Question: What do web users and professional athletes have in common?
Answer: They both make fast decisions about their next action based on limited information in the blink of an eye.
This thought occurred to me as I was reading How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It’s quite an amazing book. I say that because it’s a book about brain science and psychology (ooh, gotta get me some of that) and yet it’s really fun to read. Seriously.
The thrust of the book is that the traditional model of how human beings make decisions based on either a rational or emotional basis is flat wrong. Instead, the author’s position is that we make decisions using both our rational and emotional minds simultaneously.
Pretty heady stuff, to be sure. But Lehrer weaves in such compelling and well-written stories that otherwise dry subject matter really comes to life. I was reading a passage about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s decision-making ability on the field when the similarities between his thought process and that of a new user arriving at a site for the first time hit me.
Here are the lessons I took away from the first part of the book:
People react QUICKLY
The average time it takes a baseball to travel from a major league pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt is 0.35 seconds. It takes most people 0.20 seconds to react to a sensory input. That means the average major league hitter must decide whether to swing at a given pitch in less than 0.15 seconds. That’s just not enough time to engage the rational conscious mind.
Likewise, people landing on a site for the first time make instant subconscious judgments about the organization behind it based on the design of the site. I’ve referenced a study done by researchers at Carleton University before about how people begin to react to new interfaces in as little as .05 seconds.
People want to limit their risk
Our behavior isn’t driven solely by our goals. We’re simultaneously trying to advance our objectives while limiting risk. Tom Brady (quarterback for the New England Patriots) wants to advance the ball downfield while avoiding interceptions and sacks. Alex Rodriguez (of baseball’s New York Yankees) wants to make contact with the ball and get a hit while avoiding striking out.
Web users want to accomplish their task without having their identity or credit card information stolen, getting spammed, or wasting their time.
People use small visual cues to inform their actions
Major league hitters get conditioned to pay attention to every clue they can to help inform their decision about whether to swing at a given pitch. What’s interesting is that their decision about whether to swing begins even before the ball is released. They do this by focusing on “anticipatory clues” including the speed of the release, the angle of the pitcher’s arm, and the pitcher’s grip on the ball.
New visitors to a site form initial judgments based on the design quality of the site—use of color and images, layout alignment, affordance, use of negative space, and many other factors. Having participated in a number of user studies, I’ve always come away amazed at how people form judgments about a site based on such limited information.
I’ve also learned to appreciate how important it is to get the little things right. We’ve traced the root cause of bad judgments about sites to a variety of factors that are seemingly insignificant at first glance. But when we learned what those factors made people think about the underlying organization, we realized they had a huge impact on how the site/entity was perceived. Beyond the branding impact, the judgments people formed impacted the likelihood that they’d ever transact with the organization behind the site. Here’s a partial list of the design problems we’ve isolated and the perceptions they created in users’ minds.
- Poor layout alignment/Lack of visual hierarchy (disorganization)
- Too many fonts (unprofessional)
- Use of clashing colors (very small organization)
- Dense blocks of text (difficult to work with)
Interestingly, while many of the users in these tests reacted negatively to these design issues, almost none were able to explain their response initially. They just didn’t like it. Even after some prompting, very few were able to pinpoint any one specific design issue that caused them to react negatively. There was a consistent negative response to these interfaces, but that response manifested itself as a feeling. And it’s next to impossible to rationally explain why someone feels they way they do. Why do I love my children, when they regularly scream, whine, nag, vomit…? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I do.
Lehrer answers that pretty well: “the process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can’t directly comprehend.”
The power of feeling
The fact is that Tom Brady doesn’t consciously know why he chooses to throw the ball to a given receiver. He just goes with the one that feels right. Some people would say he has better instincts. In Tom Brady’s case, his superior instincts have translated into an annual compensation estimated at $50M. Not bad for throwing a football.
When it comes to landing pages, some manage to feel right—and some don’t. The ones that feel right are likely to experience lower bounce rates and higher conversion rates. Would better landing pages have a $50M impact on your business? Probably not. But the cost of improving your landing page feel is pretty small (remember, it’s usually the little things that make the big difference), and the potential upside is likely huge by comparison. So it’s probably worth testing.
Yes, you have to have all the other stuff right in order to gain a high conversion rate on your landing pages: meet expectations, apply usability best practices, provide the scent of information, have a compelling offer, a clear call to action, and so on. But none of that matters if the user abandons your site after three seconds because it doesn’t feel right.
We’ve redesigned a number of landing pages over the years, and I can explain what was wrong with the old page and why the new page performed better by pointing out individual design elements we tweaked—and I believe that those individual changes had a positive impact. But my sense is that in many cases the new design just felt better to the user. I can’t explain it, but I believe it’s true.
In next month’s column, I’ll go into more detail on how to test for and improve your site’s feel.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.