By Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.
Whether you spend a fair amount of time online, or you are responsible for the design or content of a web site or web application, the list below should be of interest to you.
What are the most important attributes of a web site that make it both usable and persuasive? Why do some web sites succeed in making us click while others result in abandonment?
1.The organization of the information at the website (the information architecture) fits the visitor’s mental model –
Is the website organized the way the visitor thinks? For example, if the visitor comes to a website looking up reviews of computer monitors is there a category called monitors? Or is the information on monitors part of the “Peripherals” category. Do the visitors really think of “peripherals” when they come to the site?
Web designers and content managers are often too close to their own information and need to make sure that the categories and organization of the web site match what most visitors have in their heads when they arrive at the site.
Usable and persuasive sites are designed for the visitor’s mental model.
2. Less is More –
Have you ever heard about the “magic number” 7 plus or minus 2?–the idea that people can remember or deal with between 5 to 9 things at time? Well, that’s a myth. Research shows that the real magic number is 3 or maybe 4.
Research shows that people can only deal with about 3-4 items of information at a time. Anything more than that they are not really seeing or paying attention to. People will tell you they want more choices, but the research on decision-making is clear that too many choices means that we don’t choose at all.
Usable and persuasive sites provide 3 to 4 clear choices at a time.
3. The top third of the page, in the center, is “prime real estate” –
Where information is on the page does matter. The top third is the part of the page that people see first. Contrary to what some people say, the very top left is NOT the place people look first. The web has come to be much more of a TV model (top middle) than a book model (top left in countries that read left to right and top to bottom).
Smart designers pay attention to what is in this top third of the page. They make sure it is attention getting, meaningful, and speaks to the emotional/unconscious part of the brain, not just the logical /conscious part.
Usable and persuasive sites make good and careful use of the prime real estate.
4. Use visual and cognitive distinctions –
There is a lot going on at a typical web site page these days. There are images, and major category navigation bars. There are links to information about the company or individual who owns the site. There might be a place to go for help, a top banner with a shopping cart and a footer with more information. Then there is the main content on the page, and maybe there is advertising.
The list goes on and on.
In order to make sure the visitor knows where to look the site design has to use both visual and cognitive distinction.
Visual distinction means that a certain part of the screen uses different shapes, sizes, colors or fonts to look different.
For example a navigation bar has a green background, and a border around it. It is a rectangle and it is vertical. The top navigation bar on the other hand is horizontal, is on the top right of the page, is a set of links without a background color or a border. It looks visually different than the left navigation bar.
It’s not enough, though to use JUST visual distinction. The different parts of the page must also be cognitively distinct.
Cognitive distinction means that the items that are in different locations belong together with other items in that location, and are distinctly different than the items in other parts of the screen.
For example, the items in the green left navigation bar refer to different products I can buy. The items in the top right navigation bar without color are where I go to make changes to my account, get help, and ask for support.
Usable and persuasive sites use both visual and cognitive distinctions.
5. Engage all 3 brains –
In my book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I talk about the idea that we don’t have just one brain, we really have 3:
- The new brain is the logical/conscious brain
- The mid brain governs emotions
- The old brain is interested in scanning the environment and asking, “can I eat it?” “can I have sex with it?” “will it kill me?”
Engaging the old brain means that you are speaking to issues that are important to the basic self, such as food or security/danger or sex. Since most sites aren’t about food or sex, this leaves danger messages such as security, feeling safe, the idea that we are getting something for FREE or some other trigger that grabs the attention of the old brain.
Engaging the mid brain means that you are using photos or pictures or stories that talk to the emotional part of the visitor.
Engaging the new brain means that you have taken care of all the rational/logical reasons why someone would want to continue at your site.
Usable and persuasive sites engage all three brains.
6. Make text easy to scan –
In general, people don’t like to read online. Devices such as the Kindle are an exception, since they don’t use regular LCD screens. Most websites are still being viewed on regular laptops and monitors, and these are still hard use for blocks of text.
With some exceptions (for example, people who have subscribed to the NYTimes Reader software application), people will not read large blocks of text online. In place of these large blocks web sites should be concise, and use headings, bullets, and small paragraphs to break up text.
Usable and persuasive sites make text easy to scan.
7. Use progressive disclosure to show people what they need when they need it –
Lots of people come to a web site. Some know what they want, some are browsing. Some have lots of knowledge about what the site contains and some are new to the topic.
The best tactic therefore is to use “progressive disclosure.”
This means showing a small amount of information and then having the visitor click for more information. Then there is some more information and they can click again for more.
Have you heard that the user should be able to get to what they want in 3 clicks or less? That’s another myth! As long as the clicks make sense people are willing to “follow the scent” to get to their information.
Usable and persuasive sites use progressive disclosure.
8. Use grouping to show what things go together and limit clutter –
With all the information and pictures and videos and ads that are on screens these days it’s easy to forget that a screen can be visually overwhelming, especially to someone who is new to the page. There is a whole science behind designing screens and pages so that they use grouping to reduce clutter.
There can be a lot of material on the page as long as the things that go together are placed together, and that there is a little more space between separate groups than there is within items inside of a group.
Web sites that minimize the number of unique margins by lining up labels and fields and columns well can have lots of information and still not appear cluttered.
Usable and persuasive sites pay attention to the grouping of information and limit clutter.
9. Build in the features and functionality that make the site become a habit –
Research shows that over time people will tend to focus on one or two web sites for a particular task. For example, they will go to one or two websites for news, one or two web sites to shop, one or two web sites for entertainment. So what makes them choose to come back over and over to one or two sites and let the others fall away?
Sites that build in features that encourage use to be habitual are the winners, for example, e-commerce sites that make it easy to re-order (Staples), or offer one-click buying (Amazon). Or sites that aggregate all of your financial information together in one place (Mint) or allow you to not only send a twitter message but also monitor the twitters on particular topics (HootSuite).
There’s a limit here though. It’s not about having lots of features, it’s about having the one or two “can’t live without it” features that make the site become a habit.
Usable and persuasive sites choose and outperform in one or two killer features and functions.
10. Create a buzz in a specific market –
Don’t forget the power of social validation. I have a whole chapter on this in my book on “Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?”
People listen to what other people say, especially if they are uncertain about what to do.
So if there are 5 different sites that you can use to upload your photos, but one of those sites is talked about amongst your twitter group, is written about at the blogs you read, and advertises how many members they have, then that is the site you are most likely to check out and stick with.
Usable and persuasive sites know who they are aiming for, and do the marketing and publicity to make sure that have buzz among a certain cohort.
Conclusion: Top 10 Attributes of a Usable and Persuasive Web Site
So that’s the current top 10 list. Try evaluating your favorite websites against the list and let me know what you think. What sites do you use that match several of the items on the list?
If you liked this article check out Susan’s blog: www.whatmakesthemclick.net for more information about Neuro Web Design.