Beyond Usability II: Is Your Web Site a Tool?

If you think of your Web site as a software tool, you’re using the wrong metaphor

Way back in the early days of GrokDotCom, I wrote Beyond Usability, in which I said usability is great stuff, ‘cause it removes obstacles that make it hard to move around or accomplish things on a Web site. But it can’t tell you where you ought to go or what you ought to be doing. This is where Persuasion Architecture comes in.

One of the biggest problems affecting most Web sites we see is that they are designed to function as tools – software applications. But the art of persuasion is a dialog. There’s a big difference in the metaphor of Web site as tool and Web site as dialog – and it’s a difference that will affect your online success.

The Software Tool Analogy

Tools are designed to make our tasks easier. Ideally, the tool is intuitive, easy to use and requires a short learning curve on the part of those who will actually use it. Umm … I did say “ideally.”

Usability has received so much attention because it fits within the framework of the programmer’s rules and established order. Alan Cooper writes,

“Since the earliest days of software development, the sequence of events has been program, bug test, tweak …. The main reason why empirical user testing has been accepted in the high-tech business is that it fits easily into the existing sequence …. programmers are comfortable with this piggybacking of a new form of testing because it doesn’t upset their established sequence.”1

Commercial Web development today remains tool-oriented, even state-of-the-art stuff. And the most human-centered professionals in the software world – usability and information architects – are still primarily focused on building a better tool.

Take an article I just read by Jared Spool, a renowned usability specialist.2 Jared wants you to “Design for the Multiple Personalities of Users,” except he’s not really talking personality differences; he’s talking skill-set differences. He distinguishes between “core competencies” (the stuff we’re really good at doing) and “ring competencies” (the stuff that we’re not terribly good at doing), and his organizing question is “How do we design an application for both core users and ring users?” Look at the words: competency, application, extension of skill-sets and knowledge. Tool words, not personality words.

Building an exceptional software tool is probably sufficient if you are trying to sell products to people who know exactly what they want and if your products have unique identifiers, such as’s straightforward business model of “book title,” “author,” “subject” or “ISBN”—how many other ways are there of looking for books? If you are lucky enough to be in that kind of business and have the stomach for the inevitable price competition, you should focus more effort on improving the tool.

The tool analogy may apply to certain business models and the back end or other technical applications (we all want checkout systems that are a breeze to use), but you’ve got to ask: “Is this really what I’m looking for in my Web site?”

Persuasion Is a Dialog, Not Only a Tool

If you think of a commercial Web site as only a tool, you constrain yourself in the wrong metaphor.

The purpose of your site is to attract, engage with and retain prospects, leads and customers – and it accomplishes this in a medium that is difficult to control. Your visitors are more than simply “users” of the “software.” None of them is required to be there – they interact with you because they expect to find something relevant to what they seek.

Grasping the fact that Web commerce is voluntary and participatory is central to understanding the character of “selling” and “buying” on the Internet. Unlike the majority of other marketing media, the Web is a “pull” (not a “push”) medium. Research shows that most visitors get to a Web site via four channels: they type in the url directly; they locate a link through a search engine, they respond to a link in an email communication; or they follow the advice of a friend. Your visitors make a decision to visit, and in doing so, broadcast their needs, which they look to you to meet.

Supplying motivation – and it can only be done in a persuasive dialog between you and your visitor – is the key. Let’s face it. Some of the most abysmal (and amazingly successful) sites out there are adult sites – and even the most inexpert users manage to figure out how to use them. Motivate your visitors and you’ve accomplished the lion’s share of the job.

More than any other medium, commercial Web sites attract folks who know exactly what they want – a chicken-and-the-egg proposition that reinforces the idea commercial sites should be designed as tools. But these folks represent the smallest part of your prospect base.

Two other types of traffic – those who know approximately what they are looking for and those who have an interest but may not actively be in a buying mode – constitute almost every commercial Web site’s sweet spot. They are also the folks Web sites most often neglect. (If you think these two don’t count, try taking your significant other on a purely window shopping stroll through the mall.) And think about all those B2B prospects who may not be actively looking for you but might buy from you if you could just meet them.

The persistence of the tool metaphor is the principle reason these critical types of traffic remain underserved in commercial Web sites. It is much harder to apply a tool to fuzzy objectives like persuasion.

So think about the needs of all those folks who would buy from you with a little bit of help on your part. Think skill sets, to be sure, but dig deeper and think persuasion, personalities motivation. Change the metaphor: it’s Dialog, not Tool!


1 The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Alan Cooper. Indianapolis, Indiana: SAMS (a division of Macmillan Computer Publishing). 1999. pp 205-206.

2 “Designing for the Multiple Personalities of Users.” Jared M. Spool.

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