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Usability Studies 101: Experience as an Equation

Usability Studies 101: Experience as an Equation Joseph Carrabis

My recent column "A Little Story" led to some interesting discussions, online and off. One such discussion occurred on USABILITYWEB.NL. In a nutshell (and many thanks to Stefan Wobben for translating for me), the folks posting there agreed that

  • Animation can help in branding

  • Short animations are better than longer ones

  • The animation should be updated over time to prevent user fatigue and dismissal

  • Where the animation is placed is important

  • It's best to play the animation once on the homepage and not again during a single browser session

I agree with all of the above and would modify the final bullet to read "It's best to play the animation when a visitor enters a site and not again during their visit," meaning the animation should activate on whatever page the visitor comes in on, but all pages navigated by the visitor thereafter should not have the same (or any other) animations.

The folks on USABILITYWEB.NL also felt that most users

  • Are focused on what they're looking for and won't pay attention to branding elements, animations or otherwise

  • Will either ignore or be distracted by animations, thus having a negative impact on the user

  • Are irritated if music is played when a website is loaded

Their concern is the same as anyone's who needs to communicate in other than a face-to-face manner with prospects: how do you know if your material is positively or negatively impacting user experience?

This is a rich topic, and I know I'm not writing the final text on the matter. What I can do is share that user experience is something that interests me a lot and something I research constantly. I've written previously on where to place things so as to maximize eye-share and how to rearrange material to keep visitors engaged on repeat visits.

Experience as an equation

Chapter six of my new book, "Reading Virtual Minds" is called "Expectation versus Satisfaction," and I start it this way:

When was the last time somebody opened up a business-based email or browsed a B2x website and said, "My God, this is beautiful! I'm so glad I opened/read/saw this! I'll just have to tell all my friends!"

Chances are you've never heard those types of comments. Chances are that you view these types of activities with the same sense of boredom and frustration that you use to view salespeople who didn't know when to quit. The next time you are in one of these situations, take a minute and do a little self monitoring. Are you tensing, perhaps a little, perhaps a lot? Is your brow furrowed or smooth? Are you blinking less than you normally do? Are you breathing from your chest or from your stomach? And your thighs? Are the big muscles in front and back of the thighs tight or relaxed?

What that chapter and this column deal with is expectation: visitors to various websites we were analyzing didn't expect much and most times non-consciously expected to be disappointed.

It's a funny thing about expectations. It really doesn't matter if your expectations are high or low, all that matters is that your expectations get met. If expectations are low and are met, the non-conscious anxiety that bliss might occur goes away because the expectations were met. If expectations are high and met, the non-conscious anxiety that bliss might not occur goes away because expectations were met. Expectations were low but experience was excellent? Then you got more than you bargained for and were satisfied, which is a wonderful thing! And if expectations are high but experience was a downer? Then foo! You didn't get what you wanted and weren't satisfied, which is not a good thing.

What we're coming to is that the soft, fuzzy thing called experience can be measured and made into a hard number via an equation.

Experience = Satisfaction - Expectation

The above equation must result in a positive value for any marketing, sales, training, et cetera, communication to be successful. That equation can take the form of a truth table:

The values for satisfaction and expectation are also measurable and can vary greatly. In general, you want low expectations coming in and high satisfaction going out. The word choice in that last sentence is intentional. Expectations are before the fact and are a function of past experience and imagination. Satisfaction is the individual's evaluation of their experience. Expectations are your checkbook, satisfaction is what you hold in your hand after you've gone through the checkout and experience is your time in the store.

Did you come to the store with little in your checkbook but still managed to buy everything you wanted? Then probably you're satisfied and that means you had a positive experience. Did you come to the store with little in your checkbook and walk out with little in your hand? That experience might be acceptable, but it's definitely not satisfactory.

What the equation tells you is something every sales professional has known for years: correctly manage expectations and the client, prospect, et cetera, will be satisfied. Let expectations get out of hand and you end up with unsatisfied customers. Not good.

Information, experience and animation

The USABILITYWEB.NL folks' thoughts can be reframed as, "At what point do people stop paying attention to what they see?" The answer comes from pulling together a number of sources. Two that I recommend are from Nature (purchase required) and Tom Connor's "Thinking Forward" article on economic moats. Tom quotes Nobel laureate economist Herbert Simon:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

The gist of the Nature article is that most people can only pay attention to three to four things at a time, and much of their non-conscious activity is involved in deciding which three to four things get their attention.

This means media designers have to know a little (just three to four things, really) about how people make decisions regarding where to place their attention. That information can be found in Steven Yantis' and other material on attentional control (interested readers can do a search on "attentional strategy" for more research or check out this list of resources.

Designing a satisfying experience

What we can cull from all that are some important kernels of how to design eye-catching, attention-gathering, memory-branding material. Here's the list:

  1. Lay out your most meaningful and branding elements in a visual clock pattern.

  2. Have three to four graphics on your page

    1. -- not counting banner and menu if the menu is horizontal and visually attached to the banner

    2. -- but definitely including the menu if the menu is vertical and visually detached from the banner.

  3. Have these three to four graphics

    1. -- specific to what visitors came to your webpage looking for

    2. -- or what people picked up your marketing material to learn.

  4. Use these three to four graphics to draw the eye to

    1. -- a website's branding animation (which runs just once upon visitor entry)

    2. -- or collateral material's branding statement.

There you go. Three to four things to keep in mind in order to increase satisfaction, hence generating a positive experience regarding the information you want people to focus their attention on when they're looking at your material.

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 inventor and developer of Evolution Technology. You can download sections of Carrabis' next book, "Reading Virtual Minds," at www.hungrypeasant.com.

iMedia: Which mobile devices and gadgets are you playing with these days?

Richman: Everyone is enamored with the iPad, and for good reason. It changes how we consume digital content, shifting the experience and interaction to entertain me vs. inform me, even if the content is, in essence, the same as you'd consume on a laptop. I'm very interested in seeing Research In Motion's PlayBook release as well, in addition to the innovation from Samsung and Hewlett Packard that will continue to push the industry forward.

iMedia: Digital doubled under your leadership at MediaVest. How did you make the case for this growth, and did it come at the expense of traditional?

Richman: Our digital growth has been fueled by a model of integration, which allows us to be more flexible and nimble in shifting dollars and mixes -- and on a directive from the top to embrace a digital mindset and focus on innovation. Both integration and innovation complement our work in traditional channel -- it's not about replacing, but making all channels work harder through digital activation and measurement. But primarily, it's the audience and their rapid adoption of all things digital that's fueled the change -- from search sophistication to video consumption to mobile applications; they are ahead of marketers and agencies in their speed to change. We test and learn in a controlled manner -- they're learning and moving on in real-time.

iMedia: What is the most successful approach to the iPad you've seen so far?

Richman: We're still in the early days of the iPad, with lots of great experimentation going on with over a dozen programs for clients like Coca-Cola and UBS. From print publishers adding more images and video that bring more life to their brand, to digital publishers rethinking navigation and content structure, to newspapers publishing a new daily experience, everyone is pushing into this space, learning, and evolving. 

Our approach has been to start by understanding the consumer, before we weigh in on what will be the best content experience. Just following the launch of iPad, we developed the iPanel -- a panel of iPad users that we're gaining insights from in real-time, from purchase through initial exploration and deeper interaction with the device and its content. This approach will help us filter through the choices in the marketplace and focus on finding successful approaches for specific audiences, vs. en masse.

iMedia: You'll be speaking at ad:tech New York in November. What can the audience expect to hear from you?

Richman: The panel I'll be moderating is focused on the three-screen experience -- so more importantly, I'm looking forward to hearing from the panelists how they're approaching this space, planning their marketing approaches, and measuring them to understand what's working and what to evolve. We hope to uncover some best practices, lessons learned, and ways to rethink how we measure success across all screens, as we move to a more integrated model. But you won't hear a formula -- the silver bullet. Every marketer will develop their own three-screen approach based on their brand's relationship to the customer, the content and assets, and the services they provide, and the way those can best be expressed. So hopefully the takeaway is to move forward -- experiment and innovate -- and don't wait for the rulebook -- you have to write your own.

Lucia Davis is associate editor at iMedia Connection.

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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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