Persuasive Web: Where Psychology Meets Conversion

DAY 22: Persuasion Before Usability?

Posted in Uncategorized by persuasiveweb on June 22, 2009


Short answer: Never. If you’d like to understand why, please read on. 🙂

Simply put, in the context of the Web, usability is making it easier for your visitors to accomplish their intended task or goal. Persuasion, on the other hand, is compelling a person to want to get there, or perform the given task in the first place. Without persuasion, making something easy to accomplish doesn’t necessarily make it something people want to do. Think of it as ‘can do’ versus ‘will do’. Making a site easy for visitors to use makes them more proficient users but does not necessarily make them customers.

Eric Shaffer of Human Factors International (HFI) writes in a blog post dated January 26, 2009:

“The next wave in Web site design is persuasive design, designing for persuasion, emotion, and trust. While usability is still a fundamental requirement for effective Web site design, it is no longer enough to design sites that are simply easy to navigate and understand so users can complete transactions. As business mandates for Web site design have grown more strategic, complex, and demanding of accountability, good usability has become the price of competitive entry. So, while usability is important, it is no longer the key differentiator it once was.”

On this blog, persuasive design gets all the attention, but Eric makes a valid point that we have not yet delivered here: “…usability is still a fundamental requirement for effective Web site design.” Once the foundation of a Web site is laid – functionality and usability – attention can and should be turned toward engaging and persuading visitors to act on their desires.

lamborghiniIn the physical world, people may overlook poor usability in favor of aesthetics. Think about the Lamborghinis of the 1980s (I’m a car nut) – drop-dead gorgeous design but terrible ergonomics. Affluent car shoppers were persuaded by the sexy Italian exterior, crazy performance statistics, melodic exhaust, and thoughts of people staring back from their Ford Fairmonts and Buick Skylarks. Luckily for Lamborghini, they were purchased by Audi, the undisputed king of interior design. And now purchasers can experience all the emotions afforded by the car’s beautiful design and still feel like everything is at their fingertips and still manage to walk without back pain after a long cruise. Lamborghini sales have never been better.

On the Web, persuasion without usability (or even basic functionality) just doesn’t work. On the Web – and especially on e-commerce sites – people expect to be able to accomplish tasks in an efficient manner. The ‘rush’ of a long-anticipated purchase may be equated to a ride in an Italian supercar, but any obstacles encountered along the way will likely diminish the overall experience. There is no exhaust note or rush of acceleration to make users forget about an unusable Web site (and very few Web sites spur the release of dopamine in the human brain!).

No, in our opinion, you cannot have a persuasive Web site until you address basic functionality and usability. Think of them as pre-requisites for graduating to the level of persuasive design. Let me break down the differences between these three concepts:

functional_levelFunctional sites offer all the basics but typically get launched with no user testing. Everything works, but not necessarily the way visitors expect (i.e., there is some frustration). Forms are reasonable in length, spelling and grammar is correct, and there are no broken links on the site. Images include alt tags, a site map is in place and basic search engine optimization is complete. Basic Web analytics are collected. However, it is also likely that a high percentage of shopping carts are abandoned, conversion rates are below average, and customer frustration is expressed through high bounce rates, frequent support calls, or occasional email complaints.

usability_levelUsable sites are the next step up in the evolution of Web site effectiveness. Usability guidelines are embraced by site designers and user testing is part of the release lifecycle. Forms are optimized, navigation is intuitive, product features are clearly messaged, and essential tasks are completed by visitors without frustration. Traffic patterns are reviewed regularly and basic Web testing (e.g., A/B or multivariate testing) helps to deliver a more delightful user experience. Conversion rates are higher than the purely functional site but orders may still have to be completed via other channels (e.g., phone) in order for all customer concerns and questions to be answered. The user experience at this level is still far from optimal because persuasive elements such as motivation, emotion, and trust have not been addressed.

persuasive_levelOnce functionality and usability are in place, persuasive design can become a reality. Persuasive sites employ the principles discussed throughout this blog, such as social proof, social learning, contrast, authority, reciprocity, and likeability. The site’s value proposition is clear, visitor paths are free of ‘friction’, benefit statements abound, and calls to action are obvious and compelling. Forms are designed to be completed with minimal anxiety and maximum ease and trust is reinforced at key decision points. All elements of visual design support and enhance key messages and company branding is consistent throughout the experience. At the other end of the sales funnel, visitors typically purchase more than they intended when they arrived at the site – and they often recommend the site! Additional outcomes of persuasive design (contrasted with a usable site) include lower customer service and acquisition costs, higher average order values, and higher customer retention rates. Email and pay-per-click-campaigns also yield higher returns.

Persuasive design requires a deep understanding of customer needs, desires, and barriers. But to reach the level of persuasive design, a site must first enable visitors to complete the purpose of their visit and deliver an experience free of usability obstacles. Until a site reaches the persuasive level – or until functionality and usability have been fully addressed – marketing dollars to promote the site are not optimized, conversions are lost, and business performance is well below what can be achieved.

Where is your site on this spectrum?



2 Responses

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  1. […] Over the past 23 days (whew, 6 days still to go in our 30 Days of Persuasion!), we’ve explored a ton of persuasion principles, discussed their application and potential on the Web, and tried our best to illustrate the techniques and why they work. Discussing each principle separately – in our opinion – is the most effective way to inform and educate readers of our little blog. However, in my final few posts this month, I’m going to pull together the various elements and examine some companies that are doing an admirable job of taking their sites to a holistic persuasive level of design (i.e., beyond just functional and usable, as discussed in yesterday’s post). […]

  2. […] that we’re sticklers for usability around here, I tend to listen a bit more to the frustrations of our users regarding copy quantity […]

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