Category: Usability

Do we really need the frying bacon close-up?

bacon fryingThe scene opens with a wide view of Owen leaning over the stove. Next is a close-up of Owen’s face peering down at the skillet, a bead of sweat dripping from his forehead. For two seconds we see a close-up view of sizzling bacon before returning to a wide view of Owen scooping the bacon out of the pan and carefully placing it just so on a plate of eggs and French toast. Cut to a scene of Owen bringing this newly prepared breakfast to his bride in bed.

”Happy Anniversary, honey.”

The budget conscious movie producer drops the script on the table and stares at the director.

“Do we really need the close-up of Owen’s face? The set-up for those shots adds a ton of extra cost. And the bacon close-up? Really? Does that really add anything to the story? Are we going to sell even one less ticket if that shot is not in the movie?”

But the director insists, “Yes, we have to have those scenes. They add the emotion and visceral impact that is required to tell the story, to let the audience feel Owen’s love. They are as essential to the story as the dialogue. Those shots are the difference between a professional film and a home movie, and no one will pay to see a home movie. They may not list the close-ups as the reason they don’t like the movie, but trust me, they’re a much larger factor than you think.”

The director is right. (And don’t worry, this post will eventually get to the retail relevance.)

I’ve been reading a lot about how our brains make decisions. Books such as How We Decide, The Hidden Brain, and Switch all explore the two parts of our brains that combine to formulate our decisions. Scientifically, those parts of the brain are the neocortex and the amygdala. In Switch, the Heath brothers call them the Rider and the Elephant; others call them the rational brain and the lizard brain. Whatever we call them, our decisions are the combined effort a conscious part of our brains that control our rational thinking and an unconscious part of our brains (the Hidden Brain) that controls our emotions.

Think you don’t make emotional decisions? Think again.

It turns out that without our emotional brains, we wouldn’t be able to make decisions at all. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer recounts the story of a man whose brain injury caused his amygdala to stop functioning. As a result, he was utterly incapable of making even the simplest decisions in life. Without an emotional brain to push him toward a decision, his rational brain simply went into analysis paralysis.

Our brains are extremely powerful, but they’ve got a lot going on. As a result, they basically compartmentalize processing power and take shortcuts when encountering situations that seem similar to past situations they’ve encountered. While this compartmentalization is generally very efficient, it has its drawbacks. Here’s how Shankar Vedantam explains it in The Hidden Brain:

The conscious brain is slow and deliberate. It learns from textbooks and understands how rules have exceptions. The hidden brain is designed to be fast, to make quick approximations and instant adjustments. Right now, your hidden brain is doing many more things than your conscious brain could attend to with the same efficiency. The hidden brain sacrifices sophistication to achieve speed. Since your hidden brain values speed over accuracy, it regularly applies heuristics to situations where they do not work. It is as though you master a mental shortcut while riding a bicycle—bunch your fingers into a fist to clench the brakes—and apply the heuristic when you are driving a car. You clutch the steering wheel when you need to stop, instead of jamming your foot on the brake.

Now imagine the problem on a grander scale; the hidden brain applying all kinds of rules to complex situations where they do not apply. When you show people the faces of two political candidates and ask them to judge who looks more competent based only on appearance, people usually have no trouble picking one face over the other. Not only that, but they will tell you, if they are Democrats, that the person who looks more competent is probably a Democrat. If they are Republicans, there is just something about that competent face that looks Republican. Everyone knows it is absurd to leap to conclusions about competence based on appearance, so why do people have a feeling about one face or another? It’s because their hidden brain “knows” what competent people look like. The job of the hidden brain is to leap to conclusions. This is why people cannot tell you why one politician looks more competent than another, or why one job candidate seems more qualified than another. They just have a feeling, an intuition.

This same “leap to conclusion” occurs when people visit our websites. They come to our sites with a preconceived notion about what a quality website looks like, and many times those preconceived notions have much to do with the types of design elements that many “rational” thinkers would equate to the frying bacon close-up described in the movie scenario above. It’s hard to imagine how a rounded borders versus straight borders might effect someone’s likelihood to convert, but it will because the hidden brain is making lightning fast decisions about a site’s credibility based on everything it sees and how closely what it sees matches up to its past experiences with what it found to be credible websites. A customer will not likely point to border type as a reason she didn’t buy; she’ll just feel uneasy enough about the site that her ultimate decision to buy will go negative.

Conversely, the right design can play a huge role in increasing a site’s credibility and turning that decision to buy in the right direction. For example, there have been numerous experiments conducted over the years that show how the price of a bottle of wine can genuinely affect people’s taste. In his blog, Jonah Lehrer discusses the wine experiments and “The Essence of Pleasure” and shows how paying close attention to the “essence of a product” or a site, like “Coors being brewed from Rocky Mountain spring water, or Evian coming straight from the French Alps” can actually lead to a change in sensory perception. This, of course, is what good branding is all about and it can absolutely make the difference between new customers further engaging with our sites or bouncing off to another site.

Since customers won’t generally be able to tell us about specific design elements that are causing them discomfort, we need to use various techniques to help us get to the heart of the truth. Multivariate testing can be a great way to understand the immediate value of different designs. Combining multivariate testing with a predictive voice of customer methodology like the ACSI methodology used by ForeSee Results (shameless plug) can really help us understand the long-term brand impact in ways that simply multivariate tests alone cannot. It’s critically important to understand our customers’ perspectives on design in context with their overall future intentions in order to get to a truth of design’s impact that even the customer could not tell us directly.

Metrics and methodologies can point us in the right direction, and then we need to hire and trust talented, professional designers to do their thing. In the end. high-quality, professional design speaks well to the hidden brain and leads to enhanced credibility. Enhanced credibility facilitates a better selling environment. So, yes, we really do need the frying bacon close-up.

What do you think? How is design treated in your organization? What tips do you have? Or are you not buying it?

2 important concepts for better usability

As I mentioned in my last post, I believe (and data I’ve seen at ForeSee Results supports this belief) poor usability is the #1 obstacle to better conversions on our sites.  Getting usability right is hard — very hard. It requires a mindset that is very difficult for most of us to develop naturally. In fact, I’d argue that our natural development tends to pull us further and further away from the mindset we need to design highly usable websites.

Two concepts we need to carefully consider — and strike the right balance between — are “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.”

Knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world are concepts introduced by noted psychologist, cognitive scientist and author Don Norman is his classic book, The Design of Everyday Things, which I just finished reading. The book was originally written in 1988, well before the web as we know it existed. But the principles he discusses about the design of doors, faucets, phones and other everyday things are extremely relevant to web design. To me, chief among those principles are the concepts of “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.”

Here’s how Norman explains the two concepts:

Human memory is essentially knowledge in the head, or internal knowledge. If we examine how people use their memories and how they retrieve information, we discover a number of categories. Three are important for us now: 1. Memory for arbitrary things. The items to be retained seem arbitrary, with no meaning and no particular relationship to one other or to things already known 2. Memory for meaningful relationships. The items to be retained form meaningful relationships with themselves or with other things already known. 3. Memory through explanation. The material does not have to be remembered, but rather can be derived from some explanatory mechanism.

Knowledge in the world acts as its own reminder. It can help us recover structures that we otherwise would forget. Knowledge in the head is efficient: no search and interpretation of the environment is required. In order to use knowledge in the head we have to get it there, which might require considerable amounts of learning. Knowledge in the world is easier to learn, but often more difficult to use. And it relies heavily upon the continued physical presence of the information; change the environment and the information is changed. Performance relies upon the physical presence of the task environment.

He goes on to note that “whenever information needed to do a task is readily available in the world, the need for us to learn it diminishes.”

It’s very interesting to look at our sites in the context of these concepts. Imagine a typical customer. What knowledge about how to use the site would she have in her head? How does that compare to the knowledge in our heads about how to use our sites? What’s her educational background, familiarity with web technology and familiarity with our sites versus our educational background, familiarity with web technology and, most of all, familiarity with our own sites?

The reality is, we are not like our customers.

It’s very difficult for those of us who work on sites day in and day out to see our customers’ perspectives. Elitism is the source of poor usability. We all too often consider ourselves to be proxies for our customers. It’s easy to do, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it myself. After all, we are customers of our own businesses, and we see things that work and don’t work for us as customers. We have to remember that we have a lot more knowledge in the head, particularly about our own businesses, than our customers do. And that knowledge in our heads prevents us from seeing our customers’ perspectives. We also easily miss lots of “tree stumps” on our sites that regularly get in our customers’ way.

So, should we just include step-by-step instructions for everything on our sites?

No, I don’t think that’s necessary or even prudent for everything. Norman explains lots of design principles that, if applied, should make many elements of our sites highly intuitive without instructions. But we probably should include a lot more help than we do. We really need to listen to what our customers are telling us and watch them use our sites. It’s the only way to get a better sense of the knowledge in their heads so we can know where we need to include some knowledge in the world.

For example, all too often username or password requirements are not mentioned at the point of entry and customers only find out about them when an error message occurs. Let’s be clear about those requirements upfront.

What type of terminology is being used in navigation? Are customers likely to equate “jackets” with “outerwear” or “stoves” with “cooktops?” One quick way to get a sense of terminology customers use is a review of search terms customers use.

Conventions can be our friends

There are certain conventions that are established enough to effectively be knowledge in the head for most of our customers. For example, navigation on the top of the page and on the left are common enough that we can reasonably expect the majority of our customers to find navigation in those places.If we veer from those types of conventions, though, we have to remember that we’re messing with that knowledge in the head.

But we have to be careful with conventions as there are many site practices that might be second nature to us and not to our customers. I once watched a usability session where on-screen instructions directed the customer (a 40ish or so middle class man) to select “the drop-down box.” He searched around the page looking for a box labeled “drop-down” and didn’t find one. That terminology wasn’t familiar to him. Some of our everyday language isn’t as common as we might assume.

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While many of the concepts from Don Norman’s book have already seriously changed the way I look at the world (I think my wife may be getting annoyed at my now constant commentary on the design of every door we see), I most appreciate the relatively simple concepts of “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.” Forcing ourselves to identify what elements of our sites’ designs require which of those concepts will lead us to create significantly more usable sites for our customers. And more usable sites will absolutely lead to more sales. Woo hoo! Bonuses for all!

What do you think? Do you see your site differently in the context of these concepts? Do you have other concepts you like to use?


Social, mobile and other bright, shiny objects

It’s official. Social media and mobile commerce are this year’s bright, shiny objects. I recently attended a couple of industry conferences where those two topics dominated the agendas, and the trade mags and email newsletters are full of articles on everything social and mobile.

Heck, I’ve also written a white paper and blogged about social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I think social and mobile are important opportunities for us to improve our businesses. I just don’t think we should focus on them to the exclusion of some of the core aspects of our sites and businesses that still need a lot of work.

The level of our success with any of these new technologies is going to be limited by the effectiveness of our core site capabilities and constrained by any internal organizational challenges we might have.

Here are some topics I’d love to see get a little more press and conference content time:

  • Usability
    From my vantage point at ForeSee Results, where I can see customer perceptions at many different retailers, it’s clear that our sites have not come close to solving all of our usability issues. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying improving usability is the #1 way to increase conversion. I’m currently reading a book called “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. The book was written in the ’80s (I think) so there’s no mention of websites. Instead, he talks a lot about the design of doors, faucets and other everyday objects and, most interestingly, the psychology of we humans who interact with these things. The principles he discusses are absolutely relevant to web page design. Other books, such as “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug and anything by Jakob Nielsen are also great sources of knowledge. I’d sure love to see us cover these types of topics a little more in our conferences and trade mags. Also, how do different retailers approach find and solve usability issues? In the end, if the experiences we create aren’t usable our social and mobile strategies won’t reach their potential.
  • Organizational structure
    How often do we come back from a conference with great new ideas about implementing some new strategies (say, a new social media or mobile commerce strategy) only to run into competing agendas, lack of resources or organizational bureaucracies? Discussing and writing about organizational structure doesn’t have the panache of social media or other exciting new frontiers, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the structure of our organizations can make or break the success of our businesses. When we were first setting up the organization for the new Borders.com, we spent a LOT of time studying the structures of other companies learning about the pros and the cons from those who lived through different schemes. It was hugely useful and more interesting than you might think. Mark Fodor, CEO of Cross View, just wrote an excellent piece for Online Strategies magazine that discussed the hurdles involved in going cross-channel and included a very good discussion about the need for mindset shifts. I’d love to see these topics further explored in interactive environments at industry conferences.
  • Incentives
    Books like Freakonomics make strong cases for the fact that incentives drive our behaviors. I’d love to hear how other companies set up their internal incentive structures. And there are multiple types of incentives. Certainly, there are financial incentives that come in the form of bonuses. But there are also the sometimes more powerful social incentives. What gets talked about all the time? How do those topics of discussion influence people’s behaviors? How do all those incentives align with the needs generated by new strategies to maximize the power of social media or mobile commerce?
  • Data/analytics storytelling
    We have so much data available to us, and we all talk about being data driven. But how do we get the most from that data? How do we use that data to form our strategies, support our strategies and communicate our strategies. John Lovett of Web Analytics Desmystified wrote an excellent piece on telling stories with data recently. There are also several great blogs on analytics like MineThatData, Occam’s Razor, and the aforementioned Web Analytics Demystified. I’d love to see more discussions in trade mags and conferences about how to get the most from our data, both in analyzing it and relating the findings to others.
  • International expansion
    We used to talk a lot about international, but it doesn’t seem to be a big topic lately. Yet the opportunities to grow our businesses internationally are immense. So, too, are the challenges. Jim Okamura and Maris Daugherty at the JC Williams Group wrote an absolutely excellent white paper late last year on the prizes and perils of international expansion. Jim did have a breakout session at last year’s Shop.org Annual Summit, but I’d love to see more discussion from retailers who have gone or are going international to learn more. Or it would also be good to hear from those who simply ship internationally or those who have decided to stay domestic to learn more about their decision making processes.
  • Leadership
    Leading lots of people and convincing big, disparate groups to do new things is hard. I just read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath. There are some amazing tips in that book about implementing change in organizations (and in other parts of life, for that matter). I would love to see more discussion of these types of leadership topics that help us all implement the changes we know we need to make to take advantage of new opportunities like social media and mobile commerce.

I know a lot of these topics are more business basics than retail or e-commerce specific. But the reality is we need to be our absolute best at these business basics in order to implement any of our new ideas and strategies. I personally always enjoy talking to other retailers about some of these basics, and I certainly never tire of reading books that expand my horizons. I’d love to see more about these topics in our conferences and trade mags.

But these are just my opinions. I’d really love to know what you think. As a member of the executive content committee for Shop.org, I’m actually in a position to influence some of the excellent content that my good friend Larry Joseloff regularly puts together. But I’d love to know if you agree or not before I start banging the drum. Would you mind dropping me a quick comment or an email letting me know if you agree or disagree. A simple “Right on” if you agree or a “You’re nuts” if you don’t is plenty sufficient; although, I certainly appreciate your expanded thoughts if you’d like to share them.

Please, let me know what you think of my little rant.


A Convenient Truth

Easy buttonConvenience. We value it more than I think we sometimes realize. We’re willing to pay more for it, and we’re willing to sacrifice quality in exchange for it. So it stands to reason that delivering convenience for our customers can lead to a pretty profitable equation for retailers.

Consider the convenience effect of some of the more popular innovations in recent years:

  • Mobile phones. We love our mobile phones,  even though they’re more expensive and of significantly lesser sound quality and reliability than land lines. And now we browse the web on our tiny smartphone screens.
  • Digital music. While it’s getting better, the sound quality of digital music is not as good as CDs (and some people say CDs aren’t as good as LPs). And we happily listen to our iPods over poor sound quality earbuds because they’re a lot more convenient than bulky headphones.
  • Camera phones. Digital photography with nice SLR cameras is finally nearing the quality of film, but cameras on phones have a long way to go to get to that same level of quality. But it sure is easy to post photos on Facebook and Flickr from a camera phone.
  • Diet pills.  OK, these aren’t as widely adopted as the previous examples (yet), but they’re the easy way out for weight loss even though there are some less-than-pleasant side effects. (Hint, you don’t want to sit next to an Alli pill taker on a long flight.) Of course, if you’re not into pills maybe you can still avoid exercise and get some six-pack abs with the Vibro-Belt.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the immense convenience of e-commerce and the effect it’s had on retail. But we cannot rest on our laurels as the desire and demand for convenience knows no bounds.

The threshold for inconvenience continues to get ever lower. We often complain about how many clicks it takes to get to what we’re looking for on a web page. Think about that for a moment. The energy required to cause our index fingers to press a button too many times is irritating. Some might say it’s not the energy, it’s the time. OK, fair enough.  Then the “waste of time” threshold starts kicking in when we are forced to wait three to four seconds for a page to load. We’re busy! We haven’t got that kind of time to waste!

My favorite example of the power of convenience is the Kindle. Amazon managed to make the paper book seem inconvenient. If that doesn’t tell you that just about everything can be made easier, I don’t know what will. People (and I’m one of the them) are willing to drop hundreds of dollars for a book reading device that still doesn’t format as well as a paper book. But it’s so light and so much easier to hold in one hand than a hardcover book. You can lay it flat on the table. You can carry lots of books around easily, which is very nice for a traveler like me. And you can get books in an instant with the wireless connection, which is soooo much more convenient than plugging the device into a PC for a sync. I sometimes feel ridiculous saying things like that, but I’m not going back.  And I’m not alone; people write long blog posts professing their love of the convenience the Kindle brings.

But this post isn’t a social commentary. It’s about recognizing an opportunity to make money.

So, how can we focus our businesses on the convenience opportunity? Here are three places to start:

  1. Start with website usability
    We should start with our sites because they are the low hanging fruit. The promise of convenience with e-commerce is high, but all too often we put obstacles in our customers’ way, many of which I’ve written about previously. Where are we causing customers more clicks than necessary? Why are we requiring all those clicks? Is it a lack of planning on our part, or are we putting our immediate priorities ahead of our customers’ needs? Have we overwhelmed our customers with choice? How can we make narrowing our selection easier and quicker? And let’s not forget site performance. How fast are those pages loading?
  2. Re-examine the store experience
    We need to continue to think about how our in-store experiences can be easier and more convenient for our customers to shop. Paco Underhill provided some great tips in his book,  Why We Buy. We can also look to a cross-channel strategy to allow technology to provide some conveniences. How can we bring customer reviews and recommendations into the store? Is “buy online pickup in-store” a desirable convenience to offer? How about accepting payment via mobile phone or PayPal in our stores?
  3. Consider our customers’ lives – what could make those lives more convenient?
    What’s life like for our customers? If she is a busy mother of young children, can we do more to help her easily put together some nice outfits for the kids (or herself) to free up time for answering emails, paying bills, or maybe, just maybe, giving her time to relax in the bath? Does it make sense to give our customers the ability to automatically replenish certain items at certain intervals? If we think hard, we can probably find ways to improve certain tasks that don’t currently seem difficult. If the book can be made more convenient, there are no limits.

Sometimes I think we get so caught up in our metrics and the particulars of our businesses that we forget about our customers’ needs. After all, retail is really a service business. Customer convenience can and should be a key part of our value proposition. When we find ways to make our customers’ lives easier (even by just a little bit) we are providing services and products our customers will be willing to buy — and at prices that are nice for our bottom lines.

What do you think? Is customer convenience the right strategic target for us? What ideas have you implemented to improve convenience?


The Missing Links in the Customer Engagement Cycle

customer engagement cycleThe Customer Engagement Cycle plays a central role in many marketing strategies, but it’s not always defined in the same way. Probably the most commonly described stages are Awareness, Consideration, Inquiry, Purchase and Retention. In retail, we often think of the cycle as Awareness, Acquisition, Conversion, Retention. In either case, I think there are a couple of key stages that do not receive enough consideration given their critical ability to drive the cycle.

The missing links are Satisfaction and Referral.

Before discussing these missing links, let’s take a quick second to define the other stages:

Awareness: This is basic branding and positioning of the business. We certainly can’t progress people through the cycle before they’ve even heard of us.

Acquisition: I’ve always thought of this as getting someone into our doors or onto our site. It’s a major step, but it’s not yet profitable.

Conversion: This one is simply defined as making a sales. Woo hoo! It may or may not be a profitable sales on its own, but it’s still a significant stage in the cycle.

Retention: We get them to shop with us again. Excellent! Repeat sales tend to be more profitable and almost certainly have lower marketing costs than first purchases.

Now, let’s get to those Missing Links

In my experience, the key to a strong and active customer engagement cycle is a very satisfying customer experience. And while the Wikipedia article on Customer Engagement doesn’t mention Satisfaction as often as I would like, it does include this key statement: “Satisfaction is simply the foundation, and the minimum requirement, for a continuing relationship with customers.”

In fact, I think the quality of the customer experience is so important that I would actually inject it multiple times into the cycle: Awareness, Acquisition, Satisfaction, Conversion, Satisfaction, Retention, Satisfaction, Referral.

Of course, it’s possible to get through at least some of the stages of the cycle without an excellent customer experience. People will soldier through a bad experience if they want the product bad enough or if there’s an incredible price. But it’s going to be a lot harder to retain that type of customer and if you get a referral, it might not be the type of referral you want.

I wonder if Satisfaction and Referral are often left out of cycle strategies because they are the stages most out of marketers’ control.

A satisfying customer experience is not completely in the marketer’s control. For sure, marketing plays a role. A customer’s satisfaction can be defined as the degree to which her actual experience measures up to her expectations. Our marketing messages are all about expectations, so it’s important that we are compelling without over-hyping the experience. And certainly marketers can influence policy decisions, website designs, etc. to help drive better customer experiences.

In the end, though, the actual in-store or online experience will determine the strength of the customer engagement.

Everyone plays a part in the satisfaction stages. Merchants must ensure advertised product is in stock and well positioned. Store operators must ensure the stores are clean, the product is available on the sales floor and the staff are friendly, enthusiastic and helpful. The e-commerce team must ensure advertised products can be easily found, the site is performing well, product information in complete and useful,  and the products are shipped on time and in good condition.

We also have to ensure our incentives and metrics are supporting a quality customer experience, because the wrong metrics can incent the wrong behavior. For example, if we measure an online search engine marketing campaign by the number of visitors generated or even the total sales generated, we can absolutely end up going down the wrong path. We can buy tons of search terms that by their sheer volume will generate lots of traffic and some degree of increased sales. But if those search terms link to the home page or some other page that is largely irrelevant to the search term, the experience will be likely disappointing for the customer who clicked through.

In fact, I wrote a white paper a few months ago, Online Customer Acquisition: Quality Trumps Quantity, that delved into customer experience by acquisition source for the Top 100 Internet Retailers. We found that those who came via external search engines were among the least satisfied customers of those sites with the least likelihood to purchase and recommend. Not good. These low ratings could largely be attributed to the irrelevance of the landing pages from those search terms.

Satisfaction breeds Referral

Referrals or Recommendations are truly wonderful. As I wrote previously, the World’s Greatest Marketers are our best and most vocal customers. They are more credible than we’ll ever be, and the cost efficiencies of acquisition through referral are significantly better than our traditional methods of awareness and acquisition marketing. In my previously mentioned post, I discussed some ways to help customers along on the referral path. But, of course, customers can be pretty resourceful on their own.

We’ve all seen blog posts, Facebook posts or tweets about bad customer experiences. But plenty of positive public commentary can also be found.  Target’s and Gap’s Facebook walls have lots of customers expressing their love for those brands. Even more powerful are blog posts some customers write about their experiences.  I came across a post yesterday from entitled Tales of Perfection that related two excellent experiences the blogger had with Guitar Center and a burger joint called Arry’s. Both stories are highly compelling and speak to the excellent quality of the employees at each business. Nice!

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Developing a business strategy, not just a marketing strategy, around the customer engagement cycle can be extremely powerful. It requires the entire company to get on board to understand the value of maximizing the customer experience at every touch point with the customer, and it requires a set of incentives and metrics that fully support strengthening the cycle along the way.

What do you think? How do you think about the customer engagement cycle? How important do feel the customer experience is in strengthening the cycle? Or do you think this is all hogwash?


Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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