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Usability Studies 101: Just the FAQs

Usability Studies 101: Just the FAQs Joseph Carrabis

In my last column, I wrote that we were going to work on some of the hard problems of website and marketing design. We're going to start by asking two questions about the material you're designing:

  1. What are your goals for the material?

  2. What do you know about the people who'll be interacting with this material?

Remember my writing about problem solving deltas in my last column? Here is the first one we need to solve for -- the delta between your goals for your material and the client's goals for their time interacting with your material. Our method will be to remove the situation in which the problem thrives to solve that problem and all problems similar in nature.

The solution method

A client is investing in the usual tools to get visitors to his site and not getting the results he wants -- conversions, pure and simple. He has excellent records, has done his homework and has it down to a science.

A little bit of research showed that the majority of visitors weren't coming to purchase or even research a purchase. They could go anywhere to satisfy those needs. What visitors were hungry for was knowledge and learning. They wanted information with which to know what to purchase and what research was relevant.

The client added educational features to his site and downplayed sales. The result? A dramatic increase in conversions. Paul Hernandez-Cuebas, President of Integrated Management Solutions, saw a dramatic increase in conversions when he added educational features to his website. Educate visitors and you become the de facto expert. They have to come to you if they want to know the truth.

The solution had little to do with search word buys or site design, layout, presentation... the places in which one might normally consider solving the "Why aren't they converting?" problem. The solution had lots to do with discovering what visitors were willing to invest their time in. Solving the problem involved getting out of the level at which the problem existed (the site) and into the level of what visitors were looking for. The moral?

  • Learn what potential clients want and give it to them

  • Once people have what they want, they're much more likely to show an interest in what you want them to be interested in

The solution method in practice

We're going to continue with the education motif because lots of websites offer papers for download, lots of email newsletters have links to downloadable content, and most marketing material includes an offer for some more detailed information.

The overt goal of this material is to educate. The covert goal is to convert.

You know your industry and market far better than I do, so I'm not going to tell you what to write. I am going to offer you a suggestion on what topics to pick, how to write it and how to publish it.

I'm going to ask you to read the rest of this column purely with the goal of educating in mind. That's important for what follows. Think Educate!

Step 1: picking an education topic
"Just the FAQs, ma'am"

Does your site have a FAQs page? Do your customer service people have a FAQ sheet they regularly reference and that gets updated periodically? As one of my mentors once told me, "If you have to answer a question twice, put it on a FAQs page." Each item on your FAQs page or customer service response sheet, each question you're asked more than once at a trade show or seminar, is a topic for educating your prospects. Here are some examples:

  • Your business is weddings: "Ten things that go wrong and how to avoid them"

  • Your business is gourmet foods: "Olive oils -- Is there more than a difference in price?"

  • Your business is automotive detailing: "what to look for when considering automotive detailing and restoration"

In each case, quote people in your business but not in your geographic market, such as those doing business a few states away or someone you met at a convention.

Step 2: educating

In step one, you chose a topic based on something you've already answered more than once. Answering anything more than once means you've got a pat answer that you've adjusted a few times based on the situation. A pat answer with adjustments becomes a couple of paragraphs with examples in an education piece. This is the flow:

  • You have an answer already at hand: the FAQ itself.

  • The question becomes the title to the paper. Include in the title something that indicates the answer to the question is also in the paper.

  • The answer given in the FAQ is the opening paragraph. The goal is to be informative and knowledgeable. The tone of the paper (business casual versus suit-and-tie) is based on your audience and their definition of "expertise." If you have a picture of yourself that suits the tone of the piece, include it at the top of the first page.

  • Every adjustment you made to your pat answer to address someone's specific situation becomes an example that explains or demonstrates the solution you're offering.

Boom! With maybe half an hour's work you have a one-to-two-page education piece.

Remember, we're educating. Nowhere in this piece are you going to do any self-promotion. If you can quote notables in your industry, even better.

Step 3: picking a publication format

People are use to accessing files in HTML, DOC, PDF and TXT format. Your industry and business might also be comfortable downloading XLS, PPT and more exotic file formats. Whatever format you chose, make sure that it is one for which people will already have a "viewer." If your education piece is in a non-standard file format, be sure to include the viewer or player either as part of the download or as a link available on the download page.

Step 4: publishing

You've written something the world has been waiting for and it's in a format everyone can open. It's time to get back into the mind of the visitor.

Remember that our goal is to educate, not to convert. Most websites and marketing materials are designed to get information from the consumer before allowing them to download or access material.

Here's where things change: allow visitors to download the education piece without having to reveal anything to you. No email address, no name-address-telephone number, nothing. Just come and download. Remember, the goal is to educate.

Step 5: educating them so they'll convert

At the end of your education piece, include a link such as "For more information...", "To find out more...", "If this paper was helpful to you, these papers might also be of interest...", "Please contact us for additional resources..." or "Please contact us for a list of the references mentioned in this article..."

The goal for all these things is to get them back to you, hence to get them branded to you, hence to get them into the habit of coming to you for help and advice, hence to come to you when it's time to do business.

Regular readers will recognize that I'm combining several previous topics here. Removing any download requirements (name, email address, et cetera) is from Removing Barriers to Entry. Getting visitors to download something is a demonstration of the Visitor Action Metric and The First Sale is the next page.

Downloading is a demonstration that they're qualified. Their return for more information is a demonstration of just how qualified they are and what, exactly, is qualifying them. Design your interface so that what they're looking for is easy to find and familiar and you create Brand Loyalty.

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's inventor and developer of Evolution Technology.

Joseph will be speaking at the Sept 05 MCAN management meeting in Baltimore on "Six Web Techniques that Get New Business." Come on by and introduce yourself. You can download sections of Carrabis' next book, "Reading Virtual Minds," at www.hungrypeasant.com.

I have heard some premium publisher folks state concerns that there could be issues with real-time bidding on display inventory due to asymmetric bidding and low bid density. Consider the following example that illustrates how low bid density (leading to asymmetric bids) could be a problem in the future as more impressions become available for real-time bidding. I'll make it unrealistically simple to illustrate the issue:

An impression shows up for bid. It has the following attributes:

  1. Male

  2. 34 years old

  3. Greater than $150,000 income

  4. Chicago DMA

  5. New parent

  6. Auto shopper

  7. Jewelry shopper

  8. Health club member

  9. Impression is 300x250 pixels

  10. Site category is entertainment

Four advertisers participate in the auction:

Advertiser 1: Pampers -- knows nothing extra

Advertiser 2: Ford -- knows user owns a BMW and has been shopping for Land Rovers through proprietary data deals

Advertiser 3: Zales -- has existing customer data that shows this is an inactive customer, a high spender in past who bought an engagement ring three years ago

Advertiser 4: An independent Chicago diaper service -- knows nothing extra

The bidding follows like this:

Pampers bids $1 CPM.

Ford bids $5 CPM -- it knows it has a low likelihood of converting this profile, so it doesn't bid very high.

Zales bids $40 CPM -- it knows that this customer bought his engagement ring at Zales three years ago, and given the new parent status, he is likely to be open to buying an expensive Mother's Day present.

The Chicago diaper service bids $10 CPM based on simple CPA optimization.

Because this is a second price auction, Zales will win, but only pay $10 CPM for the impression. In this simple example, that might not seem too bad. But in reality, it should be possible for the publisher to predict that this impression, based on past bids on similar impressions, would sell for much higher than $5 CPM. So the publisher has not gotten the maximum yield it could have gotten based on the auction it had in play.

In the future, I predict that publishers will make use of yield optimization technology to fix this problem. The publisher should be setting a floor price on a per-impression basis based on its prediction of value to the advertisers in the marketplace. The publisher probably could have comfortably set a floor price that would have given it a higher yield (e.g., set the price at $12 or even $20 CPM based on historical trends for this type of impression and the current bidders in the auction). But this is a very hard technology problem to solve.

In paid search, we've seen high bid density drive very high CPMs on highly desirable keywords within the auction. And where the bid density is lower, we've frequently seen lower CPMs. Essentially, bid density refers to how many participants within an auction are bidding over the same item. In paid search, overall this hasn't been a problem -- mostly because there are "single digit" millions of commercially viable keywords, and about half a million advertisers competing over them. This leads to pretty good distribution, with some keywords getting lots of competition, and some getting very little -- and overall the average yield being very high for the search engine. It's a supply and demand problem for the most part.

But in online display advertising, there are trillions of display impressions a month with fewer than 10,000 advertisers (at least, in the world we live in today), with most dollars being spent in the U.S. coming from fewer than 3,000 advertisers. Further, the role of agencies could significantly change under this new set of mechanisms. There's no reason that an agency using a DSP couldn't withhold bids from its stable of advertisers so that only the top bid available for any advertiser for each impression would be placed. From a bid density perspective, this could be damaging without the kind of yield optimization I mentioned above and the creation of competition between multiple advertisers that normally wouldn't have competed in the past. But there are still things that could drive lower bid density and lower publisher yield.

For instance: In an extreme world, each agency holding company could have its own DSP, and each of these would offer only one bid per impression as it reviewed the available targeting parameters and determined -- based on each advertiser's business rules -- which of their campaigns would have the highest bid. In other words, each DSP could run an internal auction prior to placing a bid in the publisher-facing system. That would reduce the density of the auction on the publisher side significantly, causing the publisher to reduce yield. But it does require significant process change from how things are done today.

In the end, I think publishers would be foolish to worry too much here. It's likely that their highest value impressions are going to go way up in yield, even if they see a drop on the rest of their impressions. And at the least, those two things should make up for each other. At the best, this could drive average yield higher in online display than we've ever seen before.

Eric Picard is the advertising technology advisor to the Advertising Platform Engineering team at Microsoft.

On Twitter? Follow Picard at @ericpicard. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


Responsive design is much more complicated than traditional design or building dedicated mobile sites. At this time, responsive design is relatively new and few developers have much experience. Good responsive design can therefore be expensive. Bad, but affordable, responsive design is everywhere. You can recognize such second-rate work by web pages that are absurdly tall on mobile devices. These are typically pages from a traditional design in which the elements have simply been rearranged to fit a narrower screen. The result is a tall, thin column, guaranteeing people never see the bottom two-thirds of the content. Reworking an existing design into a responsive design is an extremely complex process, which is simply beyond the ability of most web designers and thus requires best-of-breed coders.

This often means designers underestimate the amount of work required in responsive design until they've had several years of experience. This complexity can also lead to situations where designers simply do not know how to convert an existing design element to a responsive design. For example, simply getting the phone to resize images might not work because important details get lost at smaller resolutions or because the images only make sense when several can be viewed at once. Similarly, banner and callout placement is much harder on responsive designs because of the narrow mobile phone screen. In fact, many sites find callouts and banners cannot be shared between desktop and mobile sites at all. They find the screen dimensions of a mobile device do not allow for placement of insertion boxes alongside their related content, while moving them underneath renders them meaningless.

Navigation can also be an issue in responsive design. Pop-out navigation tabs can be a problem because they might be too big for a mobile screen. Such designs often have their functions locked to very specific sizes, which means it's impossible to resize them so they work for smaller screens. Often this can mean redesigning the entire navigation system from scratch. A responsive design therefore requires a considerable redesign effort.

Unless your website is very minimalist, you cannot create a responsive design by simply rearranging the existing elements. Responsive design usually requires a complete redesign of the main site from the ground up. Designing and coding responsive design is much more complex than simply building two different sites. As a result, responsive design is much more expensive if you want the guarantee of a good mobile user experience. If you are happy to accept lower performance for mobiles, it might be cheaper than building a mobile site, but even that is not guaranteed. What is guaranteed is that if the responsive design you go for is significantly cheaper than building a mobile site, you'll probably get garbage.

However, the issue cuts both ways when it comes to artwork, especially product photographs. Getting an image that works well on both small and large screens is difficult. In a responsive design, you have to use images that work well no matter what their size. That puts a burden on the product photographers and can significantly lengthen image production times. On the other hand, a mobile site might require a completely different set of images from the main website, effectively doubling the image workload. Either way, catering to such a wide range of screen sizes makes artwork much more problematic than in the pre-mobile days. In general, dedicated images designed for a small screen will provide better results for the mobile visitor, which should translate into more conversions, which is something only possible on a dedicated mobile site.

Browser compatibility is also an issue. Coding responsive design is "bleeding edge" technology. It requires a sophisticated implementation of the very latest CSS techniques. It's hard to avoid using code elements that are not yet standardized and so implemented differently on different browsers. This is especially true of Internet Explorer, which just happens to be the world's most popular web browser. Due to changes between versions, getting a responsive design that works on a mobile device and also on all versions of Internet Explorer on the desktop is extraordinarily complex -- possibly the most complex task that can be asked of any web designer.

By contrast, a separate mobile site can use more modern front-end technologies like HTML5 and WebKit features without the need to code for backward compatibility with older desktop browsers. These newer technologies can enhance the user experience and cut down on maintenance costs. A mobile site doesn't require you to redesign your main site and so could be considerably cheaper than a responsive design that requires a complete rebuild of everything.

SEO issues

There is a widespread belief that Google wants everyone to use responsive design and that Google will list responsive websites above mobile ones. This is not true. Google actually said it prefers responsive design if it is better for the user and if it suits you and your infrastructure better. It also said it is perfectly happy to see and index mobile sites. It has never said that responsive designs will be listed above mobile sites.

Some people are concerned that having a mobile website means Google can see the same content on two different sites. They are concerned this could see one site vanish from the search engines or that they could get penalized by Google for having duplicate content. This is not something you should worry about. Google uses different bots for mobile and desktop, populating different databases. Google also has techniques for handling dedicated mobile sites (read more here). Its recommended techniques, such as canonical tags and bot redirects, should handle any potential problems regarding the website conflicting with the mobile site.

Experienced search marketing consultants will tell you what Google says you should do does not always match what Google rewards. My research reveals Google is listing mainly mobile sites in mobile search, not responsive designs. The Google mobile database uses different ranking rules from the main system. For example, Google has stated that it considers speed much more important for ranking sites in mobile search than for the main database. This is perfectly logical, as speed is more of an issue for mobile users than for desktop users. While Google might prefer responsive designs, sites still need to meet the criteria Google wants for mobile users. In practice, mobile sites are meeting Google's requirements much more than responsive designs. Perhaps as a result, having a mobile site is strongly correlated with having a high listing in Google mobile search.

Getting the best search listings in Google mobile search means meeting the criteria laid down for that Google database, not just blindly going responsive because Google said you should. What matters is the quality of the work. In practice, most people find it easier to meet those criteria with a dedicated mobile site rather than a responsive design.

Conversion rates

Mobile sites perform better in terms of sales. Typically mobile sites have conversion rates three times better than those using responsive design. This is because mobile sites are almost always faster and better designed for small screens. Mobile sites are faster for users because the work is done on the server, not the phone. Responsive design requires the device to do the work of calculating layout for the screen and resizing graphics. This can be processor heavy and slow on mobile devices. It's not uncommon to see a mobile device take four or five seconds to process a responsive design page before it can display it. A desktop device, with more memory and a faster processor, might take only one second to process the same page. With a mobile site, you can load only the elements that your mobile users need, resulting in faster download and processing times.

Speed is critical to mobile sales. Ideally, you need to download and display the site on a mobile device in two seconds. For every 10th of a second beyond that, you lose about 10 percent of potential mobile sales. A good-looking modern website, which might contain dozens or even hundreds of items, can rarely meet that goal. It may be possible to create a responsive design that can download and display in two seconds, but it will need to use a very minimalist style by modern design standards.

Mobile tech

Mobile sites allow the inclusion of features unique to mobile devices that make no sense for desktop computers. For example, mobile sites also allow for the incorporation of phone calls into the design, where visitors can click a button on the design to make their phone initiate a call. This cannot be done on a responsive design since desktop devices cannot make sense of the click-to-call functionality and lack phone capabilities. Mobile design also allows for easy inclusion of mobile-only HTML, touch events (such as using a finger to scroll through images), or features such as location-based services.

Maintenance issues

Whether you go mobile or responsive, your costs will increase. Server maintenance is a little more complicated with mobile design, but a mobile site is cheaper and easier to build than responsive design, so the overall cost of ownership is usually cheaper for mobile sites. However, a mobile site might require more complex management as you now have two outlets for content. I think this issue depends on your organization. If you're not used to running more than one site, responsive design might offer an easier system for updating content. However, if you're used to managing more than one website, adding a mobile one isn't going to cause problems. Furthermore, you might be able to populate a separate mobile site with syndication technology like RSS, making things even easier.

Following the leaders

Looking at the 100 top-trafficked websites in the world reveals that 83 have dedicated mobile sites, 11 use responsive design, and four just have old-fashioned, non-responsive design. This is not really a conclusive argument, but I tend to assume these guys earned their dominance by knowing something about the web, so I like to have very solid reasons not to follow their lead. They clearly favor dedicated mobile websites.

A middle way

I don't think there's a long-term future for either responsive design or dedicated mobile sites. When you look at these issues what you see is a pattern: There are some things that should be shared across all devices, like content, and there are some things that should be designed for the device, like photographs. Neither responsive design nor a mobile website offer both.

Responsive design rarely provides a best-of-breed solution for the mobile user, while mobile websites make sharing elements difficult. It seems to me the solution to this is to use "adaptive design." Under an adaptive design system, the server works out what type of device is connecting and serves a combination of shared and unique elements. For example, it might use the same content for all devices, but use different artwork for smaller screens. In adaptive designs, some CSS files are common to all, but smartphones will get different sizing and layout CSS instructions from those sent to desktop browsers. Adaptive design is already possible with some CMS systems, such as Drupal, because of their browser detection and response capabilities.

If your CMS system is up to it, adaptive design offers the best of both worlds. If you're not ready for adaptive design, then a dedicated mobile website might be your best interim solution. Responsive design is viable only if you have the best designers, with significant responsive design experience, and are happy to completely redesign your existing websites.

Brandt Dainow is the CEO of ThinkMetrics.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Two businessmen press hands" image via Shutterstock.

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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