You Design It, They Do It

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What if someone came to you and said, “I’ve designed this great website, but people don’t stay on it. Why?” How would you respond? Would you ask them whether they have done extensive A/B testing? Would you recommend testing the usability of the website?

People like to test a number of metrics to see why people are not staying on a website. I think sometimes we spend so much time focusing on analytics that we throw common sense out the window. Don’t get me wrong—analytics are a powerful tool for improving a website. But often the problem is right in front of your face.

What if you simply told them that the reason people are leaving is because of the way they designed the website? How mind-blowing an idea is that? Doesn’t that change your entire perspective on the design? It could be the greatest thing in the world, but what if you really designed something to chase people away or looking at it another way: What if you have designed it so there is no incentive to stay?

Feedback… Om Nom Nom

I love getting feedback on the stuff that I write; yet my website has no comments section. Is it reasonable for me to wonder why people don’t leave feedback? I could tell people that there is a forum on the website where they can leave feedback, but that means they would have to register, get approved and then remember what they wanted to write. The website isn’t designed for instant feedback.

When I didn’t have any social media widgets at the end of a post, sharing of articles dropped over 80%. It wasn’t fair for me to assume that people would remember to share something they liked or that if they were on the fence they would make an effort to do so. If I really wanted people to retweet what I write, I would have to guide them to doing so by putting a retweet widget at the end of everything. Maybe I could even add some text asking them to retweet if they like what they read.

The point is that, if I expect a person to take an action, I would have to design the process for taking that action right into the website itself. I should never assume that a person who is interacting with my website will automatically take that action. Would a driver stop at an intersection that had no stop sign?

As designers we have to understand that the interface we create dictates the action of the people using it.

If you run a website and hope to get a lot of comments, then the best way to go about that is to make posting a comment as easy as possible. Of course, doing so could lead to people leaving all types of comments, both useful and not. A great example of designing how you want users to interact with a product is Pinterest.

The Pinterest Way

Most comment blocks on Pinterest are filled with simple comments. The content doesn’t lend itself to much discussion, but Pinterest obviously wants users to engage in other social interactions, and it has designed the product to make that easy to do. You can easily like, comment, repin and share any image that you come across, and all of this makes the content spread quickly throughout the network. This network effect is one of the main reasons for Pinterest’s explosive growth over the past couple of months.

pinterest

Pinterest made an interesting decision in requiring all users to connect to the website through either Facebook or Twitter. This mean that real names (usually) are tied to users; because of this, the quality of stuff that people share is generally high. Allowing everyone to hide behind fake identities would have resulted in a much different experience.

But the system wasn’t designed that way; it was designed so that people who post quality content (or at least content that others in their circle like) would become popular. Thus, rather than turning into a website full of animated GIFs and Web comics, the website has become a valuable resource to its community—mainly because it was designed to function that way.

Maybe It’s Not That Simple

I realize that simply saying that a product was designed to do what it is meant to do makes fixing problems seem like the easiest thing in the world. Of course, as you dig deeper into how to improve a design, you will have more variables to keep in mind; but always be aware of the simple fact that people will do what the design of a website lets them do.

Why did Twitter evolve beyond being a place where people just leave status updates? Part of it has to do with the tiny microcopy that was above the status update field. Originally it said “What are you doing?” and this of course led to people talking about their breakfast. After some time they changed it to “What’s happening?” which helped guide the people using the service to post about what is happening around them.

Why was Digg being gamed for so long? Because the design encouraged it. Simple. Executives at Yahoo might sit around a table asking why users aren’t using its search engine? Does the design of the website look like it is meant for search or even encourage it? Do you think Google execs sit around a table asking why people don’t use its search engine when they hit its main page? The design of Pinterest encourages users to continually scroll down the page looking at more and more pins; it is designed to keep you on the website.

Do you want your users to do something specific? Then design your website so that they do it.

It could be the greatest thing in the world, but what if you really designed something to chase people away or looking at it another way: What if you have designed it so there is no incentive to stay?

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Paul Scrivens is a passionate designer who runs Drawar and innovation consulting at Emersian. He loves design. He loves learning. He loves being wrong. That last one was a lie. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

  1. 1

    Very good point! This is right in line with the idea that there should be no or very few “dead ends” on a website. Once a visitor has read one page or completed a particular action/process, they should have somewhere else to go; otherwise, they leave the site and may never come back. Even ‘thank you’ pages should lead to a free download, social network or other page that isn’t asking for more money or information. So make the purpose of each page/site obvious to encourage the right actions and then don’t let visitors hit a dead end (if possible)!

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    • 2

      Excellent point, Jayme. Too often designers and companies think they have the power to mentally project to the person on their site what they want them to do. More often than not people have no problem being directed into what to do next. Sometimes though there is so many competing actions that a person has no idea what to do next.

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  2. 3

    “Do you want your users to do something specific? Then design your website so that they do it.”

    This is a good point but should also be balanced with actually talking with users, or target users and finding out what exactly they are they there to do. An assumption is great but it needs to be tested and refined. Even if one were to make making comments easy it doesn’t guarantee that there will be any.

    For example, this article has comments because it has provided value and stimulated that conversation. Sure it was easy to comment but my motivation for doing so was your content. :)

    I am looking forward to reading more of such posts.

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    • 4

      Completely agree, Will. At first there is nothing wrong with going with our gut, especially if you are an experienced designer who has gone through these things before. However, gut backed up by testing is a million times better than simply thinking you are correct and leaving it at that.

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      • 5

        Paul, you hit the nail on the head! Smart design, so tired of designers saying “I make things pretty” as if to imply there is not thought behind it or that it is magic. Nothing could be farther from the truth and it is awesome to see others like yourself writing about it.

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  3. 6

    So what now? Google isn’t making money out of Android. Big deal. Google is in for Android come what may. It has other resources that can help it pursue with Android.

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  4. 7

    It’s more about substance than design.
    I’ve seen plenty enough of crappy sites that make huge piles of money. Some of the sites look like their were from the 90′s. Why do they make money? Because they carry what people want. You can go only as far with design, because design adds no substance, only makes substance look better.

    If you have designed this cool portfolio site, but the portfolio(substance) does not look good or attractive, we’ll no body will stay at your site for long.

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    • 8

      I would have to disagree that design adds no substance. You are correct that people come to sites looking for content or with specific tasks in mind however good design is more than just the wrapper so to speak.

      I think great web designers understand your points of valuable content and substance and can also present it visually in a manner that is easy to use, visually supportive of the business goals and attractive.

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      • 9

        This is probably why Google gets more customers than Yahoo. Google is a search engine. Its search engine page is dedicated to searching. If you want news, you go to another section of the site dedicated to news. Yahoo incorporates a lot of their services into their homepage, so users aren’t really encouraged to do something specific.

        So by combining good substance with good design, you get an extremely popular website (Yahoo is very popular too, just not as well known).

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        • 10

          Google gets a bigger share of the market because the search works better than the Yahoo search. If Yahoo’s search worked as well, I would be using it more often because it would be more convenient to use after I check my email or look at the News. Yahoo’s home page and its services are the only reason why they have a significant market share.

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  5. 11

    Great article with excellent examples. I’ve often thought that the best way to guarantee quality discussion (avoiding fanboys and spam) is to require registration using a Facebook account. By using real names, real opinions are presented instead of the usual rants/degradation that occur on certain sites (youtube and digg to name a few). The sacrifice: users; some people don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. Are they likely to sign up just to use your service? In the case of Pinterest, maybe. Otherwise, likely not.

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  6. 12

    Excellent work.Nice stuff.Its really look brilliant article for professional web designers.Thank you very much.

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  7. 13

    Well, I’m not on Twitter or Facebook – Pinterest loss… ;)

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    • 14

      we are living in this world rationally. everything we calculate, compare is regarding to something. so you are only 1/1000000000 computer users.
      we have 800,000,000 users in facebook and in twitter so on.

      -2
  8. 15

    I’m sorry, but I see no reason this to be here except to host the link to your own website. Your article seems to be quite shallow and does not provide any useful information besides few examples that support your opinion. If I don’t want users to do something, I won’t implement it, if I do – i will; thanks.

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  9. 16

    Speaking of making things difficult to share if I like the article, Smashing Magazine only offers me the “Share on Twitter” link. This is a cool article and it’s annoying that I’m forced have to copy-and-paste the link into Facebook and Linked In. So I don’t.

    Echoing a section I really like in this article: “if I expect a person to take an action, I would have to design the process for taking that action right into the website itself.” Twitter is the only action that’s been baked into the design of Smashing Magazine.

    If I were reading this from my iPad, sharing it via copy-and-paste would be even more difficult.

    Still dig the article.

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  10. 18

    Mark Simchock

    May 8, 2012 2:42 pm

    Points about design aside for a moment. If asked, ““I’ve designed this great website, but people don’t stay on it. Why?” I would start with: who’s coming to the site, from where, what are the top search keywords pulling in traffic, etc. It’s certainly possible the marketing is off target. Perhaps the churn is due to misguided marketing and not necessarily because there’s something wrong with the site (relative to the optimal target market that’s likely to return, convert, etc.).

    I’d also like to add that I disagree (strongly?) with Jayme Squire’s comment. The primary purpose of a website is to meet the expectations of and satisfy the wants / needs of those who visit it. Repeat that mission ten times and then perhaps once that’s done, focus on “no dead ends”.

    My point is, people have to leave a site sooner or later. There will be, no matter what you do, an exit page. I think if you asked analytics ninja Avinash Kaushik he’d tell you obsessing over exit pages is a fool’s game. If you make them stay longer but don’t meet their expectations and satisfy the wants / needs then you’re creating what could be a very ugly situation. No one is going to be happy about, “Yeah, I was on Site X for 10 minutes and finally got done what I needed to get done. I’ll never use the site again.” If the expectation is in and out in 10 or less clicks and you’re at 20+ clicks then you’re in trouble. If you can’t provide immediate sense a value for them to return in the expect 10 clicks then all the lack of dead ends in the world isn’t going to save you. In other words, focusing no dead ends could very well be a deadest of dead end.

    But perhaps I misunderstood the scope and intention of Jayme’s comment? Oops? Sorry?

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    • 19

      Mark, I do think you misunderstood Jayme’s comment. Although I completely agree with what you mean about not wanting to waste a visitor’s time, I don’t think that was what Jayme’s goal was. My interpretation is that the goal is to not keep the site visitor bouncing around from one page to another until they finally achieve what they came for, but to get right to what they need and THEN present them with other useful purposes of your site.

      For example, I think this directly relates to Amazon’s (or others) purchase process. Say you go to Amazon to find a camera. When you reach the page of the item you would like to buy, you are presented with other items that customers with similar purchase patterns liked as well, such as memory cards or a camera case. This way, yes your goal is achieved very quickly, but at the same time, you are given a reason to keep searching for more items on their site. Amazon then becomes your hub for all purchasing rather than merely a camera purchase.

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  11. 20

    Thanks for the article raising awareness of the values of conversion testing. It’s worth mentioning that watching others use your design, either recorded or in person, is a good starting point for those who don’t know exactly what to test. If your test user looks confused, ask why; if they leave the mouse hovering somewhere for a long time ask what he or she is trying to locate or if what to do next is confusing.

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  12. 21

    If you want feedback on your website you please put a short and simple form so, user can give feedback in 1-2 min.

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  13. 22

    It is unarguably true that Social Media has become very important these days and a website has to have social media widgets so that people can share them to their network. This too is true that sometimes we get so much involved with the analytic part is that we forget all about common sense. Thanks you made us remember this point

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  14. 23

    Great point. Such questions like “What do I do to keep users on my website” can be simple and powerful. It knocks your design practice and your solo-theory off the window. Once you can answer such questions, you instantly know atleast 50% of the process. And its simple, boys and girls unlike the previous theory which wasn’t. Great article!

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  15. 24

    WoW! Such a brilliant post. This is so informative.=D

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  16. 25

    Hi Paul!
    One of the reasons why people can’t stay too long in a website is because of the content. Another one is despite having a quality article, some readers don’t start commenting unless somebody does. I know one common generator/plug-in which might be good for blogsites. Just have to moderate the comments so it won’t be spammy. That plug-in can also be helpful in putting “life” to your post.
    Pinterest, on the other hand, is also good, but just like Google, they, too, have their own guidelines that we have to be careful of when sharing re-pins/links/information.

    1

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