Whenever singer John Mayer sings his romantic song, "Your Body is a Wonderland", I can't help but think of web sites and usability. As a usability consultant, I see the devotion to his lover, and the time he spent uncovering every detail of her being, as the way most web site designers think we approach their web sites. When the lyrics arrive at "Take all your big plans; And break 'em; This is bound to be a while", I start giggling. It makes me think of Amazon.com. I'll explain why.
Do You Have Three Hours To Browse?
Amazon's jigsaw puzzle-like homepage greets me personally by name, which is smooth talking salesmanship. We've obviously "met" before. It has "recommendations" for me. There's a nifty advertisement that unfolds like those movie screens in school auditoriums where you know you're about to see something either cool, or gross, in front of all your friends. This ad doesn't tell me what I should do to get it to go away. When I click it, I'm instantly taken inside the web site to a targeted area. There's my Gold Box, and my Wish List, and 15,459 links to things I might want to buy. All this is displayed in the first few seconds of my arrival.
Whenever a web site presents me with an onslaught of too much, too soon, I often feel overwhelmed, or angry, and leave the site. If Amazon was a human being with an actual body, I probably wouldn't like him or her for very long. I would find the physical Amazon pushy, invasive, greedy, egotistical, and likely a hypochondriac. Yet, I did most of my Christmas shopping there last year. Why? What is it about Amazon that makes it such a compelling experience?
To understand the theory behind the type of design Amazon uses, which is copied by thousands of ecommerce web sites, I turned to a different way of seeing and a different kind of art. The type of Cubist art that Pablo Picasso painted seemed to fit.
The Experience of Seeing
People react to web sites the same way they respond to art. They come with an expectation. They see what they want to see. It's up to the web site design to show them what they did not come to find, or what they may not know they were looking for.
I recently attended an opening night art gallery reception. I know the artist and his family. Standing in front of one of his vibrantly colorful pieces, a scene of someone entering a store from a busy New York City street, he pointed things out to me. "The brown brush strokes over here are the back of woman's head as the person enters the store. Note the hand on the door handle." The colorful canvas portrays glimpses of city life, such as signs, lights, clothing, people, and buildings. I began to imagine cars honking and that I'm breathing city smog. Amazingly, none of the illustrations are clearly defined. The artist drops clues and the rest is left to your imagination and emotions. You see what you want to see. I know I'm seeing the painting differently than the other people viewing it because I can hear their remarks.
Then, my artist friend says, "Ever since my Dad's experience, I see everything differently."
A few years ago, at the age of 19, my friend came home to find his father nearly bleeding to death from botched major surgery in which he was discharged too early from the hospital. His chest literally opened back up and my friend held it together with his bare hands while family members got medical help. He saved his father's life. Since then, his artwork took on a new form. From this artist's point of view, everything is present, in the moment, all the time. We normally see it in bits and pieces, and then miss most of what's around us.
This struck a chord with me. Should a homepage, for example, present everything the web site offers all at once? Is there a way to do this by offering clever clues or gentle nudges that leave enough to the imagination to make the visitor want to stay on the page until it all comes "into focus"?
This was one of the experiences that brought me to link Pablo Picasso and web design. Pablo Picasso felt that only by means of our awareness do things come into being. We're normally unaware of something until it matters to us.
Awareness, Experience and Persuasive Architecture
Impressionist art is not about painting objects as they are seen, but more about the experience of seeing them.
Andrew Chak writes in his book, Submit Now: Designing Persuasive Web Sites, "What our users see are the web pages in front of them at the very moment they are trying to do something. Each page either helps them move forward in the process or puts them a step back. If you have gaps in your functionality or you don't provide guidance to your users, you can't expect them to just figure it out."
One solution for guiding web site visitors to important pages or items is through the use of persuasion and making a site desirable. For example, when a product is designed, some thought is also given to the human response to it or the experience of using it. The same can be true for web sites.
Amazon utilizes persuasive techniques. Remember that "movie screen" ad? When clicked on, it deliberately took me deeper into the web site. Other web sites use marketing content expertly written to keep you interested enough to keep browsing. Even better are embedded links within that text.
By comparison, Google's homepage interface is minimalistic and simple. Yet someone realized it wasn't bringing everything Google does out into the open, so they designed Soople.com, which efficiently lists everything on one page. No extra clicks. No navigation to learn. The obvious tasks are presented at once, for instant access. Someone at Google forgot to read Andrew Chak's Principle #4 - "You know everything about your site, but your users know nothing."
Both the Soople and Amazon design approach quickly bring the user into the web environment, to experience it, not just stare at it and figure out how it works first. This is how we also like to experience art.
Task, Task Task
Which design is best for your web site? Do you offer up the mixed salad and plop some tomatoes on top or do you lay out a buffet-style table of dishes, organized by food group, and let people choose?
Picasso once said, "I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them." The development of Cubism allowed an overlapping and interpenetrating of planes on a canvas. This is how Picasso offered glimpses of his subject, and how my artist friend could paint and capture layers upon layers of human life on an 8 x 8 piece of material. It's not always easy to know where to "enter" a Picasso painting. The point of view is simply "everything, all at once".
It's not always easy to know where to enter a web site either. Every visitor has a different mission. Chak refers to them as "Browsers, Evaluators, Transactors and Customers."
Math and science found inspiration on Cubism and the notion of "continuous dimension of consciousness" or what we call three or even four dimensions. Jason Edward Kaufman writes in his essay, Pioneering Cubism, "More specifically, Einstein's general theory of relativity found its first artistic expression Cubist art. The plotting of an object in a field consisting of and defined by the artist's moving point of view suggests, as Einstein posited, a 'time-space continuum' whose makeup is contingent on point of point of view."
The idea of being able to bring different experiences to art, and enter a painting from different areas based upon your experience is something that can apply to web sites as well as cubist art. How do you plan a web site's "continuous dimension of consciousness?" In other words, how do you keep people on your web site, no matter what their original intent is? Regardless of whether their intent is just to browse, or to evaluate the site? Or to conduct a transaction, or to return as a customer?
That can be done during the web site planning stage, by taking the helpful steps of assigning business, user and web site goals. Write them out in detail. You can title those "My Web Site Requirements" if you'd like. Having them on paper can be very helpful.
As you move towards finishing your web site, you can test it to make sure it met those original requirements, and didn't stray. Selling custom furniture on your web site is a business requirement that might not be met if you also have Google ads on your homepage. While the ads may make money, they will send away potential customers for the furniture you offer.
Also consider whose point of view you are designing for. Is it yours or your web site visitors? While an artist paints from within, rather than focusing upon who is going to see the finished product or what they'll do with it, a web site owner has to be concerned with the reactions of the viewers who see the site. The designer has to consider who the visitors are and what they want to do on your web site.
How do you assign business, user, and web site goals? Think in terms of creating tasks, both in-house and for users. A business requirement may be to get sales leads. The task is to design a form, or provide "call to action" click paths to products that inspire purchases, such as sale items.
A user's task may be to find a customer representative at the company to speak with about a product. You may have anticipated this email or phone call, and made a contact form, and put your phone number on the site. But how easy did you make it for the customer to identify and describe a page and product on a page so that customers who call-in or email can communicate properly? Don't make them say, "It's 5 clicks into that category after you go to the second section from the third button on the left." That will not only confuse your customer, but also the customer service representative.
The web site's goal is to persuade and make any task easy to find and perform. No matter how busy the design appears, if tasks are obvious, and easy to understand and use, the visitor will remain. By focusing on their actions and reactions by creating task assignments, you manage to make both a salad or buffet approach easy to use.
What a Lovely Hat You're Wearing
How do you get someone to see your site the way artists like people to experience their art? You bring the user into the scene. You give the web site substance.
At first glance, when we meet someone, we scan his or her appearance. We make some judgments as to the who and what the person is, and maybe where
they're from. We have less to go on for the how and why. Dating helps. So does a drink at the local pub. For each page of your web site, an introductory paragraph that quickly and simply answers these questions will suffice.
Google does it with "I'm Feeling Lucky". They've instantly invited you inside, with that little teasing gesture. The happy colors logo doesn't hurt either. Those big "O's" look like eyes, don't they?
Amazon does everything but prepare me a cup of espresso. Their homepage addresses me by name at least 5 times. Other words are "your" as in "your new releases" and "new for you". Most web sites use "what's new" and "we". Amazon likes me, so I buy stuff from them. It's that simple.
Blog writers also captivate us by pulling us into their world and giving us everything. They share all, from piercing their navel to what they think of their neighbor's motorcycle shocking them out of bed at 6:30 am every morning. They describe these things so exquisitely that you squirm at the thought of the poor belly button and you can hear the Harley rumble in your head. We love our personal dramas. We think, no, we KNOW, everyone else does too.
Like Picasso's art, and that of others, you want to know something about it, even if at first you don't understand it.
What The Artists Taught Me
For months I've been trying to find "that something" that's been bothering me about web site usability, specifically the age-old question, "Why do some web sites sell and others don't? "
I came close when I began using user personas during usability testing. By watching my process, my clients realize how important their web site visitor is When someone can't order what he or she needs from a laptop and cell phone during a twenty-minute bumpy train ride to work, this is a potential lost sale.
Picasso helped me see how we can direct someone's attention even when there are many layers of thought streaming in.
When my artist friend said, "I see the things most people miss" during the most mundane of tasks, such as opening a door, or as in his painting of a view from a toy story window, I began to understand. His paintings put back the missing pieces from our view that we skim over every day. His art, like Picasso's, does it with layers, with hints of things that make you curious, and with details that bring you into the moment.
Persuasiveness and desirability in web site design are in the details. They're in the point of view and in the delivery, and more than anything else, in the experience of interaction. They are that inner cosmic connection between the web site and site visitor.
This is what distinguishes web sites from one another and makes some of them functional and productive pieces of art.