Default: Path of least resistance or effort

July 11, 2011

from the Fan Foundry “Why We Buy” series  

Like water flowing downhill, human tendency is to take the easy way and the familiar way.   This has implications for website design, e-commerce, sales negotiations, marketing automation, training and fostering loyalty.

Design

In Web design, Recursive (repetitive pattern) Web navigation follows this principle.  It’s all about consistency and reliability.  Early Web designers borrowed print publishing navigation techniques, and today still use these familiar layout patterns to ease the user experience.  We expect websites to offer a top of page menu bar that persists as we navigate the site’s pages.  Minor clues such as changes to the menu bar’s colors or other features help us trace our journey of discovery through the site, so we can confidently concentrate on consuming content without losing place.  Some designers call it “breadcrumbing” after the children’s fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, in which the two lost children found their way out of the woods by retracing their trail of bread crumbs.

The usability motto seems to be: “Don’t make me think.  Reassure me.  Keep it simple, familiar and intuitive.  Don’t make me work more than absolutely necessary.  I prefer the path of least resistance and effort”.  Let’s not mistake this for laziness; rather it is an indicator of the fleeting nature of human attention, especially online, especially these days.

Captivate

While directing sales and marketing for Piehead Productions, I visited the Usability lab at Fidelity Investments, where every day millions of dollars in customer revenue are dependent on a pleasing, authoritative visual site navigation experience.  This dependency exists at every touchpoint in the customer experience – not just the website, but also in back-end fulfillment systems, brick-and-mortar locations, phone and email communications, etc.

Visual navigation science research at Fidelity tells us that the most important fields of information on any screen are – in exact order: (a) the top left, (b) the top center of the page (“hotspot”) just below the top navigation bar, and (c) the right column horizontally to the right of that center hotspot. Our eyes tend to focus our vision on these three fields, in sequence, when we first arrive at a website, seeking validation.   Of course, you could short-circuit this process by inserting a huge blinking headline somewhere, but then the site would be perceived as “busy” or “annoying.

According to Marketing Experiments, site visitors typically take no more than 8 seconds at those 3 fields to get  validation by answering the following questions:

  • Why am I here?
  • Did I get what I expected?
  • What else can I do here?

If your site content can promptly answer those 3 questions, people will likely spend more time on your site, value its content, and visit again. Conversely, if your site is confusing and cannot satisfactorily answer your visitor’s questions, then sadly the Back button often becomes the path of least resistance.

Design is part of Content.  Good content, supported by good design, including visual layout that supports visual navigation, convinces people to validate you as a worthy place to confidently transact business.

Convert

How does the Default principle influence and motivate transactions?  Landing page forms, Profiling and Configurator pages are a few useful examples.

Landing Pages. When preparing a landing page, conversation or other transaction setting, use Defaults to speed the transaction and improve convenience.  A website registration page, for example, might be default-set by you with the “I wish to receive email from you” box pre-checked.  The visitor would have to uncheck that box if they wish to opt out.  This might be perceived as tricky or manipulative – until you read the following true story.

Real World Example – Here is an actual current example.   At QVew, I performed an A/B test to determine an optimal approach to build an email list for a particular campaign.   I first configured the landing page form with the “keep me informed” box unchecked.  Very few visitors checked the box.  Later, I revised the form so that the checkbox was, by default, pre-checked, meaning any such visitor form submissions would result in those visitors being added to the email list.  Instantly we began receiving completed landing page forms with the “keep me informed” box checked – almost unanimously.  Visitors had overwhelmingly decided to do nothing and leave the box checked.  Fortunately, email recipient opt-outs are also low, thanks to some attentive follow-up marketing.

In the A/B test above, overwhelmingly people left the checkbox alone.  Checked or un-checked, it didn’t matter.   They followed the path of least effort.  Our subsequent marketing email “open” rates experienced a dip due to the abundance of new “sleepers”, but at least we earned the opportunity to cultivate a relevant relationship, and we subsequently converted some sales and are cultivating new relationships.

Profiles.  Just ask Amazon.  By enabling people to create an account and store a profile and credit card information, you greatly simplify the checkout process and increase the likelihood they will transact with you again.  Amazon, Expedia, Netflix and other large commerce systems “remember” you when your return.  Their Recommendation Engines “flag” you via email with notices about merchandise that match your stated preferences and past buying behavior.

Configurators.  Cell phone and computer sales sites enable people to sort and select product options like size, color, price and other features  options to determine availability of solutions that match their preferences and requirements.  Once done, it’s a simple matter to place your order.

Valuing the Investment of Time and Effort

Here is the important part – and it’s also a glimpse at a couple of additional “Why We Buy” articles that deal with phenoma known as “sunken cost” and “time value”.  Once we have completed a configurator experience, we value that investment of time and effort by saving the page settings and any passwords, and bookmarking the page for quick retrieval.  In the few scant seconds it takes to make a buying decision, we are more likely to re-use a stored configurator page than to re-type our information into a new system.  Following user instincts gives you the opportunity to build loyalty by making people’s lives easier.

For more topics from the “Why We Buy” series,  click here.  Use the “email updates” button (right sidebar) to automatically receive monthly updates.

How are you applying knowledge of the human tendency to follow the Path of Least Effort/Resistance, or Default, to improve your audience experience?


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