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This book is about persuading visitors at your web site to do what you want them to do. It’s about compelling users to add items to a shopping cart, fill out an application form, or send you an email. It’s about getting users to click.

But what makes users click? There have been enough dot-bomb failures to remind us that it’s hard to design and build a web site that will turn site visitors into customers. Companies now realize that improved usability can improve their transaction rates. After all, if Aunt Grace can’t figure out how to check out her shopping cart, how can she buy anything?

So, in come the usability consultants (myself included) who get paid to tell you what’s wrong with your site and how to fix it. Make your links blue and underlined. Make your buttons clickable. Structure your site according to how your users think. The rules, guidelines, and heuristics go on and on. Better yet, conduct some usability tests. Gather some users who match your demographic profile and ask them to perform some key tasks on your site. Measure whether or not they are able to buy a stereo on their first try and measure how long it takes to complete the task. Observe any problems they encounter, make suggestions, change the prototype, and test it again to see whether there’s been an improvement. Iterate and test the design for as long as you can afford to (or until you run out of muffins); eventually, you’ll have a “usable” site.

But that’s not enough.

What? After all that time, effort, testing, and the numerous iterations, having a usable site isn’t enough to make the site a success? Well, sure, your site should be fairly usable at that point, but there’s one thing missing from the equation: Why would your users click through your site?

Just because your users can figure out how to do something on your site doesn’t mean they want to. Having the most easy-to-use web site in the world does not mean people will do business with you online. You must provide more. You must create a need for your users and compel them to act. You must be persuasive.

A Web Hierarchy of User Needs

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who proposed that human motivation could be explained by a desire to meet a hierarchy of needs. He suggested that people would be motivated to take care of their basic physiological needs such as food and shelter before they would concern themselves with “higher-level” needs such as being loved or having self-esteem.

The same can be said of web users. They have basic fundamental needs that must be addressed before they can be ready for the higher-level activity of being willing to transact with a site.

Your site must be available, be usable, instill confidence, and create desire for your users to transact.

The web version of the hierarchy of user needs can be described in four levels:

  1. Availability. The foundation for this web hierarchy is making your site available to your users. If your site isn’t reliably up, or it requires the latest browsers and plug-ins, or it feels slower than watching paint dry, then your site really isn’t available for your users to use. I won’t talk much about accessibility because it should be a given.

  2. Usability. If your users can’t navigate and find items, they can’t purchase them. If they can’t figure out how to fill out your sign-up form or check out your shopping cart, they can’t transact. Usability is about users being able to use your site—especially those who are already motivated to transact.

  3. Confidence. Web users will hesitate to transact online unless their confidence is built up in two areas: The first is the confidence that they have selected the right product or service to meet their needs, and the second is the confidence that you are the right business or organization to provide that product or service.

  4. Desire. After you’ve created a site that instills confidence in your users, you need to further motivate them with the desire to transact. You have to influence your users to the point where they want to take action.

Pause for a moment and think of your own site: Is it readily available? Can people figure out how to navigate through it? Do you provide information, photos, or demos that make people want your product or service? Do you help your users feel confident that they can trust you enough to do business with you online? Do you create a desire within users that prompts them to transact? These are the fundamental elements of persuasion that will be discussed in this book.

The Obligatory Definition

Following this preamble about how persuasion is more than just usability and how sites need to meet a user’s hierarchy of needs, we need a short definition of what our objective is with regard to persuasive web design. So here’s the obligatory definition of what we’re trying to do:

Persuasive Web Design: The art and science of designing web sites that help users to make decisions that result in desirable transactions.

It’s a science because repeatable methods exist to study and analyze what works on the web to define design guidelines. It’s an art because the guidelines have many exceptions, and they don’t cover all design decisions. Persuasive web sites guide users by providing good navigational usability, they educate users on how to make an informed choice, they allow users to be motivated by eliminating any qualms about trust and security, and in some cases, they can even move users toward a goal they didn’t realize they had. In short, persuasive web sites remove barriers and motivate users toward transaction.

Seven Principles to Remember

To help set the stage for this book, I’d like you to keep in mind seven principles that I’ve used to design more effective and persuasive web sites. They aren’t based on some massive study surveying the best practices from web developers in North America and six foreign countries. They are simply based on the practical experience I’ve gained during my web years.

Principle #1: Your Competition Includes Your Competitors’ Web Sites, the Web, and the Offline World

When you think about your competition, you probably will first think about your competitors’ web sites. You’ll compare your look and feel, your content, your functions, and even your navigation bar to theirs. Your competitors’ web sites are a useful starting benchmark, but you shouldn’t stop there.

One often-overlooked competitor is the web itself. Internet users seem to treat the web as one giant application. As they go from site to site, users say things like “Why isn’t this sign-up form as easy as the one on Yahoo?” or “Why isn’t the search on this site as quick as Google’s?” Users see the web as one “thing,” and they invariably will compare sites regardless of their purpose or industry. Anything short of “how good it was at that other site” might leave your users frustrated and disappointed.

The other major competitor to your site is the offline world (i.e., real life). If your site doesn’t make something easier or more convenient than its offline equivalent, it probably isn’t worth the disk space it occupies.

Let’s compare the task of buying collectibles. Suppose I collect Beanie Babies. (Please believe me when I say that this is only an example.) In the real world, I might scour my local newspapers’ classified sections in the hope of finding Poofie the Dog for sale, only to learn that the one listed seller is willing to part with only Prickles the Hedgehog. Before I despair too much, however, I could go to an online auction site such as eBay <www.ebay.com> and find 9,890 Beanie Babies available, 57 of which are my pal Poofie. In this case, the web is better at helping me find and buy Beanie Babies than the real-world equivalent.

Principle #2: Not Everything Makes Sense to be Sold on the Internet

Okay, so this might seem like a pretty crazy guideline for a web design book, but it’s true. Let’s take, for example, the need to purchase dog food. If I’m going to run out of dog food in a couple of days, I conceivably have two choices:

Option 1:

Get in the car, go to the pet store, and buy an 18-lb. bag of dog food for $18.99.

Option 2:

Go online, order an 18-lb. bag of dog food for $18.99, add on $5.99 for shipping and $4.00 in weight fees for a grand total of $28.98, and hope that the shipment comes before the dog starves.

You don’t have to be an animal activist to recognize the deficiency of option 2. Why would anyone choose to go online to obtain something that has a high shipping cost relative to its price and that is needed quickly? This doesn’t mean that other pet-related items—such as apparel, toys, or high-margin pet products—shouldn’t be sold online. You just need to make sure that your online products can meet your users’ needs and that you’re not catering to those who are shopping for a hungry dog.

Principle #3: You Must Earn the Right to Transact with the User

The challenge of getting users to transact with you the first time they visit your site is like trying to steal a kiss on a first date. There’s a lot you have to do before you can ask anything from your users. You need to give them something of value, and you need to prove to them that they will benefit from transacting with you.

One time I went to look at a career site (note to my current employer: I was strictly doing research for this book…), and I wanted to perform a keyword search of available jobs. Before I could do so, however, I had to register and become a member. It was obvious that the site’s objective was to acquire as many registered users as possible. The problem with this approach was that I had no motivation to register whatsoever. Why should I register when I have no idea whether there are any job listings of interest to me? Why should I give my personal information to a site that has given me nothing? You’ve got to earn the right to ask for information or for any type of enduser transaction by first giving something of value.

Principle #4: You Know Everything about Your Site, but Your Users Know Nothing

When users come to your web site, all they see are your web pages. They don’t know that you had to organize your site by business units because of internal politics. They don’t know that because of the way that your database was developed, you have to force them through some extra, unnecessary steps. They don’t know any of these things, nor do they really care.

What your users see are the web pages in front of them at the very moment they are trying to do something. Each page either helps them move forward in the process or puts them a step back. If you have gaps in your functionality or you don’t provide guidance to your users, you can’t expect them to just figure it out. It’s obvious to you because you’ve spent the past two months implementing that particular feature or section; your users, however, have just spent eight seconds on the current page and have determined that they can’t figure out where to go next.

Similarly, you can’t assume that your users know about your products and services. For example, some electronics sites list products according to their model numbers. This is great for the three (okay, five) people who know these numbers, but the rest of us want to find the CD player that can read MP3s. It’s easy for us to know our own products and services so well that we forget how hard it was to differentiate them in the first place.

As web designers and developers, it’s easy to get caught up in the internal politics and technology hurdles that narrow our vision in terms of how to design the site. It’s easy for us to focus on designing a site from the inside-out, where we have great internal reasons and knowledge for why the site is the way that it is. What we must do, however, is look at the site from the outside-in. We must be vigilant and see the site from our end users’ perspective to help them, rather than us, make sense of the site.

Principle #5: Anticipate Mistakes and Variations Ahead of Time

One of the common traps that web-design teams fall into is that they focus on designing for those times when everything goes right. A design team might be working on a particular area and make statements like this: “The users will click here and enter their names, addresses, and phone numbers. They’ll click Continue and then enter their user ID, click Submit, and finish the registration.” Although this is fine as a starting point, you need to anticipate the types of mistakes and variations that users may encounter. What often happens is that the ideal situation is designed, but no consideration is given for when things go wrong.

You need to plan ahead in terms of what happens when a user doesn’t enter the information properly. What if there are users from Canada? Will you allow them to register? What happens when the user enters a user ID that’s already taken? Will you provide some alternative available ones? Don’t wait until you’re going through development to start addressing mistakes and variations—by then it’s too late. Your safety net should be conceived and designed ahead of time rather than trying to apply a bandage later on.

Principle #6: Either You Do the Work or They Do It

Imagine a user named George who is going to move to a new city next month. He goes online and checks out the web sites of three banks in the new city with the purpose of determining what type of account he should open and at which bank. Here are the different experiences he might have at these sites:

Site #1

George goes to the Banking Accounts section and sees links for the Premier Account, Elite Account, and Superior Account. Hmm… he’s not sure which one to pick, but he decides to select the Premier Account. On this page is a short description of the account but no pricing information. Instead, there’s a link for something called a PDF that promises more detailed information. George clicks on this link, and his browser chokes because it isn’t configured to read PDF files.

Site #2

George goes to the Bank Accounts section and sees links for the Basic Account, Value Account, and Premier Account. Underneath each link is a short description highlighting the main features of the account to help him select which account might be of most interest to him. Another link to Compare Accounts brings him to a page with a table highlighting the features and fees associated with each account.

Site #3

George goes to the Accounts and Account Plans section and sees the various account options. Each contains a short description, just like the second site. But a link called Choose the Right Account catches his eye. He clicks on it and sees that it’s an interactive tool. It asks him about his needs and recommends an account that will minimize his fees.

These three sites are fundamentally similar in that they provide basic account information. They are vastly different, however, in terms of the effort they require of their users. George’s goal is to find the right account that meets his needs. Site #1 forces him to figure out which account might interest him, but he’s not helped because there are no meaningful descriptions. The web department that produced the site didn’t take the time to convert the product information into HTML; they just uploaded the PDFs because it was easier for them. This forces George to work harder because he has to configure his browser to read files that were convenient for the bank to produce. Why would George want to do this?

Site #2 fares a little better by providing descriptions underneath the account links. A comparison table further helps George figure out which account is best for him, but he still needs to do some calculations to see which one is most economical for him based on his needs.

Site #3 does the most work for George. It provides all the basic information, but it also goes the extra mile by interactively helping George figure out which account is exactly right for his needs. George doesn’t have to whip out his calculator, nor does he have to go back and forth between pages to compare account details.

As you progress from site #1 to #3, you see an increase in how proactive the site is in helping the user make a decision. Site #1 is definitely not the way to go because it requires its users to do too much work. Sites #2 and #3 offer two different—but acceptable—approaches that are suited to different users. Site #2 is less proactive, but it enables users to make their own informed decisions. Site #3 requires users to enter some information, but its recommendation can help reassure less confident users. Whether you would choose to implement Site #2 or #3 (or both) is up to you, but keep in mind that the more you meet your users’ needs and do the work for them, the more likely they are to transact.

Principle #7: Help Your Users Do What You Want Them to Do

This whole book is about getting your users to click. Whether it’s the next link or a submit button, you need to help your users click on what you want them to click. Here’s an example of a page that exemplifies this concept:

RealPlayer’s upgrade page includes many redundant links to make it easy for users to choose the paid-for version of this streaming media player. www.real.com

Okay, so you’re probably wondering to yourself, “Big whoop. What’s the big deal?” Well, the big deal has to do with the context of how users arrive at this page. If you were using an older version of Real Network’s RealPlayer (a streaming audio and video player), you would receive a notification for a free upgrade to RealPlayer 8. When you click on that link for the free upgrade, you are brought to this page.

What’s interesting about this page is the way it’s laid out. The first thing you notice is all the links that say “Download Now.” These links—and the one in the middle of the page called “Download RealPlayer 8 Plus Now”— all link to the Plus version of the player that is $29.95. In other words, there are four redundant, prominent links to the paid version of the application.

But where is the free upgrade? Well, it is there; it’s just a little hidden. Take a look at the bottom left corner and there it is. This screen shot is what the page would look like at an 800×600 resolution, which (as of this book’s writing) is still considered the minimum resolution that the majority of users have. What’s even more interesting is that the link to RealPlayer 8 Basic is on the left (where people don’t tend to look for next steps), and it is in a gray bar that seems to blend in with the scroll bar at the bottom.

Keep in mind that this is a very annoying page, but that’s not the point here. The point is that it’s obvious that Real Networks wants you to buy the Plus version of its player and that the company has gone to great lengths to make it easier for users to do what it wants them to do. I’m not recommending that you go to these same extremes, but I am saying that you need to proactively guide your users down the desired paths you want them to take.

The Stage Is Set

As web site designers, we have to realize that we need to work hard to get users to transact. We have to build web sites that are like a good salesman (minus the Vitalis) that provides the right balance of nudging and support to earn that click. Chapter 1, “Getting Users to Click,” will provide the persuasion and decision-making framework to make those clicks happen.

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