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What if someone came to you and said, “I’ve designed this great website, but people don’t stay on it. Why?” How would you respond? Would you ask them whether they have done extensive A/B testing? Would you recommend testing the usability of the website?

People like to test a number of metrics to see why people are not staying on a website. I think sometimes we spend so much time focusing on analytics that we throw common sense out the window. Don’t get me wrong—analytics are a powerful tool for improving a website. But often the problem is right in front of your face.

What if you simply told them that the reason people are leaving is because of the way they designed the website? How mind-blowing an idea is that? Doesn’t that change your entire perspective on the design? It could be the greatest thing in the world, but what if you really designed something to chase people away or looking at it another way: What if you have designed it so there is no incentive to stay?

Feedback… Om Nom Nom

I love getting feedback on the stuff that I write; yet my website has no comments section. Is it reasonable for me to wonder why people don’t leave feedback? I could tell people that there is a forum on the website where they can leave feedback, but that means they would have to register, get approved and then remember what they wanted to write. The website isn’t designed for instant feedback.

When I didn’t have any social media widgets at the end of a post, sharing of articles dropped over 80%. It wasn’t fair for me to assume that people would remember to share something they liked or that if they were on the fence they would make an effort to do so. If I really wanted people to retweet what I write, I would have to guide them to doing so by putting a retweet widget at the end of everything. Maybe I could even add some text asking them to retweet if they like what they read.

The point is that, if I expect a person to take an action, I would have to design the process for taking that action right into the website itself. I should never assume that a person who is interacting with my website will automatically take that action. Would a driver stop at an intersection that had no stop sign?

As designers we have to understand that the interface we create dictates the action of the people using it.

If you run a website and hope to get a lot of comments, then the best way to go about that is to make posting a comment as easy as possible. Of course, doing so could lead to people leaving all types of comments, both useful and not. A great example of designing how you want users to interact with a product is Pinterest.

The Pinterest Way

Most comment blocks on Pinterest are filled with simple comments. The content doesn’t lend itself to much discussion, but Pinterest obviously wants users to engage in other social interactions, and it has designed the product to make that easy to do. You can easily like, comment, repin and share any image that you come across, and all of this makes the content spread quickly throughout the network. This network effect is one of the main reasons for Pinterest’s explosive growth over the past couple of months.

pinterest

Pinterest made an interesting decision in requiring all users to connect to the website through either Facebook or Twitter. This mean that real names (usually) are tied to users; because of this, the quality of stuff that people share is generally high. Allowing everyone to hide behind fake identities would have resulted in a much different experience.

But the system wasn’t designed that way; it was designed so that people who post quality content (or at least content that others in their circle like) would become popular. Thus, rather than turning into a website full of animated GIFs and Web comics, the website has become a valuable resource to its community—mainly because it was designed to function that way.

Maybe It’s Not That Simple

I realize that simply saying that a product was designed to do what it is meant to do makes fixing problems seem like the easiest thing in the world. Of course, as you dig deeper into how to improve a design, you will have more variables to keep in mind; but always be aware of the simple fact that people will do what the design of a website lets them do.

Why did Twitter evolve beyond being a place where people just leave status updates? Part of it has to do with the tiny microcopy that was above the status update field. Originally it said “What are you doing?” and this of course led to people talking about their breakfast. After some time they changed it to “What’s happening?” which helped guide the people using the service to post about what is happening around them.

Why was Digg being gamed for so long? Because the design encouraged it. Simple. Executives at Yahoo might sit around a table asking why users aren’t using its search engine? Does the design of the website look like it is meant for search or even encourage it? Do you think Google execs sit around a table asking why people don’t use its search engine when they hit its main page? The design of Pinterest encourages users to continually scroll down the page looking at more and more pins; it is designed to keep you on the website.

Do you want your users to do something specific? Then design your website so that they do it.

It could be the greatest thing in the world, but what if you really designed something to chase people away or looking at it another way: What if you have designed it so there is no incentive to stay?


© Paul Scrivens for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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