Ian Lurie // Aug 9 2009
There are things you don’t know about your customers. It’s not you, it’s them. But you need to figure it out. Here are some hard lessons I’ve learned over the years – they apply to usability, pet peeves and other fun stuff. Learn these and you’ll have more, happier customers/visitors/readers/fans:
The most basic principle of usability: It’s hard for folks to read online. Much harder than reading in print. Remember this. Burn it into your brain. Small typefaces, weird page layouts and odd color schemes may seem great, but they’re bound to hurt your business in the long run.
Oldest rule of marketing, from way back when we printed on paper and used mail and stuff: Write no more than 4-5 lines in a paragraph. Read My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising (Advertising Age Classics Library) to learn just how little the rules have changed.
Reading onscreen is hard. The typical person can best read 10-20 words per line. No more. If you’re using microscopic fonts to fit every word possible on a line, change your ways.
Also know as ‘leading’, wide line spacing makes text easier to read. Margins shorten the lines so that you get fewer words per line (see above).
Folks actually read faster when line spacing is really tight, but they retain and comprehend less. A fantastic piece of research by the University of Wichita proves it.
We are trained to read dark text on a light background. It’s what we’re used to. So this:
The quick brown fox sprayed the lazy dog with mace.
Is easier to read than this:
The quick brown fox sprayed the lazy dog with mace.
The dark background really jumps out at you, but make it into a whole page and it starts to give you a headache.
Do you hate your audience? No? Then go with dark text on a light background.
With those nifty mouse wheels, folks stopped getting unhappy about scrolling – it’s no longer a usability issue, unless you create a 5000 word page or some silliness. You don’t have to make a home page, or any other page of your web site, fit in a single window. Long pages are OK!
You can write a list in a paragraph, so that colors look like red, green, blue.
Or, you can write a list in a list, so that colors look like:
Your audience wants the latter.
Read Jacob Nielsen’s excellent article about the f-shape browsing pattern: Click here.
Put the most important stuff in the critical points of that F-shape, and you’ll get better results.
Seriously. No one ever remembers a web address. Oh, sure, if you’re ‘nike.com’ or ‘cnn.com’, they do. But if you’re ‘portentinteractive.com’ or ‘conversationmarketing.com’, good luck with that.
Give people plenty of ways to subscribe, bookmark or otherwise remember you. And reserve different permutations on your web address, to protect your brand.
Don’t make them log in to check out. Let ‘em just click ‘check out’. By all means, give them the option to save their information and create an account. At the end of the checkout process. At that point, the warm fuzzy feeling any consumer gets from burning hard-earned cash is enough to get them to trust you.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, fine, I’ll just put a login form on the left, and then put a tiny little button on the right that says you can check in as a guest.”
Tells me, the customer, “You are not part of our exclusive club. Click ‘continue’ and buy, but you are a loser.”
In all seriousness, customers don’t trust the internet. Never mind that they’re 10x more likely to get their credit card stolen in a restaurant. They see the web as a massive interconnected den of thieves. If you even imply you’re going to save their information, their trust is lost. Don’t do it.
Just let them check out. For the love of all that’s holy and good in the universe. Can we just drop it?
In the immortal words of Jakob Nielsen: “Most people just want to get in, get it and get out.”
Adding dynamic “web 2.0 stuff” (shudder) just because the other guy has it is foolish. Anything that makes me click twice instead of once is going to impress me the first time, and then alienate me after that. Examples include:
Don’t take my word for it. Look at the web site of one of the ultimate design companies: Apple.com. See any special effects?
Hard to believe after all the spam hysteria, but a sizable chunk of your audience still wants to receive a newsletter. So make it easy for them to find it.
I was one of the worst offenders in this department. On our corporate site, we had a little e-mail icon, buried 1/3 of the way down the page, for our newsletter signup.
We made a very simple change, adding a signup form on every page next to the icon, and we’ve seen a lift in signups just a week later:
If you can say “Ian Lurie arrested in drunken rampage”, just say it. Don’t say “Pugnacious Portent Prez Pegged by Police”. The former tells me what’s going on. The latter is funny but unhelpful.
Your online audience is enticed by clarity, a cool product, a great story and such. They’re not enticed by the mystery of it all.
So a headline like “Great abs!” isn’t as helpful as “10 exercises to get great abs”. And “All Wired Up” is utterly worthless compared to “Wired Magazine Has A Great Year”.
It’s easy for a site visitor to get lost. A broken link here, a missing button there, and wham, they’re frustrated and confused.
Have a user-friendly 404 error page, a good onsite search tool and really clear navigation. Then review the onsite search data and the 404 errors, and see what they tell you about what your customers want but aren’t getting.
If you do business in North America, chances are your customers aren’t browsing your site using a cell phone. Even this blog, which has more than its share of geek visitors, gets few mobile views:
Plan for mobile, by all means. Learn how to create a mobile style sheet. But don’t derail an entire project, or increase the cost 100%, just to be mobile-compatible.
Your audience doesn’t know who you are. They aren’t searching for your name. They’re searching based on a question, and they’ll find you if you can pose the right answer. So, while ranking #1 for your company name is great, it probably won’t help your bottom line.
Not everyone understands that Firefox is the Risen Savior just yet. Most of your audience is probably using Internet Explorer:
And a lot of them are still using (choke) Internet Explorer 6:
Design, develop and plan accordingly.
On the other hand, most of your audience is upgrading their computer’s graphics capabilities. You can safely design a page that’s 900 pixels wide:
Be sure to check your own site stats before you make a change.
People buy what they want, not what they need. We all need car insurance. We all want iPhones or other shiny things.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t get the same happy feeling in the pit of my stomach when I consider my next car insurance payment as when I contemplate a new HTC Hero.
We can bemoan this, or go with it. Customers need to want. A truly great marketer explains why they want what they need.
I am borrowing the needs and wants principle from some brilliant marketer whose name I cannot find or recall. I’m not smart enough to come up with it on my own.
This list always gets longer. Look at your analytics report. Learn from the way your audience responds to what you change on your site. Use your brain, and never stop questioning why things are happening the way they’re happening.
And feel free to add to this list, below.
Ian Lurie is founder and CEO of Portent Inc., an internet marketing agency that has provided internet marketing, including PPC, SEO, social and analytics services, since 1995. Read More