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Usability Studies 101: A Little Story

Usability Studies 101: A Little Story Joseph Carrabis

I've mentioned before that I participate in monthly luncheons at which people from different disciplines critique each others' research, work and ideas. An interesting discussion occurred at one such luncheon after some folks read my recent Tourists and Locals column here in iMedia Connection. The question was raised, "Tourists and Locals are the two poles of some spectrum, but what is the spectrum?" I suggested that the spectrum was really a measure of where a visitor exists in the branding process. Locals are "branded" and Tourists are "not branded."

The real question was "How do you focus visitors' attention long enough to brand them?" NextStage had just completed two years of research in this area, so I shared some of the things we'd found at the luncheon, and today I'm sharing them here.

Welcome to behavioral mechanics and persuasive analytics

Web logs can help you identity visitors as Tourists and Locals through a variety of factors, and truly sophisticated analytics tools can determine how branded your visitors are.

Generally you want to touch people with your brand at least three times in order for them to remember it. This goes beyond getting them to navigate through three pages of your site or pick up your brochure three times. You need to direct their attention to a branding event and keep them focused on that branding event long enough so that those three touches happen without the visitors' knowing it.

Branding events occur when the prospect wants to get to know you. Inviting the prospect to take part in a branding event is where art meets science, and determining branding events goes well beyond the realm of behavioral analytics.

You're now in the world of behavioral mechanics (BMech) and persuasive analytics (PA).

One of the easiest ways to do simple BMech and PA on a website is to slow the visitor down to the point where they willingly stop navigating to see what's going on. It's like people driving along, paying attention to the road and traffic. When they stop at a light, a stop sign or a traffic jam, they start looking around to see what's going on beyond the immediate flow of traffic. When people stop navigating through a website it's because something else has their attention. You want that something else to be what's on the webpage.

Animate me

The research project I mentioned above studied how a number of people from a variety of backgrounds responded to various attention getting and attention keeping techniques, all with the hope of touching people that magical three times in order to get them to remember the brand and associate it with a product line.

What we discovered works best is a simple animation that tells people a story. This shouldn't come as a surprise as pretty much the same results have come from similar studies in cultural anthropology and knowledge management. Here are the rules that apply:

  • Initial visitors need to be slowed down just enough to pay attention to the story without realizing they're doing so.

  • The story must be short enough so that it doesn't interfere with the visitors' continued navigation through the site.

  • The purpose of the story is to get the visitor branded. 

  • The way to brand visitors is by getting them to associate something you (the site owner) do or offer with whom and what you are. 

  • Visitors should continue to brand themselves without realizing they're doing so once the story is finished and they've continued to navigate the site.

  • The story should leave the visitor with an implied question that the website can answer.

Attract mode

Arcade games (at least in my day) had what was called an "attract mode." The attract mode's function was to get quarters out of your pocket and into the machine by flashing lights and making noise to draw your attention away from all the other machines flashing lights and making noise. The story those flashing lights and noise told was "I'm better than those other machines".

The animated story you tell is your website's attract mode. Change "those other machines" to "the competition" and you have a good story to tell. Again, the story can't stop navigation completely because you want them to continue navigating once the story is finished. Later on they'll demonstrate enough interest to warrant a longer, navigation-stopping story by downloading a whitepaper or some such, and they'll have expressed sufficient interest for you to exchange some of their time for one of your longer stories.

Putting it all together

People's attention will go to moving objects because of the way the human brain is wired. Movement directs attention (as any stage magician can tell you) but the movement must deliver on the promise paid for by the visitor's directed attention. A site can have an extremely beautiful animation loop that draws and keeps the visitor's attention, but if the entire purpose of the animated loop is to add some animation to the site the visitor will lose interest, not pay attention to other animations being offered, and eventually become debranded because the promise wasn't kept. David Edwards-Smith of Borealis Designs notes this in his article, "How to Avoid 'The Click Off'": "Animated graphics, as impressive as they may seem, may test the attention span of your visitors."

So let the animation tell a story and make sure the story is being told in visual association with your brand. Two simple examples of this can be seen at NextStage's business and research sites, and.

Here's how these examples work:

  • The stories being told are visually attached to the logo and company name, so each new element in the animation keeps the visitor's attention focused on the brand.

  • The stories convey what the company does without making the visitor work to understand the outcome.

  • Neither story interferes with the visitors' continued navigation through the site.

  • The last element of each story becomes part of the logo banner on all pages as the visitor navigates the site. Making the last element of the story part of the logo on all other pages is done because visitors who go through the story once will check it again and again to make sure the story hasn't changed. The way they will do this is by briefly focusing their attention back on the brand, thus rebranding themselves on each page they navigate.

  • The stories create an association in the visitors' mind between what the company does and the brand.

  • The stories leave an implied question in the visitor's mind that further navigation can answer.

What we've done with these examples -- and what NextStage's research discovered -- was that the best use of animated graphics on a site was to brand and attract visitors into exploring further. The best way to do all of these things is to tell the visitors a little story.

This is BMech and PA done for a nickel or a dime rather than behavioral analytics done for dollars or a ten-spot. Make sure your story is something visitors want to know, and you'll brand them each and every time.

Joseph Carrabis has been everything from butcher to truck driver to Senior Knowledge Architect to Chief Research Scientist. His 22 books and 225 articles have ranged among cultural anthropology, mathematics, information mechanics, language acquisition, neurolinguistics, psychodynamics and psychosocial modeling - and other eclectic topics. His knowledge and data designs have been used by Caltech, Citibank, DOD, IBM, NASA, Owens-Corning and Smith-Barney among others. Carrabis is CRO and Founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global, and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. He is also the inventor and developer of Evolution Technology. You can download sections of Carrabis' next book, "Reading Virtual Minds," at www.hungrypeasant.com.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

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