reasons, you can design to meet its goals.
Eliciting business goals is often a case of simply asking. It’s something that’s easy to forget, especially when you’re caught up in the thrill of a new design project. For that reason, it can help to have a more formal approach to drawing out the information and documenting it. When starting a new project, the first step is to conduct stakeholder interviews, asking people in the business with an interest in the website a series of questions. Typically one of the most useful ones is ‘what will make this redesign successful for you?’ Answers can range from ‘a 5 per cent uplift in conversion rates’ to ‘a website that isn’t embarrassing’, but they are always helpful in shaping the design work ahead.
At the level of individual pages, it’s hugely useful to discuss business goals. It gives focus to the design work and provides a framework for critique of proposed designs. Does the design meet the business goals set for the page?
Consider documenting the page goals as part of the design process, perhaps as annotations to wireframes or alongside early sketches or content lists.
Understanding the goals of a webpage has the added benefit of allowing you to set up analytics to measure the outcome of your design choices.
UNDERSTAND WHAT USERS WANT TO DO
Considering likely user goals for any given webpage before you start design work is hugely important. It is always interesting to compare user goals with business goals. Are there any tensions there, and how can they be addressed? It is very difficult to encourage users to click in an environment that makes them feel uncomfortable or over-sold-to. Later on in this article, we’ll discuss specific ways of understanding what your users need and want. The point here is to list out user goals alongside business goals, and discuss any conflicts before you start on design work.
An extremely common example of business needs conflicting with user needs is within transactional forms. Businesses typically want to gather as much customer information as possible, alongside eliciting permission to use that information for marketing purposes. Customers, on the other hand, want to complete their task as quickly as possible, give away as little information as possible, and sign up for no spam at all.
PRIORITISE, PRIORITISE, PRIORITISE
A prioritised list of page content is the first thing to start with when designing a new webpage. If you don’t know what the most important item on the page is, how can the page be laid out to convey that?
Discussing the conflict between business and user goals is an invaluable tool for prioritising page content and calls-to-action. If you want users to click, you need them to clearly understand what and where to click. If there are too many options, choice paralysis will set in.
There are often lots of things that the business would like the user to do (buy now, add to shortlist, share on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest, read reviews, add a review, understand the returns policy, look at more products, read another article – the list goes on and on). Clearly, the most important item on that list is to actually buy the item. In order to design a coherent experience, we need to know which of those options the business most wants users to go for. If we know that, we can design a page that supports the business goals. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll have to design a page that equally supports all those options, which is likely to provide a bewildering array of choices. A prioritised list of desired page content and outcomes is every UX designer’s friend.
REFLECT USERS’ LANGUAGE
Remember that conversation the website is having with its customers? Here’s where the analogy comes into its own. If the website speaks the same language as its users, they are far more likely to click where the website’s owner would like them to. If site content is organised in a manner that is logical to its users, they are far more likely to find what they are looking for. A sales person wouldn’t use complicated jargon when speaking to a new customer face-to-face, so don’t do it on the website.
Common mistakes here include using business- or system-centric language. For example, my current pet hate is a link on the Virgin Tivo UI. It says, ‘express series link’. I know from experience that this means ‘record series’, but I’m always reluctant to click it as the wording introduces doubt in my mind. What on earth does ‘express’ mean, and why do I want a ‘series link’? Another easy mistake to make is to organise a website’s navigation and information architecture around the business’s internal structure. Where I work, we call this “’showing your organisational underpants’ (www.cxpartners.co.uk/cxblog/showing_your_organisational_underpants). An example might be having main navigation options based on revenue streams, when these names mean very little to new users arriving from a Google search. Is my virtual course listed under Training or Online shop? Who knows, but a joined-up experience would be much more useful.
UX practitioners have a number of tools and techniques to help them understand their users’ worlds. Chief among them is user research in the form of user testing. Interview existing or potential website users about their needs and concerns. Watch them use the website or those of competitors. This is the single most valuable activity you can do to improve a site’s UX. I’m lucky enough to work somewhere with a dedicated user research lab. It contains a computer and cameras, with audio and video links to a viewing room elsewhere in the building. We use a market research company to recruit existing customers, or people matching the customer profile, as test participants. We typically devise hour-long user tests and invite our clients to come and view them so they can learn along with us.
However, you don’t need all this fancy kit to conduct invaluable user research. You just need a computer and some test participants. The key with test participants is to get people who have experience of the content you’re designing around. For a camera website, your dad may not be suitable, but your mate the photography enthusiast could be. Your client may be able to help you out here – can they point you at any existing customers? Talk to your interviewee about
their experiences in your area of interest. Try to ask them about past experiences rather than asking them to speculate about what they would do – you’ll get much more accurate information. Note the words they use to describe the things they are looking for. Watch them using relevant websites. What works, what doesn’t, and why?
There is a veritable wealth of information to be found on how to conduct user research, it’s all over the internet and in plenty of books (sorry for the shameless plug, but that includes my own book). There is also a number of online tools that allow you to conduct user testing remotely.
Website analytics are another useful tool for informing user-centric navigation and other naming structures. What search terms are users typing into Google before arriving at the site? What about the search terms users type into any existing site search? Can you adapt the terms the website uses to better match the terms real people use?
SUPPORT USERS’ TASKS
The key here is to understand what the website’s users are looking for and to tell them that the website has it (or to not waste their time if it doesn’t!). Answer their questions at the appropriate time and don’t bombard them with too much information up front.
It is useful to capture the gems we learn in user research in diagrams. These diagrams are then used to support our decisions throughout the design process. For example, a task model is a diagram that describes the activities users perform in order to reach their goals. They help us to create websites that fit seamlessly into users’ lives.
To generate a task model after conducting user research, look for patterns. One way to do this is to write each task or activity you heard from your test participants on a Post-it note. If you were looking at a website selling shoes, you might have heard someone say ‘I need to know if this is heel is low enough to walk in’, so you could write ‘Heel height’ on your Post-it. Keep going with all the needs you heard in user research. Get your client involved – are there any other questions they get asked? Once you’ve got a wall full of Post-its, you can start to organise them. Take away duplicates, and then try to put them in chronological order, perhaps grouping them into phases in the process. This is your task model. You might want to document it in a drawing program so you can share it and easily refer back to it, but you have all the information right there in your wall of Post-its.
The illustration shows a possible shoe buying task model (don’t rely on it, it’s made up!). There’s a free task model template available to download from www.cxpartners.co.uk/ux-resources.
Task models come into their own when designing the user journey through a website. This is often a balancing act between too much information and a clean design. For example, a page with a list of many products on it needs to provide summary information to allow users to decide which product to click to find out more. If you know that the main things that your shoe buyers care about are price and appearance, design a product-listing page that allows users to easily see what the shoes look like, as well as refining by price.
Use a task model to help you decide which features are important enough to users that you need to filter out unsuitable options early on. Provide richer details later in their journey, for example on an individual product page where the information may be more relevant. Returning to the shoe example, your task model might show that most users need to understand material and heel height, in addition to the overall appearance. Some users care about wide fittings and others about returns information. When you design the page, prioritise the information most users need, then provide the information that others want, but give it a reduced visual priority so the page remains clear.
ANTICIPATE USERS’ PROBLEMS AND CONCERNS
This is goes hand-in-hand with supporting users’ tasks, and is again about having a conversation with a website’s users that they find helpful. What are your customers worried about, and what can you do to address their concerns? Again, creating a task model helps here. Also, customer-facing staff are great people to ask for this information: shop assistants or anyone who speaks to customers on the phone. Ask them about common customer questions or problems. Ask them what they do or say to resolve them.
Recent research has revealed that some users wanted to search for a particular product by name, while others wanted to use its code. The website only used codes to refer to the product, so users who wanted to search by name ended up leaving in frustration. We redesigned the website to use both name and code every time the product was referred to, including in main navigation and in search results, and this has tested well. If you fail to solve your users’ problems on the website, they will have to go elsewhere to solve them, and they may never come back.
Again, this is about the conversation the website is having with its users. Does the business want to come across as a trustworthy one? There are many, many things that contribute to users’ perceptions
of trustworthiness. User research will identify the important factors for the website’s specific situation.
As food-for-thought, here are some examples I’ve come across:
Users don’t like surprises, particularly when their hard-earned cash is involved. Be really clear about stock levels, pricing, and the implications of options and extras.
Be consistent. Always refer to the same product or concept using the same words, whether that’s in site navigation, content or in the shopping basket. Make sure sums always add up and
show what’s included.
Users prefer ‘real’ content. Showing your expertise with blogs or news can be compelling, but don’t resort to filler as it will erode trust. Think twice before using obvious stock photography.
Be careful with advertising. A poorly located or ill-chosen advert can really undermine trust. Conversely, unintrusive ads from companies that your users feel complement your offering can be seen as helpful.
Use clear, well-written, proofread copy. Even a small thing like a spelling mistake will make some users doubt your veracity.
If you have a customer services phone number, show it in the header area of every page. I have often seen user test participants looking for the phone number of a company they are unfamiliar with. They generally don’t want to actually call the company, but a concrete number is reassurance that the business exists in the real world, and they are not about to get shafted.
Use clear design. Make clickable things look clickable. Provide clear calls-to-action: make it obvious what your users should do next.
USE SOCIAL PROOF
Social proof is one of psychologist Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion, which have really worked their way into the world of UX over the last few years. One persuasion principle is that of reciprocity, whereby if someone gives you something, you are more likely to give them something in return. Another principle is scarcity, in that we feel compelled to act faster if we feel that we will otherwise miss out.
Psychological persuasion techniques can be extremely powerful, but be careful not to go too far and undermine trust. For example, using the scarcity principle to show that there is only one item left in stock may well cause users to act, but it will seriously erode trust if they think it’s made up (‘are there really 20 other people looking at this hotel room right now?’)
The social proof persuasion principle states that people are more likely to do something if they see that others are doing it too. There are clearly many applications of this to web design projects:
Customer ratings and reviews. Make sure you stay trustworthy, though. Don’t remove negative reviews. I’ve often seen user test participants deliberately seek out negative comments in order to reassure themselves the content is genuine.
“People who looked at this eventually bought…” and other recommendations. The key here is to be genuinely useful. Irrelevant recommendations really undermine trust.
‘Zeitgeist’ links (which reflect what’s popular at this moment in time) such as top tens, most reads, bestsellers or most shared.
TEST, ITERATE, AND TEST AGAIN
If you have examined the business and user goals for the website, then they are the first things you should test your designs against. Does your design support the business goals for the site as a whole or for any given page? Does your design answer users’ needs and concerns, as documented in the task model?
If you really want to make users click, you need to watch them using your product. Look at when they click what you want them to, and crucially, when they don’t. Why didn’t they do what you wanted them to? Is there anything you can do about it?
You don’t have to wait until you’ve finished building a new website before you test it with users. In fact, it’s best to test as early as possible. That way, if you need to make a change, it should be quick and easy to make. Where I work, we typically design wireframes to convey the initial UX of a website. Wherever possible, we conduct user tests on these wireframes.
Of course, different practitioners will produce different deliverables, ranging from sketches to PSDs to fully-functional HTML. But the principle of testing with real users remains the same. It is surprising how quickly test participants happily interact with even the most low-fidelity sketch. We generally test on wireframes because we find they provide the best balance between understanding if the design meets user needs, and making cost-effective changes. They provide enough information for users, before requiring the visual designers and developers to make changes.
User testing your designs, whatever fidelity they may be, will always show you ways in which you can improve them. This time, you’re trying to understand if users can find everything they need. Do the words you have used for the navigation system make sense to them? Can they predict what will happen when they click on a link? Are they able to complete any forms there may be? Even if there is any information missing, or your users cannot find it, or your forms are tricky, you’ll come away from the testing sessions knowing what needs changing, and buzzing with ideas on how to improve your design.
DON’T ASSUME CONTEXT OF USE
Don’t assume you know where users are or what device they are using. They may be at home, at work, on public transport, or out shopping. They may be on a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone, an internet TV or next year’s new gadget. They may be using more than one of these items at once and they will likely be using more than one of these devices over the course of several interactions with the website.
Yes, it’s unlikely that someone’s going to buy a £2,000 holiday on their iPhone on the bus on the way home, but it’s not impossible. Do you really want to miss that sale? Admittedly, a more likely scenario is that someone who’s considering buying a holiday is using that spare half an hour on their commute home to browse for holiday ideas.
There is plenty of debate about approaches to this question. First, it was all about iPhone apps, then mobile-specific websites. Now the focus is on responsive design, with techniques and best practice shifting over time as lessons are learned.
Technology issues aside, I would argue that consistency is the most important factor here. What if your commuter on the bus wants to take another look at the holiday they saw in your print brochure or on their laptop computer at home? They might be very frustrated if their iPhone redirected them to a mobile-only website that did not provide as much detail as the brochure or the desktop website. How many times have you found yourself madly scrolling to the bottom of a mobile website in the hope of finding a link to the desktop version?
Of course, you don’t want to force mobile users on patchy connections to download loads of superfluous images, but if the images are truly redundant, why subject your desktop users to all that clutter?
Prioritising your page content and having a thorough understanding of the website’s users and their tasks really helps with decision-making when it comes to considering context of use. My advice would be to never give your users a reason to go to another website to complete their task, even if they are on the bus.