Building the Propensity to Act Online

I love analogies, I use them often when I’m discussing online related discussions because I think it’s useful to use real world equivalents of on line processes because the concretise concepts in the audiences mind by allowing them to relate to a process through their own experiences.

So my analogy for building the propensity to for the user to commit an action – for instance an online purchase – is not going to be the process of purchasing a product in an offline store, because I think it’s almost a totally different process to online purchasing, and it think that where each may have their own unique advantages, they are actually worlds apart. My analogy actually doesn’t relate to purchasing at all, but the emotive experiences that predicate a certain type of behaviour. My analogy is “catching a flight”.

The Issue
When we consider the actions we would like a user to undertake during their online experience of our website we often spend a lot of time upfront designing and developing strategies and processes to expedite their path to the action. We spend a lot of time analysing the competition, the User Interface, and the Architecture of the site. Essentially checking all the check boxes which we consider good web design.

Where I find that we often fall flat though is in the actual day to day modification of the website to enhancing the user experience and building the propensity for them to commit the actions which the entire site was built around. I think in some ways we’re either burdened by red tape or budgets, we can’t do endless a/b testing because the budget doesn’t allow for it, or the chaps from IT are just getting miffed because we’ve asking them to change a page 23 times in the last three months.

Most importantly though, we don’t really understand exactly what is going on inside the head of our users at critical points in their website experience. We don’t understand whether we are increasing or decreasing their propensity to meet one of our website Goals.

Why should we even Consider Propensity?
Let’s say you want a user to purchase a product on your website, they’re going to go through several stages, most of these involve education about your company and your product. This learning process involves the answering of some basic questions, Are you a reliable service provider? How fast do you deliver? Are you the cheapest? What are the product specifications?

These are all basic steps we undertake before trusting a company and a brand enough to buy their product, barring a few exclusions. There’s a process user will engage in before buying your product, and it will involve them going through all of these steps (and more) before they commit to handing you the numbers for their plastic.

The Analogy
So I arrive at the airport to catch my 18:30 flight, immediately I’m a bit confused because the airport has been done up and the flight desk has moved along with the notification boards. It raises my stress levels a bit, but I search around and finally see a board with my flight number and booking desk. I cross the concourse and see a queue of people rivalling my memory of the voting queues for the last election. My level of tension rises slightly more, did I choose the right airline? Am I going to make my flight? Where does the queue actually start?

The last question is answered about four feet in front of me and about 300 feet from the actual check-n desk. I gather from conversations around me that I’m at the right desk, going so far as to ask another customer if they’re on the same flight. And so begins the wait, it’s not a normal wait though because I know that for every minute I wait in the queue, it’s another 30 seconds I’m going to have to shave of my sprint time to the boarding gate. Stress level is now at a stage 3. I then find out that the flight has been moved and is now departing sooner than expected. Needless to say that I and 30 other people start to run through freshly carpeted halls to our boarding gate. Stress level is now at Def-con four.

At this point I decide to take a step back, and for the first time notice the level of aggression amongst my fellow passengers. They’re now just generally rude to everyone, from the girl selling muffins at a coffee counter, to the lady collecting boarding passes.

What’s even more interesting is that when we do eventually board the plane, the unsuspecting staff are greeted by a bunch of rude, and belligerent passengers. The flight staffs probably don’t have a clue why they’re behaving in this way.

What strikes me as interesting about this entire process is that it wasn’t a single moment in the process which led to the behaviour of the passengers, but a sequence of events which led a bunch of people to behave in ways which they would probably normally be embarrassed by. They all seemed like a nice bunch of people when they arrived at check-in, I got a few smiles, and people were courteous enough.

So we can only assume that this sequence of events has built a propensity for these passengers to behave in this way.

Admittedly it’s an extreme example, and it is demonstrating the propensity for a negative rather than positive action.

How Does This Relate to a Websites User Flow?
We all have an action we want users to commit to on our website, sometimes a few actions, hopefully never many actions. It’s obvious on sites that I visit that they have a single goal, or action they would like me as the user to commit to. These goals are clouded often not with obstacles which stop me from moving from one part of the process to another, unless no attention has been paid to usability, but with obstacles which lead me to a propensity for suspicion or discomfort.

These emotions may be so minor that I as a user do not actually acknowledge them, but subconsciously prompt me to delay the purchase, or seek a service provider who provides me with more answers or a greater sense of security.

This can have a devastating impact on this websites conversion rate because the user has now been prompted to look at options from other service providers.

How Do We Understand A Websites Effect on Propensity?

Well the first answer is to build a funnel. A funnel is a series of steps which the user must complete on the way to an action. In order to have a Funnel we need to have a Goal, and the Goal is obviously the action we would like the user to complete.

Setting up a Funnel with which we can immediately identify problem area’s along the stages towards reaching the goal. A Funnel will show us not only where users are leaving the funnel, but what other information on the website they are looking at. The idea here is to then incorporate as much of this “missing” information into the process as possible without making the experience uncomfortable.

So, if you notice that a fair amount of people go off and look at the guarantee for the product, which takes them out of your purchasing funnel, then you need to finds a way to either incorporate the guarantee information into the funnel. If you do this and they’re still leaving in droves, then there’s obviously something wrong with your guarantee.

Which leads me to the second point, which is how do we tell what they user is feeling when they leave. Analytics and tracking is good, but it’s not good enough to be able answer this kind of question. It’s a conundrum best expressed by this question: I have an Average Pages per Visit of 7, are people looking at this much content because they’re interested in my product and want to read as much as possible, or because they can’t find what they’re looking for?

You could probably answer that by looking at Time on Page, but the best way would really be to look at utilising surveys. Exit polls are actually a great way to assess user satisfaction with your website, and I’m not going to go any further on this because Avinash Kaushik consider this in his excellent article “Eight Tips For Choosing An Online Survey Provider

The last option is to actually commit to some usability testing, and this can be costly. The issue really with cheap user testing, asking a friend a to to try buy something off your site is that you’re immediately slanting their actions by defining parameters for their experience. Good usability testing needs to be broad enough to allow consider the experience of discovering your site and products, and that is not a simple task.

I’ve mentioned A/B testing, it’s incredibly important, although in some instances very difficult to justify to clients. A/B testing is a fantastic way to solve a problem once it has been identified, the issue as I’ve described above is actually all about identifying the problem. You would utilise A/B testing to test the potential solutions identified by your users or business analyst.

Last Piece of Advice
Really the last and most important piece of advice is to be totally brutal. Be brutal with your website, and remember that there are no sacred cows. The first port of call should actually be you going through your website and actually trying to commit the action that you would like your users to commit. If it’s not working for you, then you can be damn sure it’s not working for your users.

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  • Antonio Petra | Over Analytical: more Building the Propensity to Act Online

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