Make Mine Thin Sliced

My wife strode across the yard from the chicken coop, clutching our sharpest kitchen knife. A rivulet of red ran down her forearm. Her hands were stained crimson, and a solitary feather stuck to her palm.

“Hi, Honey!” she chirped. “I was just seeing whether the new chicks liked strawberries.”

Assumptions, I am reminded, are the mother of all screw-ups. And some of the worst assumptions are made by website designers who make it hard for people to find what they are looking for.

The assumptions we make are all about our perceptions and how our brains interpret them. The human brain needs very little information in order to synthesize the bits and pieces in any scenario and immediately form a whole picture.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell calls this ability of ours “thin slicing.” Apparently, we developed it thousands of years ago. When our distant ancestors hunted and gathered and danger approached, they needed to make the decision — in a split-second — whether to fight or flee.

At heart — more correctly, “at brain” — we are still hunters on a trail. But instead of food, we are searching for information.

The prey has changed, but the way we hunt hasn’t. When you’re looking for something online, whether through search engines, within an e-mail, or on a website, you are tracking it. You forage, seek, scan, and click for clues to guide you.

You ignore anything that appears irrelevant, and move on quickly. Very quickly. In fact, usability experts like Jakob Nielsen believe most people spend only a few seconds — 10 to 15 seconds — skim-reading something that looks like it might be useful.

Understanding your customers and the assumptions they make when they’re searching online will help you create a more user-friendly (and, therefore, more successful) business. But first, you have to make sure you’re not making some incorrect assumptions.

Many Web designers figure that when they put a certain label on a website button, its meaning is obvious. And they assume that if a visitor to the website doesn’t understand it, that person must be stupid. But take the example of a button labeled “Programs.” Does that mean educational courses? Or downloadable software?

The problem is that most technical folk are probably not your average customer. What appears obvious to them probably isn’t obvious to the people who matter most … your customers.

This is why, when improving the “usability” of your website, you must strive for simplicity. If anything on it requires an explanation from a webmaster, Web designer, or technical whiz-kid for you to understand it, it will confuse the heck out of your website visitors.

A confused website visitor is a bad thing. He’ll believe he’s on the wrong trail. And guess what? He’ll bail. He’ll exit your website and take his money elsewhere.

Businesses spend a lot of time and money driving traffic to their websites. But once they get them there, few consider the user experience. This is akin to collecting water in a leaky bucket.

Don’t assume there are no holes in your bucket. Have someone conduct an audit of every aspect of your online business. That includes your promotional e-mails, website, shopping cart, and order confirmations.

An audit doesn’t have to cost much or take long. (One hour can reveal a lot to a trained eye.) You don’t even have to call it an audit. Call it “discovery.” The main thing is for you to be open to accepting anything you find that may need changing. This means looking through fresh eyes at your existing business. Taking a step back and trying to forget the assumptions you made about what does or does not work. Trying to see what your customers see when they use your website, read your e-mail, buy from your shopping cart, and call your 800 number.

Usability is something you can (and should) measure. Most analytics software — like Google Analytics, WebTrends, and software most Web-hosting providers install for you — provides usability statistics. This can help you determine the changes that should be made to your online business.

Let’s say your goal is to sell $10,000 worth of skateboard helmets a month, and you are currently at only $5,000 a month. You look at the reasons people are leaving your site without purchasing, and it appears that many are bailing during the checkout phase. So you modify the process to make it simpler, to make people feel more secure, or to allow them to complete the transaction in less time.

You continue to make changes to the checkout process — one at a time. And you measure the results. As long as the results are positive, you keep making changes.

This is a worthwhile exercise for any online business. If you meet resistance when you suggest it, simply say, “Why don’t we test XYZ and see what happens?” The main thing is not to be tied to a particular way of doing things. Results are what matter, not whether John’s or Jane’s approach works best.

Remember what I said earlier: Assumptions are the mother of all screw-ups. An audit challenges the assumptions you’ve made about your online business and compares them to the assumptions your customers are probably making. Ultimately, you want to understand and predict the assumptions your customers make, and do everything you can to make it easy for them to do business with you.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

By removing the top and bottom navigational menus (both of which contained multiple links) from a pay-per-click landing page, one client of mine doubled the number of sign-ups for their e-mail newsletter. Offering too many choices creates confusion. Focus on the action you want your site visitors to take and make it simple for them to take that action.

An online company selling motorcycle jackets offered free shipping, promising delivery in five days. By giving customers the option to pay extra for expedited shipping, they significantly increased sales. The reason: Customers who wanted their jackets immediately were put off by having to wait five days.

By changing the format of their e-mail newsletter to use predominantly text with fewer images, one business increased its monthly income from the newsletter by three-fold. Most e-mail programs and service providers do not turn on images by default. Yet website designers still create image- and graphics-heavy e-mails that conflict with the real world of e-mail delivery and display.

Ask yourself the following questions:

What assumptions have I made about the way I’ve set up my e-mails, website, purchasing process, and telephone system that are actually quite complex, require explanation, or just plain don’t make sense?

How can I improve these things to make it easier for my customers to do business with me?

Does that animation on my home page help or hurt my goals?

How do my e-mails look in the preview pane in Outlook? (Studies suggest that’s where 65 percent of people read their e-mail.)

Do my links work in AOL? Hotmail? Yahoo? Gmail?

Any online business willing to make changes can make significant improvements in its results. Enjoy turning over the stones … and watch out for your assumptions.

P.S. I’ve just shown you that your online sales can be directly affected — in a big way — by making it as easy as possible for prospects to navigate your site, read and understand your promotional e-mails, and get through your purchasing system. Each week, I reveal practical tips like these in my newsletter the Internet Rant. Go here to find out more about my “contrarian” take on Internet marketing.