Posts tagged: Design of Everyday Things

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.


Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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